The contexts of our lives used to be separated physically. Bringing your work home with you was next to impossible without a suitcase full of documents, reference books, and memos from your colleges. Or without, you know, building a factory at home. Gossip and news from non-work friends was exclusive to certain physical locations like the coffee shop (or the pub, if you belong to one of the being-social-means-alcoholism nations). Work gossip was literally a water-cooler moment. Doing an activity that normally belonged to one context in another took a lot of effort.
Computers and the internet virtualise both our tools and our location. And in doing so they make our various contexts virtual and shift the burden of keeping them separate onto us, the user. The makers of computers, phones, and similar devices have collapsed our various contexts together without paying any attention to what that does to us. It is up to us to figure out how to maintain and separate the various contexts we need for optimum productivity, creativity, satisfaction, and joy.
There is another name for this context collapse that you might be more familiar with: distraction. Minimalism and distraction-free environments don’t address the fundamental problem because they think the problem is our inability to handle information (we can handle it fine, thank you). The problem isn’t complexity but information from another context intruding into your current one.
Each type of work or play you do deserves its own context. It isn’t a question of simplifying or disconnecting—although that can work—but of making sure that the signals you are getting and the complexity of the environment is appropriate to the task.
Here are some common ways of creating your own work contexts:
The simplest way is to do what the writer Tobias Buckell does: create a separate user on your computer for your work. That way you can customise what apps are installed and wall off parts of the network without disconnecting completely.
Just disconnecting and turning off the wifi on your computer isn’t enough to create a new context. It needs to be distinctive enough for your subconscious to never be in doubt as to what context you are in. That’s why you shouldn’t eat at your desk and that’s why, instead of just turning off your wifi you should instead go and work in a local cafe or in that one room in your house that has no wifi reception.
Another option is to do parts of your work with analogue tools. It’s an easy way to create a completely new mental context for what you’re doing. Writing, storyboarding, sketching, and outlining are all tasks that can at least partly be done using analogue tools.
Separate contexts into devices. Keep work on the laptop and social media on the phone. For a while I had a rule where I’d write the first draft of everything I wrote on my first-generation iPad using a bluetooth keyboard. Tablets are getting cheap enough to be bought and used as single purpose devices (games, browsing, reading) relieving your other devices of the burden of maintaining multiple contexts. Migrate the personal away from the laptop and gradually turn it into a pure work context.
The key to tackling ‘distraction’ isn’t minimalism or decluttering (although that can work as well) but keeping your various contexts separate. You can do that without replacing all of your apps or buying a separate laptop for work.
It does take a bit of organisation, but then so does almost anything interesting.