Tips to escape the clutches of multi-tasking

2020-03-02 @Technology

I wish to expand on some ideas I’ve explored in the single-tasking workflow guide. Our goal is to minimize that stimuli which deviates your focused attention from the main task towards multiple distractions.

  1. Eliminate Tabs

    Tabs, or any equivalently cascading viewports to multiple workspaces, I consider inherently evil to productivity. They incite switching between workspaces in micro time slices.

    Tabs also drain operating memory. The tab bar consumes screen real-estate. And tabs steal your attention.

    Web browser tabs, VIM/Emacs tabs, image editor tabs, terminal multiplexor (ie Tmux) windows, or any workflow related tabs exhibit the same pitfall.

    Instead, opt for buffers.

  2. Buffers:

    What I mean by buffers is an invisible stack of workspaces, such that the last-opened occupies the top.

    In a web browser, for instance, as you open a link in the existing window, the opened page appears on top, while beneath remains the previous, typically cached by the browser. You cycle between these using the back and forward shortcuts.

    This is entirely academic, yes. But the consequence of this rather serialized mode of cycling is the huge incentive to remain put on the current page or branch of exploration, until it has exhausted its need.

    Other examples of buffers include:

    • VIM buffers.

      A buffer is the natural abstraction for an opened file within VIM. Any further windows or tabs are nothing but view ports to existing buffers.

      Without opening these windows or tabs, you don’t see any but the current buffer. The others may be referenced with the :ls normal-mode command.

      Eliminate the window/tab mode of operation within VIM, and you naturally start to limit your workflow to the current buffer. As a bonus, you regain screen real estate consumed by the tab line.

      Further, in case you need to often cycle between two buffers, you can set up a handy mapping. In my case, I’ve mapped the normal-mode backspace key to cycle between the current and previous buffers:

      nmap <BS> :b#<cr>
      
    • W3M buffers.

      The W3M console-based web browser (probably my second-favorite application) handles buffers and tabs pretty much identically to VIM, at least on the surface.

      Eliminate tabs, open links within the same window, and buffers begin to stack. Without tabs, you immediately recuperate the real-estate consumed by the tab bar, and focus more on the present page.

      I use the following ~/.w3m/keymap shortcuts to switch back and forth between W3M buffers:

      keymap b BACK
      keymap < PREV
      keymap > NEXT
      

      The difference between BACK and PREV, is that BACK closes the present buffer, whereas PREV maintains it cached, and retreivable via the NEXT command.

      And in contrast to a graphical web browser, W3M cycling of cached buffers occurs instantaneously in the literal of senses, the browser having to cache nothing but text.

    • Tmux

      The Tmux terminal multiplexor too employs tabs (although called windows) and panes (multiple terminals aligned in some grid pattern in the active window).

      Here are some steps you can take to eliminate the visual stimuli of multiple panes or windows:

      • Don’t open multiple panes and reduce the number windows. Obvious. Keep one terminal to a window.

      • Eliminate the status bar, which otherwise displays the open windows. Add the following line to ~/.tmux.conf:

        set-option -g status off
        
      • Configure the last-window, next-window and previous-window shortcuts. In my case, I use the following Alt-key mappings:

        bind -n M-o last-window
        bind -n M-n next-window
        bind -n M-p previous-window
        
  3. Reduce the parallel features of your primary OS environment.

    If engaged in a focused activity, remove any stimulus to switch to the nonessential. Examples:

    • Reduce or eliminate the number of desktop environment/window manager workspaces.
    • Limit task/process-switching shortcuts.
    • Consider a stack-based mode of operation, such that you cannot escape from the top-most task until it’s closed.

    For the last two, it helps to be a bit of a hacker. See the aforementioned post on single-tasking.

  4. Opt for the console over graphical

    For the Linux/Unix inclined, I’ve spoken tons on the merits of a console/terminal-based workflow. With emphasis on text over graphical features, this type of workflow naturally eliminates much visual, attention-stealing stimuli.

    Example reference posts:

  5. Eliminate YouTube subscriptions.

    Follow the updates in RSS feeds instead.

    You might consider the tactic unfaithful to the channels you follow. But ultimately YT emphasizes the ‘likes’ each content receives. This strategy in no way prevents you from liking the content you consume.

    What you gain is the freedom from opening YouTube and being plunged into the ever consuming feed of recommended (and degenerate) content. Instead, you open direct video links from the RSS reader.

    You can thus economize an incredible amount of otherwise wasted time.

    See my instructions for migrating YT subscriptions to an RSS feed reader.

  6. Eliminate the music player (not the music) from your attention.

    Music can assist (see the following tip). But the constant visual queue of the music player distracts.

    Load your playlist, establish a set of shortcut keys to play/pause/skip a track, but otherwise eliminate the player as far as possible from any visual provocation.

  7. Choose the right type of music to aid your workflow.

    What I consider the right type is the conducting, yet non-distracting. Much instrumental music serves this function.

    I prefer the ambient, the soft industrial, the lighter electronic, and the minimal-chord change, mode-oriented Jazz compositions (much of the Post-Bop period).

    Examples:

    • Brian Eno: Music For Installations, Music For Films, Music For Airports, Textures, Discreet Music
    • Eduard Artemiev: Moods (Картины-Настроения), Metamorphoses (Метаморфозы)
    • Vangelis: The City
    • Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts
    • Enrico Rava: New York Days
    • Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song
    • Miles Davis: In the Silent Way, Get Up With It
  8. Hide the screen toolbar and statusbar

    Find a way to hide any bars that appear at the screen top or bottom, especially when engaged in a focused task such as writing, designing, or programming.

    You don’t need a constant reminder of the time, date, WiFi signal strength, list of open tasks, the currently playing song, or the CPU statistics, these lurking in your field of attention; not when involved in a focused activity.

    This applies to whatever device and environment you work in, be it a laptop, tablet, and whatever OS. The strategy not only eliminates further distractions from the field of vision, but liberates screen real estate.

    These days I operate mostly within a Termux (pseudo-Debian) environment on an Android tablet. I’ve respectfully configured the device to eliminate these bars whenever Termux is loaded. Being especially a 7-inch tablet, this freed a severe portion of screen space.

  9. Opt for analog tools when plausible.

    A computer naturally facilitates a multi-tasking environment that ingrains (quiet virally) the varying task-switching shortcuts (ie Alt-Tab, Ctrl-Tab) into muscle memory. This instigates us to subconsciously split our attention and deviate from the priority.

    Paper, on the other hand, makes habitual cycling between tasks more difficult. There’s no easily accessible ‘trigger’ to incite us into jumping between pages of a notebook, for instance. At least, none that I can immediately fathom.

    This also applies to reading. It’s far easier to jump between reading materials on an electronic device than when engaged in a paper book.

    You cannot cultivate long, focused reading attention if you cycle between a 10-minute session of a classic novel, a few-minute blog post, a quick Wikipedia article, a social media feed, induced by the anxiety of self-afflicted attention-deficit-disorder mayhem.

    When possible, ditch the electronic, opt for paper.

  10. Eliminate the smartphone from sight.

    When engaged in a focused activity, this tip should demand no explanation.

  11. Meditation

    A consistent meditation practice helps retain attention span on one activity. Specifically:

    • to avoid seeking forms of distraction,
    • to avoid a scattered mode of thought,
    • to eradicate the perceived state of boredom and the resulting anxiety,
    • to be cognisant of the state of your thinking rather than become lost in malificent thought,
    • to be content with the now.
  12. Stop, stand up, and unplug every X minutes

    You may find yourself immersed in the flow for hours, plastered to the seat, neglectful of any form of movement. While this mode of operation seems ultra-productive in the short term, you set yourself up for longer-term physiological pitfalls, including risk of burnout.

    For a more sustainable workflow, stand up and take few-minute breaks every 20/30/40 minutes. Stretch, meditate, or simply walk around in that interim, but disconnect from the task.

Questions, comments? Connect.