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Working from home: inbox focus

Like many people who work from home, I use the same computer for both “work” and “personal” activity. This has many benefits, including lower cost, more efficient use of space, and reduced configuration maintenance.

The main drawback of this arrangement is that it’s easy to get drawn into the wrong context.  This is especially true in a company like Canonical, where there are people working at all hours around the world, communicating with each other on common IRC channels.  If I see work-related conversations on IRC after hours, it’s easy to slip into “work mode” and start thinking about what’s being discussed, or even responding.

Similarly, if I look at my work inbox, my brain goes on autopilot and I start processing email even if I was doing something else before.  This habit serves me well during the work day, when I can process a lot of email in the time between appointments, but in the evenings and at weekends, it’s a distraction.

Recently, I made a small change to my mail reader configuration to try to address this problem.  If I launch mutt “off hours”, it uses a different default inbox than during “working hours”.  These are of course approximate, but since both my personal and work inboxes are in the search path, it’s not a big deal if it guesses wrong. It generally only needs to be correct at the start of a session. Sometimes, it’s just the nudge I need to remind me to switch contexts.

set spoolfile = `case $(date +%u-%H) in \
    [1-5]-0?|[1-5]-1[0-7]) echo +incoming.canonical.INBOX ;; \
    *) echo +incoming.INBOX ;; \

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 30, 2009 at 13:43

Posted in Uncategorized

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6 Responses

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  1. […] mutt rocks, you can make it do anything, including keeping you focused: https://mdzlog.alcor.net/2009/06/30/working-from-home-inbox-focus/ […]

  2. You probably don’t want to hear this, but KDE4 can be configured to be context aware(of course, it is KDE after all :).
    It is not 100% yet, because not all KDE apps use it at the moment, but it is a good solution to the work/private problem.
    Maybe Gnome3 should get something similar.


    June 30, 2009 at 18:07

    • Why wouldn’t I want to hear it? Because I’m a command line junkie? ;-)


      June 30, 2009 at 22:27

  3. Another interesting post, thanks.

    I’m chewing on a different but somewhat similar problem: during work time, I often open my mailbox to refer to something sent previously, but it’s very easy to notice other mails, either newer or ones matching the same search, and have them intrude on what I was originally thinking about. Possibly this can be fixed entirely in my head.

    Martin Pool

    July 1, 2009 at 00:29

  4. Also: I see there’s an autogenerated link to http://liverpoolchamber.wordpress.com/2008/02/05/there-is-no-substitute-for-hard-honest-work/ — do you agree?

    Martin Pool

    July 1, 2009 at 10:32

    • The thesis seems to be “the more hours you put in, the more successful you will be”.

      No, I think that’s utter nonsense. Working longer hours leads to fatigue and mistakes, which result in lower overall productivity. This has been measured objectively in a variety of industries, including knowledge work.

      I’m not going to dig up proper references right now, but here are a few random links from Google to get you started: http://www.igda.org/articles/erobinson_crunch.php http://a-little-time.blogspot.com/2007/08/longer-hours-work-vs-productivity.html http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/5190.html

      Intuitively, we all know that we get more done in less time when we are at our best, than when we force ourselves to keep going beyond our natural limits. We’ve all experienced those golden hours in “the zone” when productivity is multiplied. We should look for ways to access our most productive states, rather than cramming more hours into the day.


      July 1, 2009 at 11:47

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