Under the Radar

102: Procrastiworking


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

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith.

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

00:00:10   So, I have a problem, and I think it's a problem that I think you can probably help me with, Marco,

00:00:16   and I think it's something that we need to talk about.

00:00:19   Are you breaking up with me?

00:00:20   No, no. Nothing like that.

00:00:22   But it's an area that I hear that you're an expert in, and I feel like I just need some advice.

00:00:27   So, this last week, I've been dealing with kind of a tricky situation programmatically.

00:00:35   So, I'm working on Workouts++.

00:00:37   I have been adding a whole bunch of new features to it.

00:00:41   It's been this really nice update that I've planned for the end of this year.

00:00:45   And there's one thing left, basically.

00:00:48   I have this one big task I need to undertake.

00:00:50   I need to redesign the workout configuration screen.

00:00:55   And it's kind of this big, multi-day task that I'm kind of honestly scared about.

00:01:00   And the thing that I'm struggling with is what is the best methods that I can use to procrastinate and not do it.

00:01:07   Because that is essentially what I have found myself doing for the last week.

00:01:13   And in all honesty, I thought it would be an interesting thing to discuss.

00:01:17   Because I started to keep track of all the strategies that I have come up with to avoid doing this task.

00:01:27   And so far, my list is 19 different things that I have done in the last week to avoid doing this.

00:01:34   And so, hey, there's just a little bit of comedy in that.

00:01:37   And I'm sure you have your own.

00:01:39   And I think it actually is interesting to unpack a little bit of what the things that I do are.

00:01:45   Because the more I think about this, and as I'm slightly self-aware, the thing that is most likely to get me to actually attack this problem and to solve it is to recognize when I'm doing the things that are avoidance and recognize them for what they are.

00:02:04   And maybe sometimes that's okay.

00:02:06   But the reality is, when I do some of these things, the first one on my list is implementing random, new, small features.

00:02:14   Yup. I do that.

00:02:17   I've just been doing that random.

00:02:19   And the whole -- which in some ways is great.

00:02:21   I've added some really cool, interesting ideas to work out C++.

00:02:25   But at the same time, I was like, why am I adding these random features that are not the core experience of the app when all I'm really doing is just putting off this thing that is absolutely essential that I cannot ship this update without doing?

00:02:41   So anyway, I hear you're an expert in avoiding work, so you seem to be the right person to talk to about this problem I'm having.

00:02:47   Oh yeah, it's like Procraster working.

00:02:49   It's like, there's something that you really don't want to do, and so instead of doing that, you do other things that make you feel productive that maybe are productive, but are still not the thing you're really supposed to be doing, or like the one big thing that you have to do.

00:03:04   It's not that thing, but you're doing other things that nevertheless are either useful or valuable or productive in some other way.

00:03:13   So this happens to me all the time.

00:03:16   It is really hard for me to motivate myself to work on something I don't feel like doing.

00:03:22   This was always a problem in my entire schooling when I was a kid, and ever motivating myself to do homework or anything.

00:03:30   It was just impossible for me. It was like there was a brick wall.

00:03:34   This is probably just my lack of work ethic or being lazy or something like that.

00:03:37   I don't think there's any kind of clinical explanation for this, but basically just making it impossible for me to do things I don't feel like doing or that I'm discouraged from doing or that I don't want to do.

00:03:48   So I've always suffered from that or had problems with that.

00:03:53   I have never found ways to manage it, and I probably never will find ways to manage it if I hadn't even started by the time I'm now 35 and I still figure out how to do things I don't want to do.

00:04:02   This probably is not the kind of thing I'm going to get better at over time.

00:04:06   I just have to figure out ways to manage it and work around it.

00:04:09   I too am facing large barriers.

00:04:12   For me it's almost debilitating for Overcast development right now because I'm very susceptible to convincing myself that a crazy UI hack is worth doing because it makes the app nicer or it achieves something I want to achieve in the UI.

00:04:29   So over time in all of my apps, I have always, even though I've told you and the listeners on this show, just stick with stock UI kit stuff. Don't hack it. Don't do crazy stuff. Don't do crazy custom stuff if you don't have to. You're better off sticking with stock stuff.

00:04:45   The reason I say that is because I keep not following that advice myself and I keep doing crazy UI stuff that takes massive amounts of development time, creates huge numbers of weird little bugs and animation bugs and everything else that I don't have to spend more development time on.

00:05:01   If Apple changes some critical thing or I want to adopt some new kind of style like moving from a collection view to a collection view or something like that, if I wanted to do something fancy or something new or in the case of iOS 11, things like adopting drag and drop for reordering,

00:05:18   that then requires me to throw out my giant pile of hacks that I did before and possibly create a new one. And so my iOS 11 update has been plagued with massive amounts of messing with the UI.

00:05:32   First of all, iOS 11 basically seems to have rewritten UI table view. The way UI table view works in iOS 11 is so different, especially in the ways it manages sizing and animations.

00:05:44   Basically it broke all my table views in some way or another. It broke all my custom cells. It broke everything about how I do it.

00:05:51   And the only reason Overcast runs on iOS 11 at all right now in the public version is that when it's built against a previous SDK, like the iOS 10 SDK, it runs in a compatibility mode.

00:06:05   And Apple seems to be using mostly the old UI table view code for apps that are built against it, which is nice. But I can't just keep building my app against the iOS 10 SDK forever.

00:06:16   And I can't use iOS 11 features without building against the iOS 11 SDK. So I have to basically in the process of adopting some pretty basic iOS 11 stuff, I've had to rewrite many of my core table view logic and cells and views and everything else.

00:06:33   And it turns out podcast apps have a lot of those. So it has been a massive undertaking and it's incredibly demoralizing because all I want to do is work on features.

00:06:46   That's all I want to do. I have so many great ideas for cool features I want to do. And I'm stuck working for months on end, months and months and months on animation glitches and minor UI stuff that all I'm doing is trying to restore it from where it was before to the new iOS 11 version.

00:07:04   And it is horrible. So instead of doing that, or rather in addition to doing that really, I have also taken lots of time here to do other things. So I've been modifying the UI to accommodate things people actually want, like the one tap play thing.

00:07:21   I didn't have to do that in this update, but I kind of shoved it in because I needed a break from doing all the incredibly tedious and demoralizing table view hacking. So I did that. I have debated and tweaked and even shared on Twitter the process of doing lots of different UI details.

00:07:40   I have also added a couple new settings and fixed that long standing copy in the search box crashing bug. Thanks to Brent Simmons for that.

00:07:52   And so there have been so many things that I've done in the meantime. I have set up a whole new laptop. I have, currently I'm recording on a laptop because I finally brought in my iMac for repair because the warranty expires in nine days.

00:08:06   And I figured I might as well get it repaired. So that's a whole ordeal to like prepare an iMac to prepare your main computer to go into Apple for a week, then prepare another computer to be your main computer.

00:08:16   In the meantime, I'm getting my dog a haircut this afternoon. My kitchen has never been cleaner than it has been these last few weeks because it's like anytime there's a speck of anything in the kitchen or anything is out, I clean it immediately because that's something to do that feels productive.

00:08:30   I mean, we've played a lot of Stardew Valley in our house in the last few weeks. That for some reason feels productive because it's a game that feels like work.

00:08:41   It is crazy how much I have done in the app in the last few months really and in the last few weeks solely to keep myself sane while I have either been procrastinating or been slogging through working on these horrible UI things that I honestly just do not want to work on.

00:09:04   I just cannot wait for it to be done and shipped. Oh, not to mention the iPhone 10 and adopting to that, all the insets and everything.

00:09:14   It turns out that while Apple has made a pretty good system with the safe area insets and safe area guides and everything, the API is actually pretty complete and pretty rich for that.

00:09:26   I'm really happy working with it when I do, but if your app supports landscape orientation at all, you probably have to work on every single screen in the app to adopt to the iPhone 10.

00:09:38   Any screen that supports landscape on an iPhone probably needs work.

00:09:42   Not to mention, every screen in portrait orientation needs at least consideration.

00:09:48   If you have anything beyond a very basic navigation bar and toolbar, stock setup, anything else where you put anything anywhere near an edge or the top or the bottom or a corner.

00:09:59   By the way, for the past decade, stock iOS design has meant putting things in corners. Now we have no corners.

00:10:08   So that's a challenge. There is so much tedious, demoralizing work that I've had to do just to catch up to iOS 11 and the iPhone 10 that I'm just starving for ways to procrastinate and other things to do that can give me the little happy boost of having accomplished something.

00:10:32   Beyond just slogging away at another safe area insets thing or another UI table view animation bug.

00:10:39   Well that's somewhere that I can help you, because I have a long list of other approaches that you haven't mentioned so far to avoid work.

00:10:46   So there's organizing your to-do list, which is great.

00:10:50   Oh yeah, I did that last night. I merged all the beta feedback from multiple sources into one document that I'm now working off.

00:10:57   And then the best part, once you've done that, right, is then you start to question your to-do list method in the first place.

00:11:04   Oh yeah.

00:11:05   And if you're using the right app for it, you want to explore, try out a few other apps, or try to think about, "Oh, what if there's a different method or approach?"

00:11:14   So I did that. I've done that for a while. I've gone through all my emails I was supposed to respond to for several weeks that have been backing up in my inbox.

00:11:25   I watched a few WWDC videos that I've been doing to you for a while, which is great. It feels so productive to be in there.

00:11:31   Like there's code, I feel like I'm learning. I went field testing, so I have a workout app, right? So I can go for a walk.

00:11:38   Yeah, field testing for you means I went for a walk.

00:11:41   It's great, right? It's so productive.

00:11:44   It was a sleep tracker too. It's like, "Oh, I took a nap to test my--I have to test this app."

00:11:50   I mean, perfect, right? This is the right mindset. We're on the same wavelength here.

00:11:57   I've been solving other people's problems. Any time you mention any kind of design issue with Overcast, I'm like right there.

00:12:04   You are, yeah.

00:12:05   Let me get in there, let me solve other people's problems, because their problems are better than mine.

00:12:09   Your feedback has been awesome. Very detailed.

00:12:12   Damn, I got lots of time. I got lots of attention for it.

00:12:16   This may not surprise you, I've prototyped at least one or maybe two apps.

00:12:21   Of course. Why not? That's a typical Tuesday, right?

00:12:25   Just like, "Hey, I have this idea. Why don't I try it out? Hey, great, there goes half a day."

00:12:30   I decide, "You know what I need to do to build this feature? I'm just scared of it because I don't know what it's going to look like.

00:12:36   I haven't designed it yet." So I'm usually just designing code, but maybe what I should do is I should design in paper.

00:12:42   And then I need to explore different ways of designing in paper and finding the right grid and the right dot grid that I need to within that.

00:12:51   You have to buy a new notebook, maybe some drafting pens.

00:12:54   Yeah, I thought about buying a notebook. The problem is the shipping.

00:12:56   It doesn't feel productive if you have to wait on shipping.

00:12:58   It's much more productive if I can just spend a while going through PDFs of printable guides and deciding which one is exactly right,

00:13:05   rather than just buying the new book that Studio Neat guys came out with, and then it'd be done.

00:13:12   That'd take five minutes. No, no, no, I need to really research this and make sure I'm doing it the right way.

00:13:20   I worked on other apps, which was fun, just like some of my other apps that had been slightly neglected.

00:13:26   I was like, "Oh, great. I need to work on them instead."

00:13:31   But honestly, I spent a while trying to find just the right music to listen to while I was trying to solve this problem, because clearly that's the problem.

00:13:39   Yeah, that's definitely the problem.

00:13:41   And now you have to also research headphones, streaming services, maybe get into the weird worlds of ASMR and other weird stuff that you could be listening to instead of music.

00:13:52   And it would help. Maybe it would help. Maybe that's my problem. I'm just listening to the wrong music.

00:14:00   Yeah, you could maybe work on your desk setup, like if you need to clean your desk or rearrange things.

00:14:06   Oh, that's the next thing on my list? That's number 17. Clean my office.

00:14:09   I mean, it is amazing how you can -- I will confess, my office is not really clean, but I have moved stuff around a lot.

00:14:18   Nothing is where it was at the beginning of the week. It's not really clean. It's just moved. It's just different.

00:14:24   I've gone upstairs and I've -- it's like, you know what I need? I need to take a break and maybe make a cup of coffee, get a snack.

00:14:31   Maybe it's blood sugar issues. Maybe that's why I can't focus and work on this thing. I need to have a nice snack and maybe get a little caffeine. Maybe that'll solve me.

00:14:39   I even bought some hardware. I got a new hard drive setup for our media at home.

00:14:44   You needed that.

00:14:46   I totally needed to do that. It is amazing how creative you can be when you're trying to avoid doing something.

00:14:54   All of those things that I just went through are things that I did and are sort of productive, sort of useful, but in reality, I'm not really so --

00:15:08   it's like lots of movement, not moving in the right direction. It's so frustrating when I start to actually self-reflect about it and see what I'm doing.

00:15:21   Because I feel like in some ways I really appreciated when I worked -- it feels like a lifetime ago, but back when I worked in a more traditional programming job

00:15:34   where I had a boss who would tell me to do something, even if I didn't want to do it, I could begrudgingly do it because I kind of had to.

00:15:45   Not that I was perfectly productive in that environment, and there were many times that I still found things to do to avoid doing it,

00:15:53   but there was certainly something powerful in having somebody at the end of the day being like, "Show me how far you've gotten on this feature."

00:16:01   And if I didn't have anything to show, that would reflect poorly on me, and I'd be embarrassed or feel like I hadn't been doing things right,

00:16:13   and it would be socially awkward, and I'll do a lot to avoid being socially awkward or avoid socially awkward situations.

00:16:19   And so I could work on it, and I could get things done in that way, but without that, without somebody who I'm accountable to for building something,

00:16:29   it's so easy to just come up with a reason to not. And the thing that is so rough, I think you mentioned this,

00:16:37   it feels like, from a physical perspective, it actually feels good, because you're able to get the --

00:16:46   I think the awkward thing is I probably get just as much immediate satisfaction from reorganizing my desk

00:16:54   as I will in two or three days when I finally finish this big redesign.

00:17:00   And that's kind of awkward, because it's not like it grows proportionally with the difficulty of the task.

00:17:08   If it did, in some ways I'd have this built-in incentive, like, "Oh man, once I solve this really big problem, I'll feel really, really good."

00:17:16   But the reality is, at least for myself, is I'll probably feel just as productive and just as a sense of accomplishment.

00:17:22   Maybe, like, I'll feel 10% more than I will for just moving stuff around on my desk and then not remembering where anything is.

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00:19:21   So I think one thing you've touched on is there's different value to how you spend your time, and there's value to you, and there's value to your customers, or your users, or your apps.

00:19:35   And there needs to be a balance of both, really. Like, you mentioned it feels great to clean up your desk and rearrange things, or do things in other apps.

00:19:46   But like, so in that way, you're kind of paying yourself there. You're doing something to satisfy yourself.

00:19:53   But your customers are getting nothing to very little from that.

00:19:58   Your customers and your apps also need their needs to be satisfied, and your business needs its needs to be satisfied.

00:20:07   So ultimately, the correct balance is both. And like, you know, in my case, I, again, I'm not great at this, but I have tried to do that myself, where some of the ways I'm procrastinating are adding features to the app that people actually want anyway.

00:20:25   You know, I'm not just doing the UI stuff. And also, I'm having to do things like that just to keep myself motivated to keep going at all.

00:20:34   Because otherwise, I would just fall into a big rut and just not get anything done for months, which has happened before, and will probably happen again.

00:20:41   But, you know, like, in order to avoid falling into a rut and doing nothing for a while, I have to do things that are interesting to me sometimes.

00:20:50   But I can do, like, you know, one of those a week, and then try to spend the rest of the week doing what I actually have to do.

00:20:57   And I feel like that's a good balance. If I only did things that weren't the big thing I had to do, then that big thing wouldn't get done.

00:21:05   And then I would be, like, you know, doing these interesting things that, you know, things like, oh, this would be a great time to adopt, you know, RX Swift or unit testing, or some other thing that Casey likes.

00:21:15   And, like, if I did that, like, that would be nice. That might be interesting, that might be satisfying, that might bring other benefits.

00:21:22   But if a major version of my app is being delayed while I, you know, mess around with other stuff like that, that's ultimately hurting the app.

00:21:31   And that's not going to make that big need go away. Like, you're still going to need to do the big thing.

00:21:37   You're still going to need to finally do the thing that you've been putting off. Now you're just doing it later.

00:21:41   So there is a balance to be struck, and you can't, it's like cue starvation or priority starvation, like, you can't totally ignore the big thing.

00:21:51   You have to eventually do it. What do you think are strategies to actually finally just do it?

00:21:57   Yeah, and I think that's the thing that I've been thinking about. In some ways, this is the thing that I love about having a podcast, right?

00:22:04   I started working in earnest on this feature that I've been putting off this morning, like a couple hours ago, when I decided that we were going to talk about it on the show.

00:22:13   And partly it's like, A, Not Everyone has a podcast that they can talk about and then, like, feel bad if they hadn't actually started.

00:22:20   But I think the key thing that I was realizing is, A, it's like the importance of being honest with ourselves.

00:22:26   Because as much as I would like to say, like, you can't just will yourself to be more productive or be more motivated.

00:22:34   Like, maybe that works for some people, but it certainly doesn't work for me.

00:22:38   And from my experience with most talking to other people, like, it is the kind of thing that you, all you can do is put yourself in an environment where you are likely to be motivated.

00:22:48   But you cannot, like, directly affect motivation itself. Like, it is somewhat more ephemeral in that way.

00:22:54   And so what you end up with are, like, what are things that you can do to try and make it, make yourself more motivated, or at the very least to short circuit the things that are unmotivating you?

00:23:06   And so, like, as an example, something that I honestly have started to do that I think has been very helpful in shortening the amount of time I spend doing, you know, these sort of these things that feel productive but aren't actually working towards my fundamental goals,

00:23:20   is to be just trying to be more mindful of what, when I'm doing that.

00:23:24   And so it's like being aware of, like, it was actually really productive for me to sit down and, you know, make this list of 19 things that I've done to avoid working on this feature.

00:23:34   Because now that it's a list, like, it feels less scary, and it feels more like it just, it's very, this concrete thing.

00:23:42   And I can choose to add something to that list, or I can work on the actual feature.

00:23:48   And at a certain point, adding another thing to the list feels worse than working on the feature.

00:23:54   And so that's like a productive thing to just be aware of when you're doing it and not end up just spending three days doing something, you know, work adding random features to the app as an avoidance mechanism, and not be aware that you're doing it and why you're doing it.

00:24:09   Because it's totally fine to do those things and to be like, you know, I don't want to work on that today.

00:24:13   I'm going to do this other random thing there, but at least then it's a conscious choice, at least it's like a thing that I'm choosing to do, rather than sort of doing, letting my, you know, sort of subconscious avoid the work on its own.

00:24:27   You know, it's like, if I make a choice, then at least that's slightly better.

00:24:32   And I think too, the other thing that I was, a strategy that I was thinking about when I was trying to think of like, wow, like what's the actual like, you know, the end advice to give at the end of this episode.

00:24:43   And I think the other thing is to try and understand why you don't want to do it.

00:24:48   Because, A, it's probably useful to make sure like, is this actually something that I need to do? Like, am I avoiding it because I don't think it's actually a good feature or because I don't think it's actually going to be useful or like I'm doing it for the wrong reason.

00:25:02   Like I'm adding this feature because I think it's like it's what all the cool kids are doing, but it's not really doesn't fit with the style of my app or something like that, for example.

00:25:10   Like if you're adding it right, you're adding this feature because you think Apple will love you because you're implementing a new API or something like if it's for a reason that's external like that, like make sure that it's you internally actually want to do it.

00:25:23   Because if you don't, like sometimes there are certainly things that are externally foisted on you that you have no choice about.

00:25:29   Like you have to file your taxes with the IRS every year, like otherwise really bad things happen.

00:25:34   But not implementing the hot new API, Apple isn't going to come knocking on your door in the same way.

00:25:41   So being aware of that and making sure that it is something that you need to do and you actually should do.

00:25:47   And if that is the case, then like what is it about it that makes it scary?

00:25:52   You know, like for me in this case, like what I've come to understand is that I just, what's mainly scared is that it felt like something that I couldn't wrap my arms around.

00:26:03   Like it was sort of this slightly too big problem.

00:26:05   And so to get started, like what I did this morning when I actually got started on working on it is I said, okay, I'm not going to worry about like this crazy complexity tree that I'm about to have to go down.

00:26:18   I'm just going to worry about the first step.

00:26:20   I'm just going to do this thing.

00:26:22   I'm going to get that going.

00:26:23   And then that was a lot less scary.

00:26:25   And then from here, you know, I'll implement the next screen and I'll implement the next screen.

00:26:29   And in the back of my mind, like there's that little part of me that says, you know, Dave, there's probably going to be like 20, 30 screens you're going to have to implement to make this work.

00:26:38   Like, isn't that crazy and scary?

00:26:40   And that's just like consciously saying to myself, it's like, it's okay.

00:26:43   I'm just going to worry about this one right now.

00:26:45   I know. And that made it a little bit better for me.

00:26:47   It made me just it's like it's a little bit silly that I'm you know, I'm a grown man, but I have to like coach myself through doing my job.

00:26:54   But that's where I am.

00:26:56   And so like whatever, that's that's who I am and I found that it works.

00:27:01   And you know, to break it down into something that's slightly less scary when I was able to realize that the thing that made it scary was how big it was.

00:27:08   Yeah, that's a really good way to look at it, because, you know, I think part of one of the biggest challenges of indie work is that, as you mentioned earlier, like the boss effect goes away mostly.

00:27:19   You know, there are external deadline imposers like, you know, when the new iPhone comes out and stuff like that.

00:27:25   But for the most part, like the boss goes away.

00:27:27   And so you have to really get to know yourself and get to know, you know, like the same basically what your bosses always did when you had jobs, which is like figure out how you work, figure out what you're motivated by, what you're not motivated by, and figure out how to manage your motivation levels and how to get good work out of you.

00:27:49   Your bosses, you know, our bosses throughout our jobs always had to figure that out about us.

00:27:54   Now that is gone and we have to figure that out about ourselves.

00:27:57   And we have to start learning how, you know, how we fail, what motivates us, what doesn't, and how to get good work out of ourselves.

00:28:05   And because there's no one else to do it then.

00:28:07   You know, when you're on your own the way we are, like you have to be the person to motivate yourself in some way and manage the way you work and find a way to get good output out of yourself despite your flaws.

00:28:23   Yeah, and I think too it's the importance of not beating yourself up about it as you learn and discover and are able to sort of better manage yourself.

00:28:34   Because I know that is something that I have struggled with a lot is that I feel like my biggest imposter syndrome moments come at these times when I am struggling with motivation and I feel like it's like, wow, I did not get anything done this week.

00:28:49   Like, who am I kidding? There's no way I'm going to be a successful developer. There's no way I'm going to be able to make a living of this.

00:28:56   This is the things that I tell myself now, eight years on, into this process.

00:29:00   And I think it's the importance of not beating yourself up about it. This is just the process.

00:29:05   Just try and be patient with yourself and understand that this is a process you have to actively manage.

00:29:11   It doesn't happen on its own. It's not like this magic thing and there are people who just are always productive.

00:29:16   It's like the people who are probably the most productive are just the people who understand what makes them unproductive the most and have strategies around minimizing those things over time.

00:29:26   And that's what makes them productive is by just being aware of themselves and managing themselves accordingly.

00:29:34   Thanks for listening everybody. We'll talk to you next week.

00:29:37   Bye.

00:29:38   [ Silence ]