By Jason Snell
August 31, 2017 5:16 PM PT
Silence is golden
I generally work with music playing. Modern pop-rock music, complete with singing. This seems to put me in the middle of a spectrum of people I know, with those who can work with podcasts playing over on one side, and those who must have complete silence on the other. Some people can listen to music, but only music without singing. Me, I can listen to music with words—but it has to be music I know well, so that it can fade into the background. I can’t do music discovery while I’m writing.
The point is, all of our brains process input in different ways. One person’s distraction is fuel for another person to get into the flow. Different jobs, too, require different inputs. If I’m outlining a story or really grappling with what my argument is, I sometimes need to turn everything off and focus even more. But as the words come pouring out, a little familiar musical accompaniment can do the trick. A few years back I wrote most of a novel alternating between electronic-pop singer Imogen Heap and pop-punk band Say Anything.
Sound’s not the only distraction we have, though. The more functional our devices become, the better they get at distracting us. The Internet is a distraction enough—though there are tools like Freedom that can help—but these days we’re also bombarded with notifications and animations. Sometimes I’m cranking away at an article on my Mac, only to notice that a floating Notification Center alert is fading away. What did it say? I have no idea—there’s no record of it in the Notification Center window. It failed to nudge me when it appeared, and distracted me uselessly as it exited.
One of the things that has driven me to write more on my iPad is that I find iOS less distracting than my Mac. Not that there still aren’t push notifications on the iPad—though I’m trying to turn as many of them off as possible. But on my 27-inch iMac, I generally have many apps open at once—including social networking apps. Even when hidden, they’re sitting right there, waiting for me to open them.
Even though I can run two (or even three!) apps at a time on my iPad, I generally don’t. When I do, the second app is part of the work I’m doing—adding Safari so I can look up links for a story I’m writing, for instance—rather than a distracting set of messaging tools.
The truth is, I’ve configured my Mac and iPad differently and I use them differently. My Mac is a hub of different apps, more prone to distraction but also a place where I can more easily pass information back and forth. It works well for writing, but there’s a little more possibility for distraction. My iPad is more locked down, quieter, a place where I can write with fewer distractions. This isn’t to say that I don’t use my iPad to distract myself—first thing in the morning I’m hopping on Slack and Twitter to see what’s going on—but when I’m writing it provides me some focus that’s maybe lacking when I sit at my Mac.
I’m not trying to say that the Mac is fundamentally more distracting than iOS. But old habits die hard. I suppose if I wanted a MacBook to behave like my iPad behaves, I could do it, through the generous use of full-screen apps. I never use full-screen apps on the Mac, yet they’re the default on iOS and I don’t mind at all. Why do you suppose that is? I suspect it’s that I’ve trained myself to use the Mac a certain way, and think of it as a certain sort of tool—while I use my iPad differently, and for different purposes.
You may approach this situation completely differently. Do you use an iMac at your desk, and a MacBook at home on the couch? Same operating system, but two very different working environments—and I suspect the MacBook might be a great device for focus if you fully embrace full-screen mode.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all to you. Maybe your productivity doesn’t change, no matter where you go. After all, we’re all different—which is why some of us need to work in silence, while others won’t feel productive until some loud singer is screaming in their ears.