Attention Conservation: Be In Charge

There are a surplus of articles out there regarding the steps mobile device makers take to keep you focused on their system. Similar strategies are employed by social media players, on both mobile and desktop. Payouts are variable in size and appear irregularly. Notifications are red, likely a bit animated, and if nothing is happening particularly bad applications will offer you some hint that something is coming.

These design principles are effective and ethical … for a slot machine manufacturer. If one is trying to get some actual work done, this is the worst environment imaginable. If one is not neurotypical, the hazards are dramatically worse. I am in the shallow end of the autism spectrum pool, where I manage to pass much of the time, but I exercise tight control over my physical and digital workspaces in order to be productive.

Physical Environment:

I work at home, in a dim, quiet room, sitting at a desk facing a quiet, leafy side street. Dragonflies and hummingbirds are more common than passing vehicles. Two small desk lamps provide pools of light. There are a couple of playlists that contain low key, lyrics free music.

Earlier this year I switched from laptop to desktop, acquiring a 27″ 4K primary display. The smaller display to the right is a 24″ Samsung monitor that will rotate between landscape and portrait. My thinking was this would provide a space for reading. This was just a theory and it lasted all of two hours before I put the display back to landscape.

That experiment failed, but as I have grown more used to having such an enormous number of pixels in front of me, it has taken on an important role. I have a fairly small virtual machine running, its display set to 1920×1080, and the 24″ display is functionally a second machine for me, dedicated to things that are important but not urgent.


I have long used the Eisenhower Matrix for sorting tasks.

Here are examples for each quadrant:

  • Important, Urgent: my billable hours, assisting others to get theirs.
  • Important, Not Urgent: system administration & software development.
  • Urgent, Unimportant: email, group chats that are off task.
  • Not Urgent & Unimportant: news of the day, Twitter drama, etc.

Virtual Environment:

The smaller side display covers many things that matter, but which are best left alone unless specific things need doing. These include:

  • Chromium: Tweetdeck dedicated to a specific social media campaign.
  • Chrome: Tweetdeck dedicated to another campaign.
  • Firefox: Netdata observation of servers prone to overloading.
  • Bash shell: Four of them showing various performance metrics.

If I alt+tab into this system, it traps the keyboard. I can quickly cycle through the three major areas (two campaigns, system monitoring). I have to click to get free, and then I don’t look at it again, sometimes not till the next day. A grayscale screen lock image appears after five minutes of inactivity, reminding me its on, but offering no inducement to interact.

Email is encapsulated in a similar fashion. There are a couple VMs that do nothing but provide compartments for various accounts. I check them, do what is needed, and then close them. Updates come throughout the day, offering random payouts, typically of low value. I dispatch them all at once, usually AM & PM, and otherwise ignore.

App selection on the primary system is key. The Wire application works on desktops and mobiles, it supports up to three different accounts on the desktop, and it provides muting for busy group chats. I think I have one of every other chat system known to man, but I never use them unless I am summoned for some specific reason.

Work Focus:

I have a virtual machine I’ve named Hunchly, after the browser activity recording tool by the same name, This hosts a couple of related tools and a broad, long term, low intensity social media presence, which lets me peer into various systems without getting enmeshed with personal contacts.

Software development and the related large scale social media analytics tasks are still on the host OS, but that will be the next thing to change. I have slowly begun to use PyCharm for development work due to a fairly new collaboration with another developer who favors it. I just learned there is OpenCYPHER support, which is going to facilitate our transition to using Neo4j for some social network analysis.


The smartphone is the equivalent of the dorm room you were compelled to inhabit your first year at college. There isn’t a lot of room and it’s a near constant ruckus. Your laptop or desktop is the cramped studio space overlooking the campus town bar strip that you moved into as a junior. A bit more room, but still endless distractions.

A machine that will support VirtualBox (free) in the style you need requires sixteen gig of ram and a solid state disk. This $485 Dell Precision M4600 is twin to the machine I use when I’m mobile. I can just copy virtual machine directories from desktop to laptop. As long as they’re two or four cores and four or eight gigabytes, this works well.


Application developers, content providers, and social network operators have no incentive to do any better. If you want to reclaim your time, sticking to the housing metaphor above, it’s like buying a sturdy farmhouse on a country road after it’s been empty for a while. You will have a bit more work to do on an ongoing basis, but the space, the quiet, and a roomy machine shed behind the two car garage? There is a reason we have an “escape to the country” societal meme. Apply that thinking to you online presence and you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.