Work habits while traveling

Brian Hollar writes to me:

You spend quite a bit of time traveling and seem to remain highly productive while doing so. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share your work habits while you are on the road? I’ve read several interviews with you about your work habits, but am particularly interested in what is the Tyler Cowen productivity function while on the go?

My biggest piece of advice is simply to get something written every day.  No matter what, whether you are traveling or not.  No matter where you are or what you are otherwise doing.  The enemy of academic or writing productivity is “days spent doing nothing,” not “I didn’t get enough written today.”

Another piece of advice is to try what I call “the work vacation.”  Go somewhere — perhaps somewhere dangerous or disgusting — and simply plan to spend your full, normal work/writing day there.  Don’t try to see any sights or to meet any locals.  Of course you’ll end up going for walks and the like and see and meet them anyway.  But with zero pressure and more spontaneously, and in the meantime think of all that work you are getting done.  By the end of the trip it will feel like a full vacation anyway, that’s how silly your memory is.

And to address some of Brian’s specific questions (from later in the email):

I prefer physical books and printed paper to Kindle, and will pack a bigger bag to accommodate them.  I always bring a laptop and an iPad, always.  I’ll keep up with Twitter, on my iPad, during my downtime while walking around a foreign locale.  Most of my writing I do early morning and late evening.  I don’t keep any notes about my travels, except what I write on MR.  It is always possible to travel without making many plans in advance, except for a few weird holiday seasons (e.g., China) when you shouldn’t be traveling anyway.


How about then posting one of your recent online chess games, TC? Playing chess everyday keeps you fresh...

this was a terrific reminder Tyler. thanks.

'and will pack a bigger bag to accommodate them'

And then leave them strewn over the landscape, likely starting at the airport -'Two days ago he e-mailed me his reading list for the trip—27 books—and I vowed to keep up with it. Already, before he boards, he has assembled a pile of discards. "Unger. I'd say I browsed it. I looked at every page," he says. "There's nothing wrong with the book. It's a good book to stir up leftists." Roberto Mangabeira Unger's The Left Alternative falls with a thud to the table.

Cowen, 49, has round features, a hesitant posture, and an unconcerned haircut. He handles each book as he ticks it off his list. "This I discarded. It appeared to get a good review, but there's no framework, just scattered vignettes. I looked at 20, 30 pages." Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, thud. Cowen's first rule of reading is as follows: You need not finish. He takes up books with great hope and no mercy, and when he is done—sometimes after five minutes—he abandons them in public, an act he calls a "liberation."'

Your obsession would be comical if it weren’t rather sad. TC leaves books around, so what? It’s not it’s plastic, piano wire or toxic sludge.

Add another role to Cowen's portfolio: Johnny Appleseed. Cowen, as regular readers of this blog are aware, is a speed reader, an ability he attributes, not to something he was blessed with at birth, but from a lifetime spent reading and studying many different subjects and topics, so he can quickly scan a book or article and determine if it has anything he doesn't already know. My observation about Cowen is that he is a talented communicator, both in writing and in speaking. As to speaking, he is what might be called a speed talker. No, I don't mean he speaks words particularly fast, but rather he doesn't have to pause. Watch or listen to an interview of Cowen (as opposed to an interview by Cowen) and you will see what I mean. Ask Cowen a difficult question and he answers immediately without even a pause to organize his thought. It's as if he has already considered every possible question that could be asked. And he likely has!

My wife and I are sitting in a hotel, working on different projects, laughing about “by the end of the trip it will feel like a full vacation, that is how silly the your memory is”. Absolutely a true statement.

Put us in the camp of sitting on the beach vacation as torture.

Me too, I hate the beach, despite being brown skin, I keep thinking I'm getting skin cancer.

Bonus trivia: Basal cell carcinoma affects 35% of all white males at some point in their lives and comes from excessive sun. Luckily, it has a survival rate of close to 100% and is not even staged, if caught early.

Chinese New Years in a second-tier city would make for an interesting working vacation. I mean, if the fireworks don't drive you too crazy.

The "work vacation" idea also has the advantage of associating ideas and trains of thoughts you had with the context in which they take place. Later you can even recall the exact visual image you were having (the tree you were looking at say) at the exact moment the insight happens.

Thanks for the great response, Tyler. I'm always trying to tweak how I travel and your thoughts are very helpful. I totally agree about not doing too much planning beforehand. I often travel for 6-10 weeks overseas during the summer, frequently leaving without a ticket home and not knowing where I'll end up going.

One unusual thing about how I travel is I constrain myself to only what I can carry in a backpack that fits under a seat on an airplane. (I haven't checked a bag in nearly 2 decades.) This typically limits me to no more than 1-2 (smaller) physical books. I find traveling light like this gives more room for spontaneity - both in where I go and how I get there. This has allowed for a variety of experiences including taking motorcylce taxis in Africa and Asia, hiking to Machu PIcchu, traveling for 7 weeks through 7 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa on public transportation, travling in low-budget sleeper cars through China, etc.

My style of travel is something I recommend others try but acknowledge it has trade-offs. I do lose productivity on certain margins (such as the distraction of thinking about where to wander next and trying to see as much as possible of the places I visit). If I can figure out how to increase my productivity on the road, it would allow for longer travels over the summer. More than changing my gear, I need to heed your advice of writing every day. I especially like your idea of a "working vacation" that hijacks the fallibility of human memory. There are several countries in Eastern Europe I have yet to visit that may be ideal for experimenting with this style of travel.

Thanks for taking time to share these thoughts. They are insightful and deeply appreciated.

I would be miserable without a few more books — typically I read non-fiction but I always have at least 2 novels on the go — for a trip that long.

One has to choose them carefully though... travelling has taught me how fortunate we are in NA in having excellent bookstores in almost every metropolitan area. And there’s Amazon too.

Re: weight. I know that some thru-hikers bring books, ripping out and burning/composting each page as they read.


The only problem with this post is that you travel much more than most people. So you can blow off fully checking out some of the locales you visit, minimizing down to some short walks outside to likely good eateries. The marginal utility to you of seeing yet another rundown temple or third rate museum or even a nice view is far less than it is for those who travel less and thus for whom that rundown temple is so much more exotic and educational and so on. They need to get and do the sightseeing while they can, while for you with so much travel, some of it can be a good way to get away from administrative and other distracting duties, and, well, get some work done, darn it!

Don’t forget airplanes and trains. You can get a lot reading done on trains and on medium and long-haul flights.

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