Under the Radar

168: Working While Traveling


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:06   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So you may not have noticed it in the last episode, but I am currently using a slightly different setup

00:00:16   than I typically do for the recording. And last week was the trial run, which is an important thing

00:00:22   we'll get to in a moment, because I'm going to be traveling quite a bit this summer, and I'm using a travel setup.

00:00:29   And it's both for the purposes of this recording, as well as for all of my work that I'm going to do for the next few weeks.

00:00:35   I'm going to be on the road.

00:00:37   And it seemed like an interesting topic to talk about, because I feel like it's a situation that being independent

00:00:44   and being in a position where your work is not tied to an office in the way that a traditional sort of 9-to-5 office work situation is

00:00:54   allows you to be a bit more flexible with where you work. And depending on, obviously, there's a wide variety of family

00:01:01   and personal situations where this would actually be the case for you, but you may be in a place where you aren't tied

00:01:06   to one location with your work. And so you can go and work and have extended vacations where you work part of the time,

00:01:13   or just in general, where you work might be more flexible. And this might be because working from home is,

00:01:20   as we've talked about many times, can be great, but can also be problematic if you have young children,

00:01:25   or even just like you're doing home renovations or things. You may need to work on the move.

00:01:32   And this could apply, I suppose, to some degree if you have a more traditional job.

00:01:36   But it's something that I think is, being independent has come up many times for me.

00:01:40   And I think my travel setup has evolved a lot as a result. And it seems like a good thing to talk about,

00:01:47   as I'm currently sitting here in front of a MacBook Pro stacked up on 20 paperback books that I found on the bookshelf

00:01:57   with my Airbnb, on a desk with a pillowcase across it because my mouse didn't work on the glass desk

00:02:04   that I happen to be the best desk I can find, sitting in a wicker chair with pillows stacked up behind me

00:02:12   to try and keep me from having a broken back by the end of sitting here for several hours.

00:02:17   These are all the considerations you have to do when you're not working in your main location,

00:02:23   where you're working on the road or just kind of making it up as you go.

00:02:28   - Yeah, I have a similar setup here with the exception that because I'm in one place for a longer amount of time,

00:02:34   I Amazoned myself an Amazon Basics office chair. - Nice.

00:02:39   - It was like 60 bucks and I've actually gotten this chair one other time for another summer in a different house.

00:02:45   And I knew it was fine. And so for a whole summer, for 60 bucks of perfect ergonomic, well not perfect,

00:02:50   but close ergonomic comfort, I figured it was worth it. My iMac Pro, which I brought here in my iMac Pro carrying case

00:02:58   that I got last summer, although now I upgraded it, by your recommendation, I added a little hand cart,

00:03:05   a little dolly that folds up, so I was able to wheel it from the boat to the house for like a half mile

00:03:12   and that was way nicer than carrying it on my shoulder because it's really heavy.

00:03:16   - It's not a portable computer. - It's portable now. It's more portable than the new Mac Pro.

00:03:21   - You added your own wheels to your iMac Pro. - Exactly, exactly. And it only costs $35.

00:03:27   I bet the Mac Pro wheels are going to cost more than that. - Props. $35 per wheel.

00:03:32   - Yeah, exactly. And it's sitting on top of a book that I found in the house to elevate it to the right height.

00:03:38   So I have a similar setup here. There's blankets on the floor so the podcast isn't too echoey.

00:03:45   And pillows shoved behind the desk. So it's actually a very similar setup that I have going on here.

00:03:51   And yeah, you know, it's like we do this, and for me it's a little bit different because I'm here for a long time.

00:03:56   Like I'm here for a span of months in the same place. So I'm able to do a little bit more setup

00:04:02   and a little bit more like buying things just for this. But if you're moving around more, you have different needs.

00:04:09   You probably don't want to bring an iMac Pro all around Europe as you're doing. - Probably not.

00:04:14   - As you're doing. So it's a little bit different depending on how you're traveling, where you're traveling,

00:04:20   for how long, and what your needs are. If I wasn't actively doing a lot of development work all summer,

00:04:25   I wouldn't bring an iMac at all. I would bring probably a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

00:04:30   And I think when you look at when your needs change or when your needs fluctuate on a regular basis,

00:04:39   there's a reason why the 15-inch MacBook Pro is such an incredibly popular choice for developers.

00:04:45   Because you can bring that thing pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything with it.

00:04:50   And it's kind of like the best middle of the road solution for pretty much everything the developer might want to do

00:04:56   in pretty much all conditions. You bring a 15-inch MacBook Pro with you and that can easily be,

00:05:01   and for me for a long time was, your only Mac, your only computer. And that can be totally fine.

00:05:07   And there is rarely a case where that will really let you down. And there's a lot of advantages to,

00:05:13   if you have a lot of travel or fluctuation in your life, to keeping your setup really simple on the computer side

00:05:19   and just having a 15-inch MacBook Pro and being done with it.

00:05:23   Yeah, though you say that I'm using a 13-inch MacBook Pro this summer.

00:05:28   Because I learned the lesson. So I did a similar kind of trip last summer. And for that I used a 12-inch MacBook

00:05:34   as my development machine. And that was not powerful enough, especially for beta X codes and things.

00:05:43   It worked. I was able to work. But it was kind of painful. And the screen was very small.

00:05:51   But on the plus side, it was really portable and super amazing from a travel perspective where I'm concerned with

00:05:58   even the weight of my luggage, depending on what kind of airlines and travel you're doing. It was really amazing.

00:06:04   And so my compromise situation was to get the recently updated 13-inch MacBook Pro

00:06:12   as fast a version of that as I could. It was just updated right before W2DC, which was perfect.

00:06:17   Because the last time I did a travel setup was going to W2DC where I'm using exactly the same travel setup.

00:06:25   I stacked my computer up on everything I could find in my hotel room to get it the right height.

00:06:32   But the 13-inch so far, I would say this summer seems fast enough. I haven't had any major problems with it.

00:06:40   It seems like it's fast enough. And the size of it is very delightful. But yes, having a laptop is obviously way more portable

00:06:50   than the iMac Pro that you're using. And I think in general is probably the right answer for most travel needs.

00:06:56   And I think if I did a lot of travel, I think the 15-inches would make a lot more sense.

00:07:02   I remember the widely rumored super MacBook Pro, the MacBook Pro Pro that's supposed to be coming out this fall might be even better.

00:07:09   If it's truly more of a desktop replacement computer in terms of its very high performance components.

00:07:18   But what I'll say about the 13-inch, though, is it's super light and portable.

00:07:23   And it's heavier and a bit bigger than a 12-inch MacBook, but not by much in a way that before I got it, I looked at a couple of 15s.

00:07:31   And it's like, once you get used to a really small laptop, I've got to say it's pretty nice to have that.

00:07:36   And just kind of get used to the fact that you can put it in a bag, the weight doesn't really bother you, and it still has a full-sized everything and is pretty performant.

00:07:46   Yeah, and I will say, you know, devil's advocate a little bit here, I mean, first of all, disclaimer, I own last year's version of that exact laptop.

00:07:52   Like, that is my laptop right now is the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro with touch bar, so I have the four ports.

00:07:58   So, you know, disclaimer, that's what I chose as well.

00:08:01   However, I will say that we, as Mac nerds, we tend to overthink the differences in size and weight between the laptops.

00:08:09   Like, what we're really talking about here is 12 inches, two pounds, 13 inches, three pounds, 15 inches, four pounds.

00:08:14   So it's like, do you want two, three, or four pounds to carry?

00:08:17   Like, you know, I know what I'm packing for travel, unless I'm actually, like, backpacking, which I don't do, but you do sometimes.

00:08:23   Not usually with a MacBook Pro, though.

00:08:25   Right, yeah, right. It's kind of impractical.

00:08:27   Like, unless you're actually carrying it on your back all day long, every day, the difference between two pounds and four pounds is not going to make a huge difference in the total weight of what you're carrying, or the total weight of what you're packing.

00:08:37   And so, we tend to, like, really nitpick and overthink these differences between these laptops, but really what it comes down to is, like, what size are you comfortable with and what offers the features you need.

00:08:46   And, like, for me, like, I love the 13 inch size, but if it was my only or primary computer for a long stretch of time, I would want the 15, just to have more screen space, you know?

00:08:59   Sure.

00:09:00   The 13 is plenty fast. Speed-wise, like, once it went to four cores last year, it's, speed-wise, it's fantastic, and it really doesn't need more speed for what most people do, unless you do GPU heavy stuff.

00:09:12   But, you know, really, I'm very happy with the 13 in every way, except I do feel a little cramped by that screen when I'm doing a lot of heavy work.

00:09:20   Fortunately, I don't do that very much on the laptop, but if you do, you know, consider the 15 and, you know, you don't have to spec it up very far from the stock.

00:09:28   It's a pretty good stock. You can maybe bump up the SSD size, but otherwise, like, you can leave everything else stock and you get a great computer for, you know, I wouldn't say it's a great deal, but it's an alright deal.

00:09:40   It can really handle pretty much anything you can throw at it.

00:09:42   Honestly, the more I think about it, like, I think the thing too that is often overlooked is the reason, the thing that is going to help the machine be most effective for your actual ability to get work has less probably at this point to do with the computer itself, and more the environment in which you're able to set up for you to work with that computer.

00:10:02   Like, I'm starting to think how, I think the biggest advantage I have for getting work done this summer is that I have a keyboard and a mouse, and they're my normal, like, ergonomic keyboard and mouse that I use at home, like, that I brought with me.

00:10:15   Because I think I was just realizing, it's like, I think that it makes it really work is that I can sit and I can, like, work for long periods without, like, ergonomic problems and strain.

00:10:27   And, like, the thing that's ultimately going to give out, if I was just trying to use my 13-inch MacBook Pro or a 15-inch MacBook Pro as in its, you know, natural configuration using the trackpad and keyboard on the computer, on a desk, or in a coffee shop or whatever, like, the computer is going to be fine.

00:10:44   The, like, the squishy organic bit sitting in front of it is the thing that's going to give out.

00:10:48   And that's something I think is a consideration that I haven't often always taken when I've been traveling, is how, while, you know, like, I was just talking about how I'm trying to save space and weight by, you know, having a 13-inch rather than a 15-inch.

00:11:02   But at the same time, I have, you know, a Microsoft Sculpt keyboard and a mouse with me.

00:11:07   And, like, those are not necessarily, like, light or small, but the reality is I think they're the essential parts, really, because if I didn't have those, like, I could probably only work for, you know, an hour or two at a time at a MacBook Pro.

00:11:22   And honestly, probably less than that in a cumulative effect where eventually, like, my wrists are going to start hurting, my neck is going to start hurting.

00:11:29   Like, I'm never going to be able to meet an ergonomic position.

00:11:31   But, you know, bringing those things along, it's fine.

00:11:35   And, like, you know, we've been joking a bit about it, but, like, in most kind of environments you're in, like, just a normal hotel room that has a desk, or you're in an Airbnb and you can find, like, some way to cobble something together, like, at a dining room table.

00:11:51   You know, you're going to find some way to elevate the laptop up so you can be at an appropriate, comfortable height for your eyes.

00:11:57   You put the keyboard and the mouse on the desk.

00:12:00   And you're in a pretty good ergonomic place. Like, it's not ideal, you know, certainly not, you know, as ideal as an environment that you could do if it was on a more permanent basis.

00:12:09   But, like, that's a very important thing to keep in mind when you're doing this kind of travel setup, too.

00:12:14   It's not like you can overthink the laptop, but you underthink, you know, the environment you're going to be using that laptop in.

00:12:19   Yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, I would, like, if I was given the choice between, like, work on a 15-inch all summer or work on a 13-inch with my keyboard and mouse and having the 13-inch be elevated, like, on a pile of books, I would take the 13-inch with the proper ergonomic setup any day over having the bigger screen or the 15, but having to use the built-in keyboard all the time.

00:12:39   And not just because I hate that keyboard, but because, as you said, like, the ergonomics of laptops were never designed for long-term, constant primary use.

00:12:48   You know, they were designed for, like, well, if you have to have a laptop for portability, you can get stuff done, but hopefully you're doing most of your work, like, at a desk with a proper setup.

00:12:56   And over time, like, as laptops have become people's primary computers and become the computers that almost everybody buys, the ergonomic side of it has been kind of forgotten and ignored.

00:13:06   And people, you know, if you work on a laptop all day and you have, like, upper back and shoulder and neck problems, like, there's a reason for that.

00:13:14   It's like you're looking down at your screen and, like, hunching over, like, that's, it's terrible for ergonomics, and most people don't think about it.

00:13:20   But, yeah, like, if you're going to be somewhere for a while, if you have the ability to improve the ergonomic setup, it is worth it, even if it means something that seems ridiculous, like carrying a keyboard with you, like a full-sized desktop keyboard and mouse, like, that seems ridiculous, but it actually is a really good idea for ergonomics.

00:13:38   >> Yeah, and another thing to also keep in mind for this trip is there are nice options now for things like using a Luna Display or a sidecar coming in Catalina for using an, essentially creating an external monitor out of an iPad, which may be nice if it's an iPad that you just would have with you anyway, which also can give you some more ergonomic flexibility.

00:14:00   If you can't elevate your monitor, you might be able to use the monitor at its, you know, use the monitor's keyboard at desk light, but have a screen that's higher up that you can look at, which may also give you some ergonomic flexibility.

00:14:14   Or it's also just nice if you want to have a second screen, if you're using a smaller, you know, if I'm using a 13-inch MacBook Pro, sometimes I might want more screens real estate, and so I've brought along, you know, my Luna Display just so I can connect to the iPad and use it as a second screen if the situation arises, if I'm doing something where, you know, I have a big simulator build running on one screen and I want to have Xcode on the other.

00:14:39   So that's something else that I found that's useful both ergonomically as well as just in general kind of useful.

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00:16:45   So we've talked about how to set up your stuff to work and how to work on vacation. I think one really interesting topic to cover next is the overall category of choosing what to work on and what not to work on when you are traveling. How do you choose that? How do you balance that?

00:17:06   So I think something that first comes to mind is how easy it is to lie to yourself about how much you will actually work when you are traveling. When you're on extended vacation or you're visiting family or whatever it might be.

00:17:22   I feel like I always go into these types of situations with these grand lofty aspirations of how much I'll be able to get done, how nice it will be to go back and forth between doing family stuff.

00:17:37   And then I can go and do some work and it might be even more productive because I'll be so relaxed and my mind won't be overburdened like it might be at home. You could tell yourself all these lies about how productive you're going to be.

00:17:52   The reality is, I find this for myself, I find it's very hard to work in general. My brain doesn't want to work ever at home, on the road, wherever I am. It's always a battle to actually get work done.

00:18:10   But at home, there are fewer distractions, there are fewer other things that I want to do. There are just structural things and choices that we've made about, like, my family is not around, there's nothing really happening. It's not like I'm making other plans during that time.

00:18:27   So work is something that happens organically because there's nothing else to do. When you're away and when you're traveling, even if you have the most ideal setup you could imagine, it's always going to be a battle because the things around you are probably more interesting than work.

00:18:46   So it becomes very hard to want to be motivated to do that. And so I think to your point and your question is something that I think I've found is it's very important to choose the right kind of things to work on if you're in an environment where you're going to be traveling and you're kind of telling yourself that I'm going to get some work done.

00:19:04   Because usually, obviously the easy one is if there's work you have to do, a server goes down and you have to deal with it, well, you'll just deal with it and it'll be fine. But the actual work to do, I find it's either fun to work on something that falls into the delightful but rare category of the project you're super excited about and that feels like fun, that feels like it's play, it's vacation, you have this app idea that you want to explore, and you're like, "Oh, I'm going to get some work done."

00:19:33   Or you have this feature that is something that you're intrinsically motivated to work on, that you want to do, that feels like fun. If you have one of those, that's great because it's going to pull you towards it and just be productive and it will be fun.

00:19:52   If you don't have one of those, because those don't come around all the time, I find it's something to try and bite off something small, specific, and visible.

00:20:04   So what I've tried to do so far that I've been away from home is I'm picking features. A lot of them are these little things that I would like to have but haven't gotten around to. For example, one of the features people have wanted for a long time in C++ is the ability to export your data to a CSV file for people who just want to have it in a different format.

00:20:27   It's a relatively easy feature. It wasn't like it was a long time to build. In a day's work, which is often four or five hours, I could build it, I could test it, make sure it works, I could wrap it up.

00:20:43   I haven't shipped it yet, but the actual construction was pretty straightforward. It's usually easy to sit down and have four or five hours of productive work.

00:20:59   It's very hard, I find, to have two, three, four days in a row of big, long chunks of dedicated work, the kind of work where you really want to be remembering exactly where you were when you picked up, left off the last time, the next day when you picked up.

00:21:16   That kind of work becomes so much harder to manage because your schedule isn't necessarily your own. There may be things that come up that you just want to do. Or even worse, in a weird way, you might be putting the people you're traveling with in an awkward situation if they want to go and do this thing and they don't want you to feel left out.

00:21:36   So they're going to try and then work and schedule around you. It's a tricky situation, but I think finding things like that, that you can just bite off a small chunk and work on those.

00:21:46   The accumulation over the course of several, say, four-hour sessions could actually still be meaningful, productive, serious work towards your project.

00:21:56   And in some ways, it's dealing with stuff that you haven't been excited to work on or is just these more nice-to-have features. It moves things forward, but I would not say, "Okay, during this travel, I'm going to build this big, deep, overarching feature that deals with huge amounts of low-level data stuff or syncing or server interactions."

00:22:20   That's silly. Focus on something that you can bite off, work on, and have something to show for, honestly, too. Because one of the most demotivating things is when you work for four hours and you're like, "I don't have nothing to show for this. I made some deep, low-level change, which may be important."

00:22:36   But I find it really hard then to be wanting to come back and do it again if it's not something that's like, "Oh, here. Here's this thing that I built. Here's a new feature, a new option in the app," whatever it might be.

00:22:48   Yeah, that's a good point. Motivation, as you said, or motivation while traveling, I feel like, is so fragile and hard to come by. If your other option is to be doing cool stuff and in a place you've never been before or sitting on a beach or something, it's so hard to motivate yourself to sit down and work for long periods, way harder than at home.

00:23:11   The last thing you want to do is do tasks or types of work that you find demotivating. A good example is, "I don't want to have to fight the provisioning portal or deal with, 'Oh, great. My table view is buggy in the new OS. Awesome.'"

00:23:31   These are my least favorite things to do. It's hard to justify taking the time out of your vacation or your travel to work on things that aren't very fun or that just frustrate you.

00:23:45   As you mentioned, it's a great time to do fun little features, any kind of prototyping new stuff you might want to do, or even just making a new app that's kind of like a toy app. It's a good time for that if you can spare it.

00:23:58   Every summer I have extreme temptation to make a brand new app of some kind. Sometimes I do it, sometimes I don't. Usually I don't release these apps because they're terrible and I don't want to support them.

00:24:08   I have much more motivation to try something new, possibly with the new beta stuff that Apple has released, to try something new with the cool new toys we got, rather than, "Well, I've got to go back to the grind of finishing this feature."

00:24:33   It's been very frustrating and demoralizing for me, but I'm getting through. I'm plowing through slowly. Maybe by the time I actually get to working on the new features that are in the betas, maybe they'll be more stable. Maybe the time will have paid off.

00:24:48   It does work in your favor. The longer you wait, the more stable everything gets.

00:25:06   You are going somewhere for the explicit purpose of being more focused in work.

00:25:21   It's very productive and very interesting because if you're going somewhere for that purpose, you typically are going somewhere that is not interesting in quite the same way. Don't go to Disney World and want to be there to do work.

00:25:36   If you're going somewhere interesting, go to somewhere interesting. You want to go somewhere nice, comfortable, but boring in that way, or at least boring in the obvious sense.

00:25:51   If you're going somewhere nice, comfortable, but boring in the obvious sense, you want to be there to do work.

00:26:07   I'll say for a long time, I beat myself up where I would have grand aspirations, go on vacation, or go on and travel, even if it was just a short trip. It doesn't have to be something that's long and extended. I'm going to the beach for a week with my family.

00:26:25   But in the back of my mind, because when you're self-employed, you don't get paid vacation in the way that you do at a regular job. I felt that I always had to work, that if I wasn't working, that was bad.

00:26:38   I was abusing the privilege and ability of being self-employed if I wasn't working all the time. And it meant that sometimes I couldn't enjoy vacations as much.

00:27:02   When you're on the one of those weeks of leave, hopefully you're not thinking about work too much. That's just as beneficial, that's good for mental health, that's good for productivity, and that's good in a variety of ways too.

00:27:12   So keep in mind that not every travel, trip, or vacation needs to be a working one. Sometimes that makes sense if you're going for a long period of time, or you're going explicitly for the purpose of taking advantage of your flexibility in location to have a more hybrid lifestyle.

00:27:32   That's kind of cool, but at the same time, also don't beat yourself up if you don't get anything done or you decide ahead of time. It's not good. And if you do that, it's also kind of a nice thing to...

00:27:43   That's honestly kind of why I love my 12-inch MacBook, is I sometimes will bring it on a trip because it is awkward to work on. And if I don't bring my keyboard and mouse, it is awkward for me to work.

00:27:53   So if something comes up, like if a server explodes or some weird issue happens on an app, I can do a new build. I've done it. I've fixed those. I remember one of my vacations.

00:28:03   There was some weird data corruption bug that sprung up out of nowhere, and all of a sudden I had to get this update submitted. I just worked in the friends I was visiting, their bedroom for three hours, and got an update up on my 12-inch MacBook.

00:28:19   And it was awful and painful, and my wrists hurt afterwards, but I got it done. And that's thankfully a rare situation. And I moved on and it was great.

00:28:27   But it's nice to have that in the back of your mind that you can work, but it's also kind of nice that I would not have wanted to do an extended bit of work in that environment.

00:28:37   Yeah, I'm glad you brought this up because I feel like we need to remind ourselves as indies, it's okay to not work all the time that you could possibly work. It's okay to take a vacation and set expectations with yourself and with your users.

00:28:54   I've honestly thought about telling my users at this point, "Look, all this cool stuff that's going to come in iOS 13 and all this stuff, I'm not going to be there on day one because I can't make it. Summer's too short and I also want to have some kind of vacation time for myself."

00:29:08   So set expectations with yourself, your family, your customers, that you do have to take vacation sometime and you can't constantly work, and that's okay. That's the whole point of being indie, is to get the flexibility like that.

00:29:24   We tolerate a whole bunch of stuff in order to achieve this flexibility. You might as well use it. Anyway, thanks for listening everybody, and we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:35   Bye.

00:29:36   [BLANK_AUDIO]