Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 3 – Mode Switching

How many computing devices do you use daily? Be honest. Count your work computer. I’m going to guess that the bare minimum devices you have will average out to three: a home PC, a work PC, and a smartphone. If you have a fourth, it might be a tablet or e-reader. I have five in my life right now: a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, an e-reader, and a smartwatch, but I’m an outlier. What are all of these devices for, especially since they can all do so much?

As I mentioned in the previous post in the series, there’s no such thing as a unitasking device anymore. Technology hasn’t just broken down the barriers between work life and home life, it’s broken down the barriers between many of the things we do at work and at home. Despite this, each of our computing devices should still have a specific role in our lives. I mean, you’re not going to do your taxes on your work computer—though you might check Facebook on it, depending on how chill your office is.

To make it all work, It’s become incumbent upon us to create an optimal environments for us to work in. In other words, we need to know how to use our technology to help us switch modes. Why do so many self-employed and remote workers like to set up shop in Starbucks? Because it gives them a different physical space to work in—and a different mental space, too. They use that different physical location as a cue to switch modes, knowing that this is where they get down to work.

One thing I love about my iPad is that I can carry it anywhere, set up shop anywhere with a flat surface, whip out my favorite Bluetooth keyboard, and start writing. I don’t even need WI-Fi to work, but it’s nice to have it. It doesn’t have to be anywhere special. In the mornings, I’ve taken to setting the iPad up on my dining table and banging out Morning Pages—750 words of private writing—every day. [1]

Sure, I could do Morning Pages at my desk, with my big monitor in front of me, my laptop display to the right, and my comfortable desk chair, but there’s something about switching to the iPad at the dining table that feels like I’ve sat down with purpose. Besides, the Mac has my music library, various other apps I can switch to, and endless things to fiddle with. It’s easier for me to single-task on my iPad than it is on my Mac. And first thing in the morning, when I haven’t even had my coffee, that is a godsend.

But you don’t need extra hardware or software to switch modes. It can be as simple as throwing up the app(s) you need to do your work on full screen, carrying your laptop into a different room, or even launching a different web browser. There’s a technology “lifehack” that’s circulated for years of creating a separate user account on your computer just for doing work, versus one for goofing off online. Even turning off the technology in favor of a pen and paper is just another form of mode switching. Whatever it takes to jostle our brains out of existing patterns and tell ourselves that, right now, we are focusing on our work—or focusing on our play, for that matter.

  1. Canonically, you’re supposed to do Morning Pages by hand, but I prefer to do it with a keyboard. Specifically, I type it up in Drafts, so I can see the word count, and then save it to a journal in Day One.  ↩