I recently came across the following quote in a New York magazine feature on spending time alone in the city:

At home, suddenly, there is too much me. A stack of unpaid doctor’s bills. A box of clothes I keep forgetting to bring to Goodwill. Even the dust bunnies have grown familiar. This is when I log onto Priceline, or call around for mid-week specials, and I book a couple of nights at a hotel in a neighborhood that isn’t mine. Airbnb is not an option—the point is to escape personal artifacts entirely, not cozy up with a stranger’s. ... In this life, I am my better self.
— Kate Bolick, "Staying at a Hotel Alone," New York Magazine, July 27-August 9, 2015

Bolick brilliantly articulated what I felt all summer in my New York City sublet--unburdened from the maintenance of my own home, I was freed to work on my dissertation. Bills and chores and household decisions, left behind in Pittsburgh, did not siphon off any of my time or my mental energy. I totally felt like my better self.

Returning to Pittsburgh has been a rude reawakening. The house is always dirty, always needing to be purged of something or replenished with some supply. I've also resumed my role as a teaching assistant, which has its own forms of chores and responsibilities. I fantasize about packing up my dissertation and moving into a beachfront hut (in Bali? Bora Bora?) where my most difficult chore each day will be deciding which bathing suit to wear or in which chaise lounge I will sit and write. Bolick's strategy of a nearby (but not too nearby) hotel is more realistic, but home can only be ignored for so long. Today I paid my rent and spent an hour at Target stocking up on paper towels and peanut butter and trying to decide between a $12 and $16 toilet brush. I miss those carefree days of summer, but also recognize that that "better self" only exists in relation to my responsible adult self. 

Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 2012

New Discovery

I'm having an interesting week with my computer. Knock wood, so far it's only the good kind of interesting. This weekend I was working on a Word document and I needed to refer to something in a window behind it. I clicked the window I was working in and moved it to the side. All of a sudden, I was in this new desktop! It was just me and my active Word document, and nothing else. No browser with 100 tabs open. No Mail. No iCal. 

After I freaked out for a second, I realized that I could just drag the window back towards the edge and return to my original desktop. Upon my "return," the desktop seemed so busy compared to the serenity I had just experienced. I still had no idea what had really happened, so I went to Google and typed in the most ridiculous search term: "second screen feature mac?" Most of the results were actually about using a second monitor with your Apple computer, but this article clarified that what I had stumbled onto was the "multiple desktop" feature within the "Mission Control," which is what Apple calls the window rearrangement function of their operating system. Mission Control is also what enables "corners," which is a feature that allows you to see all the windows open in an application (or on the desktop) just by navigating the mouse arrow to the corner of the screen. Corners is one of the most useful tools in my workflow, because I often move between documents like chronologies or indexes or notes and the document in which I am actively writing. 

There are two ways to access Mission Control. The easiest way is to press F3, but I hate taking my hand off the trackpad so I prefer to swipe three fingers upward. All of your open windows are displayed, and you can move them to the desktop you would like to view them in. For example, over the past few days I dedicated a new desktop to grant materials, but all other Word documents opened in desktop 1 (except for my chronology document, which opened in desktop 3 along with my database). When I was finished with writing and editing, I moved the Word documents back to desktop 1 to turn them into PDFs and email them off. 

Here are some clear benefits to the "multiple desktop" feature that I've seen so far:

1) Escape the web browser. I often have multiple tabs open in my browser when I'm doing research, and they can distract me from writing. I have now set Safari to only open in my "original" desktop (desktop 1) so that when I'm writing in desktop 2 or reading documents in desktop 3, I do not en up checking my email every time I catch a glimpse at my Gmail account. If I do need to look something up on the web, I can easily swipe three fingers left or right to move between the desktops quickly and easily.

2) Isolate projects or tasks. If I need to focus on one thing, It's nice to have it all together in one place without additional clutter.

3) Novelty. Starting new desktops is fun and keeps life feeling fresh. 

There are some drawbacks, of course. When you use corners with multiple desktops you are still shown ALL of the open windows in that application, regardless of which desktop it will open in. If you accidentally click on a window that's active in a different desktop, you get dragged over immediately. So it's not completely isolating or zen. Plus, the icons at the bottom do not disappear when you're not using an app in desktop 2 (or 3, or 4, etc.)--so you are still tempted to click on the Safari compass icon and end up back in the original desktop. 

Also, I really think the best thing I could do to minimize distraction would be to shut down all but the bare minimum of windows and focus on what's necessary to get any particular job done. I usually lack the self control to implement that advice, so this multiple desktop feature gets me a few extra minutes of focus without feeling like I'm denying myself the pleasures of the internet and apps. 

Has anyone else used this feature? Are there other ways to use it to improve a research workflow? I'd love to know!