This week, I turned Bangkok’s public transportation system – the BTS Skytrain, into my personal remote office. I did it as a test, to see if deliberately creating this type of work environment would harness my focus and multiply my productivity.
Given the results, I’d say that this may be the most important “productivity hack” that I’ve discovered – and I’ve been testing ways to improve my focus and productivity for the last 9 years. It’s a bold assertion to make, but hear me out. The takeaways and lessons from this experiment have been eye-opening.
First of all, why would I deliberately set up my office on a public commuter train in the first place? Why did this seem like a good idea?
I always love to discover unconventional, out-of-the-box ways to improve upon the conventional way of doing things. Lately lots of people have been calling these “hacks” – unusual tactics to gain extra amounts of leverage. Leverage in this sense is defined as “
I have been traveling pretty much full-time since 2009. It’s been amazing and exciting, and I feel like I’ve already packed a dozen lives into one based on all of the places I’ve been, people I’ve met, and things I’ve been able to do. But staying organized and productive in an ever-transient environment can be, understandably, quite a challenge. I support myself by working from my laptop, and the faster I get my work done the more time I have to enjoy my life and my travels. I’m also under constant pressure to increase my output – write more blog posts, create more ebooks, record more podcasts, take on more clients. Getting as much work done in as little time as possible is very important to me.
I’ve found that I get a ton of work done whenever I’m commuting (trains, planes, and even buses). And I know I’m not the only one – writers have long noted that they often do their best writing from trains. Scot Turrow is an example. A multiple best-selling author, Turow wrote the manuscripts for his crime dramas while commuting to his attorney job in London.
But again – the question is, why? Why this silly notion of a “commuting office?” I’ve spent some time reflecting on the reasons. There seems to be some psychological boost to know that I’m still being productive, even while commuting. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m physically bound to one location for a set of time, unable to go anywhere else or engage in any distractions. Sometimes we just need to stay put. With no other options we have to focus and be productive because there’s simply nothing else to do. Perhaps there’s also a psychological high (albeit a self-righteous one) of knowing I’m getting work done while other passengers simply “kill time” playing Candy Crush or liking photos on their Facebook and Instagram feeds.
Depending on where you live, you could spend a lot of time commuting. In a big city like Bangkok, it takes a long time to get from one side of the city to the other. On any given day, you could easily spend an hour or two in transit. If you’re a digital nomad, you could be missing a big opportunity by not taking advantage of the time you spend traveling from place to place. Whatever the case, that time should be used productively.
Wouldn’t it be nice to gain back an hour or two each day, and increase your productive output at the same time?
For these reasons I decided to try a little experiment, and test whether or not the commuting office really would boost my productivity.
But before I share the details, a bit of backstory as to what provided the impetus for this experiment…
Productivity Lost, Productivity Regained
For weeks my focus had sunk. I was spending more and more hours working, but getting less and less done. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, though I can point to possible culprits.
The launch of my book. I thought that finally finishing my book and hitting “Publish” would be a huge weight off my chest. Turns out it wasn’t. Publishing the book brought with it an enormous pressure to “crush the launch.” I made a ton of mistakes during the launch, and things were far from perfect, but I worked my butt off. I scheduled a ton of podcast and radio show interviews, and because of the time difference between Thailand and the US, was forced to squeeze in some really unusual times. The most difficult was the 3 am interview I did with Entrepreneur on Fire.
Before my official launch of the book, I worked for weeks to record the audio book, working late hours at night, after all the world had gone silent. I became a martyr to my work, but in a good way. I wanted to give every possible last effort into making the launch of my first book as successful as possible. But after a couple of months of this, the overwork and long hours started to take their toll… and my own internal resistance grew stronger and stronger.
Being bound to one location. During these last 10 months of traveling and living the nomad life, it’s been rare that I’ve remained in any country for longer than one month. I’ve now been in Bangkok for two months. I’ve also been to Bangkok 5 times already, lived here twice before, and have missed the excitement of being somewhere new.
The banality of the mundane routine – doing the same thing over and over each day – combined with the fact that I’ve been working my ass off for the book launch, took a blow on my motivation and work ethic. I’ve been able to mitigate this ennui to some extent by taking small weekend trips outside of Bangkok (first to Pattaya, Hua Hin, and Krabi).
Lesson: if you’re settled in to one location, try and get out of town at two or three times per month, even if it’s just for the weekend. It’s an easy to break the routine, refresh your mind and spirit, and prepare yourself to hit the workweek hard.
If you’re a traveling nomad, you can set up in a condo in a new city for a few months, and list the condo on AirBnB from the first day you move in. When someone requests to book the condo, it frees you up to take small trips out of the city for a few days, and the person who rents from you basically pays for your trip. That way, you can have your cake and eat it too. After, you can return back to your condo.
Struggling to find a good workplace each day. As a digital nomad, my “office” keeps changing. Every single day I face the challenge of finding a reliable place where I can sit down and have an insanely productive day 100% of the time.
The main culprits for my loss in productivity were: stress and overwork, boring routine, and no solid workplace.
Turning the Skytrain into my office solved two of these issues (stress and workplace), and micro-travel (weekend trips) solved the other (boring routine). The cause of my stress stemmed from always having more things on my to-do list than I could accomplish. When I began turning the train into my workplace, I was shocked at how quickly I was able to get the most important items on my list done. Suddenly, my whole day opened up, and I had a newfound abundance of free time which was completely new (and very cool). I also experienced a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment once things were getting done, which alleviated my stress.
Now, to transition into the specifics..
I began my experiment at the Wongwian Yai stop in Bangkok (near my condo), and bought the lowest-priced train ticket for 15 Baht (less than 50 cents). Since I never once exited from any of the other BTS stations, it didn’t matter how many stops I traveled, so long as I finished at the same station (or one stop away) from where I started.
I began by taking the first train to Bang Wa, the last stop of the Silom train line. Since I started just after noon and was headed away from the city centre, I had almost the entire car to myself. Then I got off on the last stop, and jumped on a train headed the other way. I disembarked at Saphan Taksin station, switched trains, and headed back once again to Bang Wa.
I continued this routine, perhaps about 4 or 5 times. No one seemed to care that I was working on my laptop in the train; most of the other passengers were glued to digital devices of their own.
And let me tell you, from the moment I took a seat and the train set off, I was perhaps the most focused I’ve ever been. I was in the zone. My fingers seemed to take on a new energy as they typed away frantically. The worlds flowed out fluidly. Any mental blocks or urges to procrastinate had been removed.
On Wednesday, my schedule looked like this:
8:30am – 9:30am record podcast interview
9:30am – breakfast
10:00am – 11:00am swim in my condo’s pool, write today’s to-do lists
11:30am – First lunch
12:00am – 2:00pm work on the Skytrain
2:15pm – Second lunch
In those two hours of focused productivity on the Skytrain, I was able to write more than 1,700 words per hour, coming in with a grand total of 3,471 words. I wrote the majority of this post (2,473 words) on the Skytrain, and completed the vast majority of it in less than 20 minutes. I also put together the finishing touches for two new e-books I’ve been working on.
On Thursday, I returned to the Skytrain and in an hour and a half churned out another 2,100 words. When you consider that many writers struggle to write just 1,000 words per DAY (or even just 100), this scenario is a game-changer.
By the way, if you’re a writer who struggles with productivity, I highly recommend you check out this post I wrote last year about eight techniques that can improve your writing skill.
It’s an extremely cool feeling to work for just two hours and have your entire day’s work done. Now, instead of spending my afternoon stressing and procrastinating until the evening, I’m able to focus on fun stuff – like hitting the gym, visiting the park, or grabbing a drink with friends.
Unfortunately, one downside of my workspace that distracted me slightly were the noise from advertisements. The BTS has televisions in every car looping the most annoying commercials over and over again: ads for Chang beer, hair straighteners, skin creams, hair gel, and on and on. The noise from the ads tended to interrupt my focus from time to time and made it more difficult to collect my thoughts. iTunes and headphones did help to mitigate this setback to a certain extent.
Sit in the section of the train that is the least crowded. This may seem obvious. In the case of Bangkok’s Skytrain, the center of the train is always the least crowded, because the entrances and exits to each station are located at either end.
Start during off-peak hours. A big part of success as a self-employed entrepreneur or nomad is avoiding “herd” behavior. This means avoiding rush hour, when everyone heads to and from work. A great time to try something like this is between 10am – 3pm. Also, during these hours trains leading towards the city centre always seem to be more crowded than ones that head away from the centre. This disparity evens out at 5pm, obviously, when the employees head home.
Don’t do this for too long. Ideally, you want to “fly under the radar.” The BTS stations here in Bangkok are lined with security officers; you don’t want them to suspect that you’re up to anything strange. Working on your laptop in the train is fine, but if they see multiple times going back and forth from the same station, they might suspect something weird is going on.
Isn’t There Something “Weird” About This?
What is ‘weird’ and what is ‘normal’ is entirely subject to your own beliefs. Besides a few looks, no one really cared that I was working on my laptop while commuting on the train. Most passengers are busy staring at their own digital devices – smartphones and tablets – to care what you’re doing. Stop caring what other people think. Tim Ferriss, in the 4 Hour Workweek, recommends laying down on the floor in a public place as an exercise in getting out of your comfort zone and not giving a shit what other people might think.
Take it from me: There’s a certain sense of satisfaction when you defy conventional norms, experiment on your own, and find a better of way of doing things. It’s completely awesome.
Fear of other people’s perceptions of you is one of the most disempowering things in the world. As long as you don’t hurt anyone, I recommend leading a life doing exactly what you want without influence from others. Try it and tell me how refreshing it feels.
Plus, what’s the cost of a little deviation and experimentation outside of the norm? Absolutely nothing. My best advice is to do what works best for you and become comfortable with being misunderstood.
Even if you’re not keen to the idea of working on your laptop from trains or buses: take the very valuable lesson. It’s important to take note which environments you work best in. When you have to sit down and work, deliberately engineer settings and situations that force you into being your most productive.
Another important takeaway I’ve gotten from this: I’ve found it far more productive to work without wi-fi than with it. Internet connectivity is a huge Pandora’s box, and the bane of many a writer. I’m far more focused when I mentally “un-plug” the option to browse the internet or social media. And there’s no reason you really need wi-fi to work, outside of research or uploading files. I found I can even get through e-mail faster by writing out each e-mail that needs to be sent in to a Word document and then copying and pasting the messages into Gmail once I have a connection.
You might be more productive working inside of a staircase than at Starbucks.
My overall takeaway from this? I’m freakin’ excited. I’ve discovered a new and original “hack” – a sort of secret weapon – for dramatically boosting my productivity, and harnessing my focus when I really need it free from distractions. I plan on employing the lessons learned from this experiment to get even more done in the days, weeks, and months ahead.