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
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.
Work From Any Machine, Potentially Anywhere
How To Do This Effectively
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
How To Do This Effectively
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.