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How to keep your work and personal computing separate

…without too much pain?

November 6, 2021

Earlier this year I unexpectedly left a job I’d been doing for a long time, and I learned a lot from that experience. One of the sillier but important lessons is that mixing my work and personal data on the same computer was an absolutely terrible idea.

Obviously there are tons of advantages to just using one computer. One device is much simpler, and everything is always right where you need it.

But there are so many downsides I didn’t fully appreciate:

  • When you change jobs, it’s stressful and urgent work to split things back apart.
  • If your employer supplied your computer, they have some degree of control or ownership over it, so your personal data is at risk of being monitored or leaked (and vice-versa).
  • With no work/personal separation, it’s trivially easy for one to spill into the other. In my case, I would always check in with work stuff during off hours, because it was right there in front of me.

None of that is healthy!

Since the job change, I’ve made it a point to steadfastly, stubbornly keep my computing lives fully separate, with as little overlap as possible.

The problem is, how do you manage using multiple devices without turning your daily life into a constant sysadmin hellscape? And perhaps more importantly, how do you do this in a world where all communication and conveniences are linked to cloud accounts that follow you around?

There are a bunch of different ways to solve this, most of which are inelegant in some way, but here’s what I’ve done.

  1. Two laptops. One for work, one for home. The work one is for 8-5 only, the home one is for any hours other than that. I don’t use them simultaneously.

  2. A good desk & monitor that’s easy to dock. I have an LG 27” 5K display that hooks up to a Mac (which I leave in clamshell mode) with a single USB-C Thunderbolt cable. Along with that, I use a Keychron K6 keyboard and a Magic Trackpad. I can plug my work or home computer into this setup, and it works great.

    Pro tip: if you’re in the market for one of those LG displays, get one on eBay instead. The retail price is bananas.

  3. An iPad with a nice keyboard case. This is my personal hub while I’m working during the day. You could use a phone or a second computer instead, but the iPad is really ideal because a) it takes up barely any desk space, and typing on it is still quite comfortable, b) it’s powerful enough with multitasking, c) it feels perfect and fun as a little dedicated control panel for things.

    I use an 11” iPad Air with a Smart Folio Keyboard. I run Messages and email in side-by-side mode, and I also use it to control Spotify and other environmental home stuff while I’m working. This way, any non-work-related notifications that pop up are still in sight.

    Note: it would be great to use just one keyboard for both the iPad and work Mac, but I haven’t found a solution for that. My Keychron has multi-device Bluetooth support, but toggling between devices is laggy enough to be annoying and error prone. (I’m deathly afraid of typing a message meant for my family into work Slack!) Two keyboards is just safer and easier.

  4. Two separate iCloud accounts. Personal iCloud is on the iPad and the home laptop. Another iCloud account is on the work laptop, in case I need something from the App Store or whatever.

  5. Separate 1Password vaults, with a handful of items copied to both vaults. Work passwords and personal passwords shouldn’t (and can’t) mix in this scenario, but there are a handful of things you may need to access regardless of context, like benefits websites, financial accounts, and pay stubs. So those few passwords get manually copied to both places.

  6. Separate headphones. This is a pain, but AirPods don’t seem to work well across different iCloud accounts. It’s easier to have two sets.

  7. Work email, calendar, and Slack on my personal phone. This is arguably a major breach of my hardcore separation philosophy, but not being able to see or respond to messages from your phone is kinda busted in 2021, so it’s all on there.

    I did still maintain some separation though: my work stuff is in the standard Gmail and Google Calendar apps, with notifications off. Personal stuff is in Spark and Fantastical. No shared apps.

  8. No personal data on the work computer. None. At all. I don’t even read personal email in a browser tab.

  9. Airdrop or Dropbox for getting things across the work/personal divide, on the rare occasion you need to. File sharing is probably the most annoying aspect of this arrangement (for example uploading a screenshot from your phone to your work computer) but Airdrop works fine most of the time.

So that’s how I’m doing this, and it’s pretty smooth!

I also asked people on Twitter for suggestions, and as you might expect, the answers were all over the place. Here are a few more ideas, if you’re not into the iPad/Mac split.

  • Logitech Flow to use two computers side by side simultaneously.
  • A wired KVM switch, with trackpad and keyboard in wired mode, so they toggle properly (Bluetooth switching doesn’t really work well for this.)
  • Dual-booting separate isolated operating systems, so you can boot into work mode or home mode individually.
  • Different work/personal user accounts on the same machine.