Context And Immersion: 1 of N

I got to the cigar lounge today, ate a pretzel from the gas station (shoot me, they’re delicious) and YET AGAIN didn’t know what, if anything I was going to write about. I had it in my head that I was actually going to work on a programming project that’s been kicking around in my head. But once I set up I was still undecided.

I pulled up youtube and tried to decide between my writing playlist and my programming playlist.

I opened a new document and, after diddling around a bit I started typing and before too long my brain was turned, presumably in no small part by my soundtrack, to thoughts of programming style and technique. I got an image in my head of the past and just started writing about that.

Fair enough.

Music (or, well, a soundtrack) while writing serves a couple/few purposes, not the least of which is to drown out my surroundings. That’s less important at home than it is in the cigar lounge, to be sure. But it still serves the purpose. The strange creaks and machine noises inside the house are about the same as living in the three-dimensional middle of an apartment building in amplitude and variety. Add the birds and the rain and, pleasant as it is, they all serve as a distraction from my already tenuous ability to focus at ALL.

When I’m writing code, fiction, or journaling, I need to tune my surroundings as much as I reasonably can to the…mental environment of what I’m trying to produce. In the case of programming it’s just a general silence, some simple repetative music that can syphon off some of the brain cycles that seem to deem it their responsibility to look for and seize on to distractions.

It’s really amazing to me how much that kind of mental context, applied from outside can change not only the style but even the topic of my work.


A soundtrack really sets my mental context in a variety of ways:

  • It sets up the ritual of work:
  • – Picking a soundtrack and hitting ‘play’ is the beginning of work for me. Aside from the content of what it is I’m listening to or the type of work I’m doing, the act itself is the intentional beginning of the session. I pause over that ‘play’ button more than a little sometimes when I’m just not ready to begin. When I sit down at the cigar lounge even I put my headphones in and tend to dick around on twitter for a bit before I get rolling and, as I said above, I vascilate somewhat over what it is I’m going to work on before I settle in to something.
  • – As a function of habit, the sound itself is the mental cue that’s now been burned more or less into something akin to muscle memory that gets my brain going on a task. Even when I’m trying out a new track or compilation, my brain knows what’s going on when I start listening to a certain kind of music.
  • It sets my mind to the project at hand:
  • – One level deeper than that it does more or less the same thing to my headspace. Pulling up nearly anything in my programming playlist (which tends to be full of several-hour compilations of mixed ambient tracks of one kind or another) has approximately the same effect as pulling out all my project notes, spreading them out on the desk, and giving them a good review. My brain snaps in to the context of the project. Interesting though that I hadn’t thought of it that way ’til I typed that. How much better would that context be set if I LITERALLY brought out my project notes and laid them out in addition to setting up the mental cue through music?


Reading, I find, does something similar. It’s VERY rare (usually in cases only of literary fiction) that I can read something to which my mind does not react with a flurry of ideas of things to either write about or work on. Take yesterday’s example of “The Mental Game Of Writing” for instance. Now that’s a bit of a gimme as it’s ABOUT performing the task and how to wrangle your mind and emotions into the right space for writing, setting up one (of a preumed infinite) way of approaching the task of working on a writing project and “being a writer.”

It’s as true of fiction as it is of instructional and informational texts. I mean sure, reading a book on self-improvement, trading or programming is the mental equivalent of adding tools to my toolbox and I’m immediately trying to figure out how best to USE those tools.

Fiction, or other narrative, usually has a similar effect: It becomes something I’m immersed in and if it has any relation to something I’m working on my brain starts almost immediately trying to draw from it and map ideas into my own work.

I’m not…real intentional about taking advantage of this. But it occurs to me that I should be. Maybe a more concerted effort to read with an ideas notebook handy to write things down that tickle my imagination, in contrast to a Commonplace Book, which is for capturing ideas that strike me independent of their utility elsewhere. I suppose it might be like a lyricist’s notebook of ideas.

Again, something I’m going to have to give some thought to.


When I started this I was thinking in terms of background music. But my mind has wandered around a bit and I think there’s another piece.

Physical context makes of course just as much difference. My morning habit is to pour myself out of bed and sorta shuffle in to my office where I turn on the computer before heading to the bathroom for a shower, then I come back and sit down and screw around a bit because I don’t, by default, have any of the aforementioned contextual cues in place.

Well…my washer and dryer are down in the basement/workshop.

Whenever I go downstairs to get my laundry I can’t help but stop and look around my shop and again, even though it’s a disaster, my brain is flooded, an absolute victim of the physical context of being in the shop. All the furniture, jig, blacksmithing, welding, and other projects that have been kicking around in my head for the last ten or twenty years come straight to the front of my mind.

It’s clear to me, writing this, that there’s some really awesome opportunities that I haven’t taken advantage of yet.

But right now I’m torn between neatening this up a bit and heading over because Bible Study starts in a bit and people are starting to drift in.

So I’m just going to hit post and call this “1 of N” and continue it when I get home.