Multitasking is bad for humans. Our brains aren't really wired for it. Nonetheless, there are times when we can benefit by tackling multiple tasks at once. While our brains won't handle it well, if we offload these many tasks to multiple computers, we can focus on one thing while they focus on many. Here's a look at how working with more than one computer at a time can make you more productive, efficient, and alleviate frustration.
Note: Some of these tips are more applicable to users who perform tasks that require a lot of processing power. That said, multi-computer users can reap a lot of benefits from their machines with a good setup, whether or not you're regularly engaging in, for example, video encoding.
Offloading Processor-Intensive Tasks to a Secondary Machine
It's tough to buy a computer with a single core processor. By the end of 2011, it'll probably even be hard to buy a smartphone with a single core processor. Multicore processing is a good thing because it increases your computer's multitasking abilities. The same goes for having another machine. If you are running a task on your primary machine, you can offload another processor-intensive task to another and you no longer have to stop and wait for anything to finish.
How to Do This Effectively I work primarily on a laptop, but I offload any video encoding to the desktop for two reasons: One, the desktop is faster, and two, the laptop gets hot when it's encoding. That said, I'll often edit on the laptop since that's where I do all my work.
Regardless of the setup, the fact remains that you need to quickly transfer files from your primary machine to your secondary machine. If the file is small, I'll let Dropbox sync it over the local network. The file is always easy to find because I use Dropbox as an organised home folder so my work files are easily accessible on every work computer. If one is busy with one task, I can walk over to another and just pick up where I left off. (More on this later.)
Dropbox can be a bit slow with big files, however, even on the local network. When transferring large files, having a transfer hard (or flash) drive is useful. The drive needs to be relatively fast, and if you can avoid storing any important data on it you're better off. Why? Because you'll be writing to and accessing the drive frequently, as well as moving it around, and with frequent use comes (at least slightly) more frequent failure. If you keep it empty-ish, you also don't have to worry about running out of space when it's time to transfer data, which will slow you down. Finally, if you're transferring a file to a desktop machine that does not have a frontside (or easily accessible) USB port — or whatever port you need — get an extension cable and adhere it somewhere convenient so you don't have to go through a ton of trouble to plug it in. This won't save you much time, but you'll avoid frustration.
Work From Any Machine, Potentially Anywhere
In the last section we briefly touched upon this particular benefit: walking away from the computer you're using and picking up where you left off on any other machine. If your primary computer is busy with a task, this is a huge benefit. If your primary computer dies and you don't want to miss a beat, this is a huge benefit. If you simply are sick of staring at your laptop and want to sit at a desk (or vice versa), this is a huge benefit. The point is, there are many instances in which a second machine is really convenient. Getting this running smoothly takes a little work, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
We've already looked at how to use Dropbox as an organised home folder, which is where you'll see the greatest benefits. You could also use a tool like Sugarsync for a similar effect, but in my experience Dropbox has been infinitely more reliable. Regardless of what software you use, so long as your work files are syncing from machine to machine, you're halfway there.
The other challenge is software. If you've got, say, Photoshop on one machine but not on another you can't really pick up where you left off if you were using Photoshop. While it's good to make an effort to install commonly used applications on all your machines, sometimes you don't know you're going to be frequently using an application. Sometimes you'll forget to install it or sometimes you just won't be able to because you're away from your secondary machine(s). Basically, it's not realistic to expect that you'll have all your apps on all your machines at all times. This is going to be a problem at some point, but there are some easy ways to avoid it.
First, create a central repository for software installers. Maybe you keep this in one of many cloud storage services, on a network-attached storage (NAS) device, or one of your secondary computers. Wherever it is, make sure you have quick access to software installers so you can easily add an app when you need one. A lot of software is updated frequently, however, so saving a copy today may make it obsolete in a few weeks. Ninite is a great tool for quickly installing the free apps you use (if you're on a Windows or Linux machine), but keeping a list of download URLs is the next best thing. Ideally, you want to be able to grab these URLs from wherever you are so keeping a list in a (web)app like Simplenote or Evernote is a good way to make sure you always have them handy in case you need to install something quickly.
Once you've got both your software and work files taken care of, you're all set.
Offload Distractions To Your Secondary Machine
Email, IM, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds — you probably have a pretty long list of things that distract you from working every day. These distractions can occasionally provide a nice break once in a while, but if they're distracting you all the time they're definitely creating a problem. We've talked about offloading these distractions to your iPad/tablet (or other mobile device), but your secondary computer is also a great place to keep them so you can get to them quickly when necessary. You may not need to urgently respond to a tweet, but that may be the case with email and IM. If they're not constantly in your face, you can decide when to look at them and avoid temptation more easily.
How To Do This Effectively
Offloading distractions doesn't take much more effort than installing the apps you want out of your way and ignoring them until the time is right. The problem is, controlling multiple computers can be kind of annoying when you're dealing with more than one keyboard. While a KVM switch is one possible solution, using Synergy to control your multiple computers from a single keyboard and mouse is both cheaper (because it's free) and more efficient.
Using a secondary computer for the purpose of offloading distractions is very similar to using a second monitor, but it comes with the benefits of being able to 1) mute sound from the distracting apps, 2) reduce processor usage on the main machine, especially from apps you're not really using that much, and 3) being able to walk away from that extra monitor should you need to physically isolate yourself from said distractions.
But Is It Practical And Cost-Effective?
If you're using a single computer and would like to try adding another machine to your workflow, you don't have to spend a ton of money to do it. Even a netbook and a cheap (but relatively fast) desktop will still afford you many of the same benefits for less than the cost of a mid-range laptop. It's not so much about the speed of your machines but the fact that you can let them effectively multitask on your behalf. All the tools mentioned in this post are either free or inexpensive. The multi-machine workflow might seem like a pricey prospect, but it really isn't. While I personally haven't taken the cheapest possible route, that's mainly because I work on Macs. My current setup involves a MacBook Air — Apple's slowest laptop — and an entry-level iMac from last year — Apple's second-slowest desktop (the Mac mini being marginally slower).
Speed is nice, but the ability to multitask without actually using my brain to do it — as most of us can't truly multitask in the first place — is much nicer.