Separating work from play

A recent post by Seth Godin has showed up multiple times in my feed reader recently that has ignited some old ideas. As with most of Seth’s post this one is short and tight with a good lesson tucked into the end. While you should read the whole thing if you’re in any sort of creative profession, here’s the pithy one liner you need to remember:

Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

This ties in well with a tweet by the erstwhile _why the lucky stiff that I came across a few weeks ago:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

Creating and making things is important. And not just on a one-off, once in a while manner, but on a regular, consistent, day-to-day basis. The reason that most of us get into programming, writing, designing and related fields is that we loved building things. Let’s face it: the joy of making something is pure, unadulterated crack. Sure it’s hard to get started and it can be even harder to keep going when things don’t go the way you want them to. And by the time we get done, we’re drained and tired and just want to sleep. But the rush of taking something out of our minds, something that was just a thought and putting into a definite shape and form is unequaled.

Unfortunately, as Seth Godin says, we’re using the same tools for both work and play and that doesn’t turn out well. It’s hard to concentrate on writing or hacking when there are email and Twitter alerts clamoring for our attention. And it’s not just the momentary interruptions. Even if you aren’t getting bothered by notifications, it’s hard to gather the mental energy to create when it’s easier to play a game or check the latest Internet happenings. Seth Godin’s solution is actually deceptively simple: use separate machines for work and play. In fact, this is something that I had written about in my rules for computing happiness.

Originally I had planned to wait until graduate school to put this division into effect. Since I was going to get a work machine form the department I would use it for work only. There would be no social software on it, no Facebook or Twitter, no RSS feeds and maybe not even email. I would have a separate Macbook for my non-work stuff, social or not. I’ve heard horror stories about graduate students hemorrhaging time until suddenly it’s five years later and the thesis is only half done. I did not plan on being one of them.

I considered keeping my current setup, but Seth’s post led me to think if I could make any quick, effective changes. The answer was staring me in the face. I’ve had a Google Chrome netbook for a few months now that comes with just the ChromeOS. However there is a developer switch that you can use to unlock it. Yesterday I flipped the switch and installed Ubuntu. I now have a lightweight, portable, lightning fast machine that I can use for getting work done. Also since this is a clean install I can consciously avoid installing stuff that has no place on a work machine. I have the standard Gnome terminal, Emacs and Firefox 4.0 and that’s it. There isn’t even music or a media player. Since I always carry my iPod Touch, that can be my ‘play’ machine. It has all the distractions that I indulge in and my entire music library (which isn’t that big).

I’ve been playing the productivity game long enough to know that no technological tool or setup is a silver bullet for the problem of wasting time. The new setup is going to work only if I use it properly and consistently. There is going to be some work involved to break my old habits and set new, better ones but this is a start. Someday I’ll get around to reforming my other machines but till then this work/play setup will do nicely.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

3 thoughts on “Separating work from play”

  1. Lucky for you that the gaming bug never bit you hard. There are few things that bleed out more time.
    I had tried something similar by keeping Windows for gaming and Linux for work (having only one desktop at home). However Windows-specific work kept that from being truly productive.

    1. Yes never did get much into games. But the Internet and its unending stream of knowledge has always been my vice. I am reforming though, slowly but surely.

      Having OS-specific software requirements is a pain, but at the same time having mostly homogenous computing environments is generally a good idea.

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