The work of creative professionals is that which enjoys long, contiguous blocks of concentration and undivided attention. I leave the case of whether it demands such conditions open to debate, but I assert that fostering concentration won't hurt performance, and it's unlikely that one would miss much in the meanwhile. My solution — admittedly an experiment — is to eradicate all sources of distraction on my main computer, and sequester them elsewhere.

When I went to write about my newfound strategy, I discovered that Paul Graham had beaten me to the punch. He notes that the WIMP interface paradigm that dominates personal computing underwent the bulk of its evolution as a means of facilitating solitary work, before we could dream of each machine possessing a persistent, high-bandwidth connection to an endless stream of attention-crack. He argues that the form of the interaction can't support the onslaught of chimes, notifications and dialogue boxes that a network connection inevitably generates. I enthusiastically agree, and I add that as users of these systems, neither can we — and nor should we, as most of these interruptions are frivolous. As attention sage Linda Stone says: Which of these emails is a tiger, and which are flies?

A Separate Computer

In my first attempt, I set up a laptop to handle my mail, feeds, messaging and serendipitous Web browsing. I perched it at the edge of my desk farthest from my main machine, which was far enough away that I would have to reorient myself to use it. This provided a solid separation of cognitive contexts — I could be in work mode one instant, pivot and goof off the next. Any files I generated on either machine, I would shunt to a common shared folder. I would ship links and text snippets back and forth by pasting them into a terminal that was open on both machines to the same shell. I disabled all chimes and notifications. When the Distraction Laptop's screen-saver was on, it was as if it wasn't there.

While this solution worked for the most part, there were a few issues. First, it was possible to monitor both the workstation and the laptop at the same time, essentially obviating the point of separating functions between the two. I disciplined myself to lock the laptop's screen when it was time to work, with the requirement to enter a password providing an additional hurdle to keep me on task. I incurred extra setup overhead, and it was also a somewhat baroque experience moving information back and forth between the two machines. Finally, using the laptop for anything other than goofing off — say, on the road — would pollute its frivolity-only purpose. All this is is moot anyway, because a piece of fluff or something got caught in its main fan and now it sounds like a lawnmower.

A Second Account

With the Distraction Laptop out of commission, I found all my computing tasks once again unceremoniously lumped onto the same screen, and my productivity grinding to a halt. In a pinch, I set up a new account and transplanted the laptop's settings to it. This is the configuration I use for now.

As an aside, a second, limited account is a remarkably simple and elegant solution, regardless of operating system, to mitigate the damage caused by a virus infection. Assuming the account can't write outside its own home directory and the attack doesn't escalate privileges, any compromise will be contained within.

Of course, with both accounts on the same machine, I can only see one at once, and must enter a password to switch between the two, so I'm not as tempted to wander. Furthermore, I don't need to physically contort myself to switch tasks, which, although I didn't mind, was probably bad for ergonomics. My experience with two accounts on the same machine, however, is a bit disorienting. With the laptop, both accounts were me. Consolidated to one machine, I have me and not-exactly-me, which raises some annoying questions. Do I manage two SSH agents? Do I mount the same share twice? Do I try to consolidate these? What about settings? Getting the two accounts to speak with each other, a no-brainer with two machines, is suddenly riddled with uncertainties. I may well revert to my original configuration soon, or try something else entirely.

On Mac OS X, the fast-user-switching functionality stops iTunes from playing when switching from one account to the next. While I understand why Apple's designers chose to do this, it is positively grating. I'm sure some property-list mangling can be done to change this behaviour, but I don't currently have the fortitude to go digging through the reams of Mac forums and mailing lists to find it.

What Doesn't Work

The staunch pragmatist in me posited that it was a waste of effort to create and configure a separate account for the purposes, especially with the aforementioned shortcomings. Why not, instead, just relegate the distraction-causing programs to a separate virtual desktop?

The simple answer is that it isn't enough. Chatty software can still reach me through the dock, taskbar or with a dialogue box. This is exacerbated by the fact that a mere keypress gives me instant access to these tantalizing time-suckers. Moreover, I still use common tools, such as a browser, to do actual work.

An Optimal Solution

Like many divergent design requirements, my desires for uninterrupted concentration and the ability to monitor my daily trivia are not completely orthogonal. When I am working, there are a choice few events important enough to usurp my attention, despite that number approaching zero. Moreover, I will want to send messages, as well as import and consolidate salient information from messages I receive.

What I want is to prevent all software from stealing focus, making noise, causing strobing visuals or really generating any notifications whatsoever, without my express permission. The manner in which I do want to be notified is in a way that is commensurate with how important I feel it is. I also want to take action items out of the monsoon of network-originated events and bring them with me into my serene bubble of productivity, where I can work on them in peace.

Despite this rigmarole, there is a constant. Without clear objectives, effective methods for achieving them and the necessary space, tools, information and resources, even the most elaborate technical solution is toothless. Without a solid work plan and a realistic means of carrying it out, we will procrastinate and go looking for distractions. Clarity and discipline are perhaps the best productivity tools of all.