Under the Radar

279: Rest and Recovery


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development. I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is usually not longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So Dave, you've been working your butt off in the last week, right? Tell me everything you've been working on, because everything about life is all about work and productivity, right?

00:00:19   I've done no work in the last week. No work whatsoever. And that is, yeah, you're pulling us into the... It's a funny topic, but I think it was something that we were just chatting before we got on about, that I feel like this time of year especially I feel this, but it's in general a perennially useful topic, but it's the reality of taking a break from work is essential, but incredibly difficult.

00:00:48   I find. Or something to feel good about doing, to feel like you're justified in doing, that you're being sort of like, I don't know, that you have to... Sometimes I feel like I need to earn it, or I need to be something that I've worked towards.

00:01:02   But overall, it's a difficult thing. And specifically, the thing that I think is useful to the time back here is how, especially being solo indie developers that you and I are, and it's like, we talk... Under the Radar is a show about independent iOS app development.

00:01:19   And that can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. But for us, the way that manifests is that we are kind of like solo indies where we work to a large degree by ourselves in terms of on the technical side of things that we're the only ones opening up Xcode, putting things into it, we're the ones doing that.

00:01:36   And so, a consequence of that, and something that I find very difficult or complicated to navigate is this, in the back of your mind, then there's always this feeling that as soon as I stop working, all work will cease and will not continue until I come back to work.

00:01:54   And that's, it's kind of like, it makes me think a bit of, you know, I don't know why, but I know why, but I quite enjoy watching the like, how things are made videos. Like I used to watch these like years ago on the Discovery Channel, and now you'll like find them on YouTube or things.

00:02:09   But you know, these things like, you have these big factories with assembly lines and things and you see moving along. And in all of those, there's often this like this big red button that I imagine is, you know, if something dangerous or scary or problematic is happening, like any worker can hit this big red button.

00:02:23   And the whole production line just stops. And I imagine it's a pretty dramatic thing when that happens. And you know, it's a serious thing. But it's, you know, it's important that it's there to make sure everyone's, you know, safe and being taken care of.

00:02:35   But in being a solo independent developer, if I anytime I stopped working at all, it's like I've just reached up and push this giant red button, because nothing else is going to happen until, you know, until I come back and start working again.

00:02:48   It's like the only small benefit I have in this is back in the days when I used to do consulting kind of work, the when I stopped working, my income would also cease when I was a consultant.

00:02:59   And so that is doubly scary, at least the being app based. The nature, you know, to some degree, my sort of the actual bit, you know, productivity of the of the business itself is unaffected on a day to day basis by whether I'm working or not.

00:03:15   At least I have that going for me. But from a is work being done, is the apps being moved forward or updates being happened, am I learning, am I improving?

00:03:21   As soon as I stop, all work stops. And so it can be very hard to feel comfortable pushing the red button. But it's also something that's kind of important to do.

00:03:31   Yeah, I have felt this myself, because, you know, we've both been independent workers for a pretty long time now. One of the I mean, there's look, there's tons of advantages. That's why we do it. And we're very lucky to be able to do it in general. But I think it's important to not, you know, cover yourself in disclaimers too much in the sense that like, even if you're in a fairly fortunate position, like being able to work for yourself, that doesn't mean that you don't have any challenges, or that everything is all roses all the time.

00:03:57   You know, I think it's important to acknowledge that, yeah, this is great that we can do this. But, you know, there are also challenges. And so for me, one of the challenges has always been managing my expectations of my own productivity.

00:04:09   And this is not something I have solved at all. This is something that, that haunts me constantly and is constantly in my mind. And we talked about it a little bit with the falling behind episode a few episodes back.

00:04:22   But I have a lot of I put a lot of pressure on myself to be productive. And part of that is just, you know, I value my work and how my work is viewed. And I never want to be viewed as, oh, yeah, that guy, he made this app, but he's not really maintaining anymore.

00:04:41   He's just coasting. Like, I never want to be viewed as that. And I often am viewed as that because my update pace is not super fast these days. And so that bothers me like crazy.

00:04:51   And also, I'm afraid of losing what I've built. Like, I don't want my app to lose its status. I don't want to lose the income it makes. I don't want it to decline. I don't want to lose what I've built.

00:05:05   And so it's those two mental pressures have have combined with me to have me put a lot of pressure on myself to be productive all the time. Like really just don't stop working on this app. How dare you not have worked on this app for a week. Like, that's that's I get a lot of that internal dialogue and that's not great.

00:05:23   Sure. I think one of the causes for this or at least exacerbating factors for this is that when you are indie, when you work for yourself, you don't have the structure that a regular full time job puts on you in terms of hours, days and vacations.

00:05:41   You know, when you work for yourself, weekends don't really matter for the most part except like those are days that, you know, that, you know, maybe the conditions around you in the world will be different. Maybe your kids will be home from school or the post office will be closed or whatever.

00:05:56   But like your work, if you're an indie, oftentimes it doesn't matter what day it is. It also doesn't matter what time it is, again, except for environmental variables around you. But like your work, you kind of are maybe not expected to work 24/7, but certainly you could work 24/7 in the sense that work could pop up at any moment or you could extend the hours to whatever you need if you're in the middle of something.

00:06:19   So there are no natural time bounds. And then also, and I think this is a bigger one and kind of more relevant to the discussion today, there's no vacation day tracking. There's no like, you know, you don't get all the holidays off as an indie because there is really no concept of like when you are given time off because there is no one to give you time off or to, as you said, or to cover for you when you are not working.

00:06:43   And then also, like, you know, at most full-time jobs, you have some concept of you are given a certain number of vacation days every year or every month or whatever, and those accumulate and you're expected to use them in a healthy functioning job.

00:06:57   You are usually not only expected to, sometimes you are required to use them in the most healthy functioning jobs, although that's getting less and less common these days in America.

00:07:05   But you have this concept of like you are accumulating, you are earning vacation time, and then you are expected to use it. And when you're an indie, that doesn't exist.

00:07:14   Now the good thing is, I mean, again, we are generally speaking from a position of being fortunate by being indies, the good thing is there's no one telling you that you can't use eight days, you've only earned seven.

00:07:25   That doesn't exist as an indie, which is awesome, it's one of the biggest reasons to be an indie. The problem is, as you mentioned, you can take days off here and there, and it's fine.

00:07:36   But if you take too many days off, your work will suffer, and it's kind of like a longer-term lagging indicator.

00:07:44   If you take two weeks off, if your app is just sitting there in the app store doing okay, and you don't have any servers or support burdens that might crop up in the meantime, if you just take, hell, take a month, you can take a whole month off.

00:07:58   And your app is probably going to be okay, and your business is probably going to be okay, and your customers will probably be okay.

00:08:04   But if you take off a month every two months, then your overall pace will be substantially slower.

00:08:15   If you start only working one or two weeks every two months or every three months, which kind of feels like my life recently, there's lots going on.

00:08:25   But if you only work for short bursts out of huge long spans, then again, your productivity overall or the long term, that's going to have long-term costs.

00:08:37   So it's really hard to keep those things in balance when you have this kind of loose lagging indicator and no immediate consequences for if you're doing too little work.

00:08:50   But also, the effects of doing too much work also work the same way.

00:08:56   If you are working your butt off constantly and you're never giving yourself a chance to stop and breathe and rest and recover, you're going to burn out or have health problems or both.

00:09:09   And that also, that won't hit you immediately. You can overwork yourself for weeks or months or years before it really catches up to you.

00:09:21   And then when it does catch up to you, it seems like this came out of nowhere, but you can be like, "Oh well, in retrospect, I guess I'm super burnt out for all of these reasons that I've been pushing myself too hard the last X years or whatever."

00:09:32   So that's also this loose lagging indicator. And so it's really hard to keep this stuff in balance and it's really hard to keep a healthy perspective on yourself and your own work ethic.

00:09:48   Like, am I doing enough? Am I working enough? Is it okay for me to take this week or this month or this year off? That's really, really hard to manage and to adjust as an indie.

00:10:02   Yeah, and I think it's why it's structurally the thing that I've found is that I need to, it's a funny thing to say, but I feel like I have to force myself to rest and to take breaks and to sort of make sure that I'm not doing too much or going too long with a period of sustained focus and attention to my work.

00:10:26   And that's for a variety of reasons and that can also be the importance of taking rest insofar as making sure that I'm focusing on the other aspects of my life that I care about.

00:10:36   Or that could be my family, my health, my whatever. There are so many other parts to being a person that so often work can feel pressing and intimidating because it has relatively high, it has higher immediate consequences.

00:10:53   I think I completely agree. One of the biggest challenges in this thing is finding is that on both sides, the sort of indicator is so trailing that the implications of it becomes so far in the future and is so hard sometimes to track into.

00:11:09   And it reminds me of something that I recently was thinking of where I think about the concept of sort of burnout. And I feel like in some ways when I was, you know, sort of younger in my career, I had this concept that you were like you were burned out, or you weren't.

00:11:24   That it was this binary state that you would sort of somehow transition between. It's like, Oh, now that now I'm burned out and I need to figure out what would do better, do sort of, you know, do something to be better.

00:11:36   And then, Oh, I'm not burned out. And as long as I was in the not burned out state, everything was fine.

00:11:41   It's like as a light on your dashboard.

00:11:43   Yeah, it's like, as long as the check engine light isn't on, the engine's fine.

00:11:48   Right? Like that's essentially the mindset that I had. And it's, I think increasingly it's the understanding that it's like it is much more a measurement of like slope.

00:11:58   And it's like, is the slope increasing or decreasing is the bigger thing that is much more relevant for sort of where you are and the manifestations of something like being burnt out in terms of being unable in if I was going to define that as sort of being in a physical or mental state such that you are unable to work.

00:12:18   Say, like if that was the more extreme version of it.

00:12:21   It's like that is a manifestation of a sustained period of negative slope.

00:12:26   And it's doesn't because but it's, you know, it says the thing that I need to try and pay attention to in myself is what is my what is my slope, not where am I on an absolute basis because the slope of that is the important thing like if it's level or slightly up the work great.

00:12:42   If it's negative, I eventually I'm going to have to pay for this. And I think forcing myself to take breaks into to rest is something that you can do to kind of have these little checkpoints where you can potentially have a discontinuity in your, you know, your, I guess your burn out in this line where you can reset up higher.

00:13:03   If your slope is still negative, that's not great, you're still going to eventually be heading to a bad place but you can at least have these checkpoints to either allow you to change the slope, or at least to push yourself farther away from a place that the impact of that is going to be more problematic and obviously you prefer to change the slope but if you can't or if it's more complicated or, you know, like, it's not that straight.

00:13:24   That's so much easier said than done. At the very least, forcing yourself to take rest and breaks allows you to have these buffers against the consequences of that being truly problematic.

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00:15:17   So I can make this a little bit more specific and tangible about an experience I just had that we alluded to at the beginning of the show. So this last summer, I found the development cycle for Iowa 17 just felt more challenging, more difficult, left me with more kind of like just ambient, I don't know, like weight on me. And I'm still working on exactly what that is. I think it's just it's one of these things where...

00:15:41   I mean, I can guess they massively did a ton of stuff with widgets, and you're all about widgets, and all of your apps are all about widgets. Like, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

00:15:50   Yeah, and I think there's that, but it's also there's the difficulty, it's the there's a certain amount of accumulation that happens with our jobs, that it isn't because like part of my focus was like, okay, I'm going to focus on interactive widgets, say, but doing that doesn't mean that I can't now I can ignore all of the other aspects of a big iOS update of doing compatibility testing, of trying out different devices, of making sure that my old features and old aspects of my applications continue to work well and function well on the new thing.

00:16:19   And so there's an accumulative process to this in a way that if I had just started from, you know, a blank slate writing an interactive widgets app, it would be simpler than trying to carry an older one forward. But regardless, as relevant for this discussion, it was a challenging summer, I let this sort of got to the end of it and, you know, got where I wanted, but it was challenging.

00:16:42   And so this is where like I recently got back from a break I took and this is one of these things where my wife is amazing because she essentially forced me to do this. I was felt really funny about doing it. But I was like, you know, you just need to go. And like my favorite thing, my most restorative thing is hiking. So I spent

00:17:00   sort of three or four days hiking up in the Lake District in the UK. And it was lovely. And it was one of those things that the most fundamentally challenging and interesting thing about this experience is something that I've happened to me many times over the years is like the reality of rest is you don't know how much you needed it until you take it.

00:17:23   That as much as I would have said, Oh, I think you know, it's like, Oh, from a bit run down, things are, you know, things like the thing things are a bit difficult to whatever it would have been. It isn't until like the second day of not being in a place that you are consciously and intentionally resting your mind and your brain and not thinking about work and not looking at, you know, developer news and not paying attention to things not even trying like not even to think of ideas.

00:17:47   And inevitably, like I think of ideas or thing features or things that I want to do and whenever I go in this kind of arrest, something that I find is super helpful is I will like have a, you know, my to do list system, whatever that is very front like very few apps on my phone are kind of on my front page except for I have one that's just for like, you know, collecting ideas because I just want to if they're in my head, great, have the idea, write it down, then don't look at it.

00:18:11   And it's like a few days of that and you start to be like, Oh, man, yeah, I needed this. This was this was essential. Like I was not in a good place and in terms of just like getting stuck in a rut that is really challenging to get out of and it's like, you know, after a couple of days of hiking in the mountains, it's like I felt so much lighter and fresher and, you know, it's one of those challenging things to where I think it's easy for me to understand the way that physical fitness works where like,

00:18:40   if you work, if I start jogging, and jog regularly, I will get typically get better at jogging like that is just like the way it works. But mental work is somewhat more challenging in that because it's the more mental work I do the find the more sort of worn down my thinking is and the less able I'm sort of to do some of the really nuanced, thoughtful kind of important work that I'm able to do that I can do this kind of thing.

00:19:09   To do that I can do this kind of basic level of competence that is almost more automatic. Like there's, I've been doing this long enough. I can do some amount of programming without thinking about it, but I can't do my best work without thinking about it.

00:19:22   If that makes any sense, like that is a tricky balance that, like in order for me to do really good, awesome work, my brain needs to be rested, it needs to be a sort of firing on all cylinders and able to do that and it's just something that it's hard.

00:19:35   It's hard to identify myself ahead of time that I'm in that place that I'm not thinking as clearly I'm not thinking as creatively I'm not able to do that kind of thing but it's like I definitely found if you after a few days of walking around like, Oh, oh yeah, this is nice I should have done this sooner,

00:19:51   or at least this was essential and a very important thing to do. And it was, and yet again a example of reinforcing this idea in my mind that's like, I have to force myself to rest, because if I don't I will not be able to do my best work, and ultimately that's like the thing that I'm striving towards.

00:20:07   Wow, that's really good. Yeah, this is an area that I'm not good at. I really am not. And one of my favorite things about doing this show with you is that you are much better at being introspective and managing this kind of stuff than I am.

00:20:23   And so for you know, this is kind of like my developer therapy session with my therapist Dave who and that we happen to be doing it in public. So thank you for that. Because yeah, I, I really have a very hard time managing my kind of my mental conditioning, or my mental, you know, energy or rest state.

00:20:47   I'm constantly overworking or underworking myself in some kind of, you know, pattern like, you know, if life has required me to be somewhere where I can't work, but I want to work like my brain wants to be, you know, stimulated and productive, but I can't for some reason, like maybe you know, we're on like, you know, a family trip or having to like, you know, do some logistical stuff, like, Oh, I have to go move, you know, these boxes from here to here or whatever, like that kind of stuff.

00:21:14   If my brain wants to be working, I'm just like, I'm like, championing the bit to get back to like my computer, my desk, my big monitor, so I can like really like get some great work done.

00:21:24   And there's so many times in my life where I feel like, man, my brain is really not happy. I really want to be working right now. But then there's other times where like, I have so much work to do.

00:21:34   And, you know, like, for instance, during iOS beta season, and you know, as the fall approaches and like, Oh, here, this, we have a deadline, we got to get this stuff out the door. And but you know, if, if I'm like mentally tired, I'll get it done if I have to, but it is not good work, as you were saying, like, it's not it isn't my best work.

00:21:52   It is not certainly, you know, happy work to do at that point. And so it's very, very difficult for me to manage it. And I think one of the greatest questions to ask yourself to try to manage this or to have to have your developer therapist ask you on a podcast is,

00:22:09   what happens if you don't do the thing that you think you have to do by this deadline? Who is forcing you to do this? Like, what happens if you just miss the deadline? Or, you know, longer term, you know, suppose you have, you know, an app that where there is no firm deadline, but suppose there's some task like, like what I'm facing, like, Oh, I have this super old code base.

00:22:31   I'm trying to modernize it, rewrite a bunch of stuff and Swift and Swift async and Swift UI and all this stuff. But it's worth asking the question like, well, what happens if you don't do that? Like, why, why are you putting the pressure on yourself to do that?

00:22:44   And I think a lot of people get caught in a bad pattern of like, and we talked about this in different ways before, but of putting expectations on themselves that their customers are actually really not demanding too much and/or is not worth the time to do.

00:23:03   So, and this hits indies so hard. I see this all the time where somebody with an indie app will spend like a year taking what was a successful app and trying to make like a 2.0 version, like, you know, trying to make like a big update and they spend a ton of time, but the market doesn't really reward that.

00:23:24   The market is not really needing the things they were adding or they spend a lot of time on things that the market only cares a little bit about and they spend a ton of time on those things.

00:23:33   And there are so many aspects of that in development where we put the pressure on ourselves to be like, we have to do this.

00:23:40   We have what you know, we're going to, we're going to fall behind and we're going to, and we're going to lose all of our business or lose our customers or not, or somehow not be serving them well enough if we don't adopt some modern framework or whatever.

00:23:53   And then we spend all this time doing that and then it turns out the customers are like, yeah, we didn't actually need that. What we really wanted you to do is add this one little feature over here that you didn't, that you wouldn't do.

00:24:02   Like, there's so many times when we have that disconnect. And so I feel like also, like, this is a whole separate episode, I'm sure, but like, there's also a part of it where a part of this management of rest and overworking and expectations where a lot of times we're working on stuff that we don't even need to be working on.

00:24:19   And so really to be a true, like kind of master indie for time management, a huge part of that is the discipline to not spend too much time on time sinks that are not really worth it.

00:24:33   Not spend too much time on these, like, just morasses of, just like, things like, I'm going to rewrite my entire intense extension again, this time with the newest language. And then you get to the end and your customers see basically no difference.

00:24:50   And you put all this pressure on yourself to have worked on that that whole time and then you get to the end and it's like, oh, your customers are like, oh, you kind of broke it on my iPhone SE. And that's about it.

00:24:59   Like, there's no feedback, there's no reward at the end of that. So, you know, so often, we are putting all this pressure on ourselves and burning ourselves out doing stuff that really we didn't even need to be doing.

00:25:10   Sure. Yeah, and I think it's the aspect of this that is instructive as it relates to taking breaks and, you know, sort of resting our minds in is that it allows us, I think, to—well, the experience I had recently, like a couple weeks ago, is like, I've been working on my, like,

00:25:27   I big summer to-do list that I've been churning through and working on and, you know, I have ideas for things and I'm adding into this list. And I've been just kind of grinding away on that for months. And then I go take a break, and I come back and I had a few days to just kind of, you know, sort of as I'm getting back into work, and I look at this list, I'm like, why am I doing this?

00:25:45   Like, this is—it's like, it's so hard to have the right perspective if you are in it consistently day to day. You can't—you have to, you know, sort of, you have to be outside of it in order to really see it. Like, this is just very much—it applies in so many parts of life.

00:26:02   But I think in this case, it can be so important in understanding, are you working on the right things? And are you pushing them in the right direction? Is so much—you need to take breaks to be able to do that. And it's like one of the most productive things about like, I took, you know, four days off work.

00:26:18   And then I came back and I had like a two hour session of sitting down and writing down what I think are the most important features for my apps that are going to move them forward in the biggest way, and then starting to work on those instead of whatever it was.

00:26:33   I don't even know what I was working on before I left. Like, I tried to not even think about that. Because if it's not at the top of the list of the features and, you know, sort of tasks that is going to—are going to move my apps forward in the biggest ways, like, that's probably not the most important thing for me to be doing right now.

00:26:49   Like, I should be focused on these things. And just the importance of having sort of being outside of yourself to be able to look at that. And I think certainly one aspect of that is the reality of the sharper thinking.

00:27:04   But it's also just an element of giving yourself space. And I think it is one of those funny things where, when I think about just the topic of sharper thinking, like how it is important to understand too that there is a element of rest that is actually requires intentional effort,

00:27:22   and not working isn't rest. That true rest requires an intentional period of time where the objective is rest, not like if I'm just busy with home stuff, doing other errands or other tasks, I'm not resting.

00:27:39   I'm not working in the sense of work is like the thing that I do to move, you know, move my career forward or to make income or those kinds of things. Like, I'm not working in that way. But if what I'm doing is not an activity that is restorative and, you know, is something that is only putting

00:27:56   you know, sort of making deposits, if it is something else that is also making withdrawals, if it's, you know, family, like going on a family vacation can be lovely, but it's unlikely for it to be quite as restorative and impactful in that way as if you say, I'm going to do whatever that activity is, like, who knows what it's like, we're all different. For me, it's hiking, maybe it's playing video games, maybe it's, you know, I don't know, I don't know, everyone's different. But finding that thing that is actually restorative and have spending period of time intentionally being restored

00:28:23   is just something that I think is important to keep in mind to that just not doing the work is not being, you know, be taking taking a proper break that is going to restore and improve you. If you're busy with other things, you know that you're still in that you're still sort of digging yourself into a bigger hole, that the important thing is that you have to really make an effort to think about yourself, think about what is restorative to you, and then intentionally do that. And that's when you get I think the biggest impact from this kind of time.

00:28:52   That's a really good point. And I love that, you know, what is like restorative to you is walking up a mountain. That's fantastic.

00:29:00   Yeah, it doesn't matter what that is, but you just got to find it. And, you know, imagine we all we all would know what that is, if someone asked them, like, what is the thing that is most restorative to you? And once you know what that is, go and do that and make sure you're doing that regularly enough to, you know, stay out of the red, I suppose.

00:29:17   Thanks for listening, everybody. And we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:20   Bye.

00:29:21   Thank you.