Category: Lifestyle

Investing in good equipment

Business Coding Lifestyle Personal Writing

Investing in good equipment

A younger, more innocent me bought a 13″ mid-2014 MacBook Pro on closeout in early 2015. My main tasks for my computer at that time were writing documents in word processors (Pages) and using CMSs to create and publish content. I thought I might do some light video editing of travel videos for Corporate Runaways, but didn’t have much need or desire for a powerhouse machine. I had an external monitor for additional screen real estate, and mostly used the laptop screen for reference material.

Fast forward to 2019. In the past few years, I’ve started doing docs-as-code in conjunction with a few open source projects. From the open source project side, this has involved setting up local development environments on my machine, and running apps locally so I can document them. From the documentation side, this has involved using static site generators to create doc sites from files (markdown, mostly). My work needs have definitely gotten more intensive.

Then, this spring, I dove into Swift. When I decided to learn to code so I could write an app I want to use, I took a gradual approach. I worked through some Swift Playgrounds stuff on my iPad, and then read a book or two about coding and Swift. I brainstormed the data structure for my app, and made UML diagrams. Eventually, I took a couple of online classes on Xcode and Swift.

Between my technical writing work and my app development, my 13″ laptop + external monitor had begun to feel cramped. What had once felt sufficient for doing marketing writing in a single window, with maybe a reference window alongside, had now become a nightmare of overlapping windows and constant swapping. I wanted more screen real estate so I could have multiple windows open for reference and working simultaneously, and I wanted those windows to be bigger.

But mostly, I wanted Xcode to not just laugh at me when I attempted to compile things, or – even worse – not have Xcode sputter when I attempt to Auto Run a Playground so I can see how things are working as I code.

One of the classes I took involved working in Playground files on my machine as I followed the instructor’s videos. I had to keep pausing the instruction video to wait for my local Playground to respond to my inputs, while the instructor did the exact same thing in the video and then happily chugged along with his much more powerful machine.

It was clear. Xcode was a memory/processor hog, and I had too little of both. I’d been bumping up against those limits for a while now with my other work, but the app development pushed me over the edge. So it was time… time to upgrade my equipment.

(Don’t get me wrong – that little 13″ mid-2014 MBP did well to get me into mid-2019 without a hitch, and is still chugging along happily with less intensive tasks; it’s my “couch computer” now.)

I looked around at the options. I could get a newer, more powerful MacBook Pro. But I’d still have limited screen real estate, and that was chafing more and more. Also, I essentially never use my laptop as a laptop these days; I work exclusively at my desk, with my Kinesis Advantage2 keyboard and my external monitor setup. Could it be time to go back to a desktop, when I still remembered fondly the liberating joy of going from a PC tower to my first laptop back in the mid-2000s? It seemed like such a step back, it was hard to fathom.

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense to get a desktop again. I never use the laptop as a laptop. I could get better CPU/more RAM significantly cheaper with a desktop. And then I could have another big monitor, giving me the screen real estate I’ve been craving.

I decided to go back to a desktop. I clearly didn’t need a powerhouse like the newly-announced Mac Pro, so I wasn’t going that route. I looked at the Mac mini; a capable little machine. I looked at the iMac, with its beautiful monitor. I looked at the iMac Pro – nope, that’s more than I need.

Waffle. Research external monitors. Waffle. Spec out both machines to a level that would support my current needs, plus some future-proofing. Cringe at the price tag. Waffle some more. Deal with some stupid imposter BS because my husband is the experienced web dev, and how could I justify spending that much on a setup for my less-intensive work + dabbling in Swift development; an entirely self-driven project that may never make me a penny?

Eventually, I drove the hour to the nearest Apple store to see an iMac in person. And then I sat myself down and gave myself a pep talk about giving myself permission to invest in my skill development. Maybe I’ll get more heavily into coding as a tech writer. Maybe I’ll love developing in Swift so much that I’ll pivot to Mac app development. Or maybe I’ll write this app, but then decide that coding isn’t something I want to pursue beyond that. I won’t know unless I give myself the room to develop those skills and see what happens, but it is 100% OK to invest in my career potential.

So I pulled the trigger, and got a beautiful 27″ iMac. And it isn’t the entry-level iMac, either; it’s closer to the top tier, to give myself room for growth.

And you know what? It is frigging delightful. It’s so fast. And the screen is so beautiful. It’s a little painful to use it right next to my old external monitor, which isn’t even 4k; the resolution drop and seeing visible pixels is a little jarring looking back and forth. I expect I’ll upgrade that, too, soon. But my tech writing work has been much more hassle-free with the extra screen real estate, and staring at text on a retina-resolution screen is delightfully enjoyable.

So here’s a reminder, if you need one, too: investing in good equipment is an important part of taking your professional life seriously. This is mission critical for remote workers who don’t have office-supplied equipment. I see a lot of remote workers sitting on their couch and typing on a laptop keyboard; that’s a good way to ruin your hands, your back, your posture, and reduce your efficiency and output. (Trust me, that’s how I started out with my remote work back in 2007.)

Yes, I am extremely privileged to be able to spend the money on an Apple device; I know you pay a big premium for their products. And I know that not everyone has the financial freedom to invest in big, splashy monitors and professional-quality office equipment; especially for folks who are the sole breadwinners, or supporting family members. But it is worthwhile to put money aside and invest in the equipment you need for your career, in whatever form you’re able and whatever that equipment looks like for you.

I am very much enjoying my new setup.

My strange caffeine detox journey

Lifestyle Personal

My strange caffeine detox journey

If you know me at all, you know I’m a devoted coffee snob. I have an AeroPress at home and a second one at the office where I’ve been contracting for almost a year. I have not one, but two expensive burr grinders so I can always brew from fresh beans (one at home, one at the office). I temp the water before I brew. (Different beans extract ideally at different temps – I generally prefer anywhere from 85C to 95C depending on the bean, but 92C seems to be about my sweet spot.) And I buy rather expensive single-source beans from a local roaster.

So it came as a big surprise to my friends and family when, leading up to Memorial Day Weekend, I announced my intent to do a caffeine detox.

It started as my attempt to give up diet soda – I’d usually drink Coke Zero at lunch and dinner, and sometimes extra Coke Zero throughout the day. I know the chemicals in that stuff are going to kill me someday, so I decided I wanted to stop drinking it. Soda entirely, really – the diet stuff is full of chemical crap, and the non-diet stuff is jam-packed with unnecessary sugar, and I really don’t need any of that in my life. Plus, I lost a bunch of weight when I stopped drinking soda in 2005, so I thought it might be a good way to jump-start a healthier lifestyle again.

When I was thinking about it giving up soda, though, I realized I’d gotten entirely too accustomed to drinking a lot of caffeine, period. I’d start my workday with a latte. I’d have Coke Zero at lunch. I’d have a latte or a mocha mid-afternoon when I started feeling sleepy at the office. I’d have Coke Zero at dinner. Sometimes, when we’d eat out, I’d have a coffee with dessert. Basically, caffeine every few hours from morning ’til bedtime. I thought: “You know, while I’m trying to clean up my soda-drinking habits, maybe I should just stop drinking caffeine entirely. Just for a little while. Get through the withdrawal, and then drink less of it when I start drinking it again.”

So I did.

I planned to start over Memorial Day Weekend, because I’d have an extra day off and I knew I’d have massive headaches due to the caffeine withdrawal.

I was right.

The extra day off wasn’t really enough. I ended up working at home for a couple of days once the weekend was over. It wasn’t until an entire week had passed since I last drank caffeine that the headaches let up. And we’re talking migraine-level headaches for days 2-4, and then pretty bad headaches from 5-7. It was no walk in the park.

Week two was about feeling exhausted, all the time. I never really thought about what that must be doing to my body – how every time I started to get tired during the day, I’d just add some more caffeine. As a result, I had unconsciously programmed my body that whenever it sent me a sleepy signal, I’d just give it a chemical upper. I had completely messed with my body’s natural energy cycle, and it didn’t really know what to do once the caffeine wasn’t coming in again.

I’d wake up feeling relatively ok. But by the time an hour had passed – when I’d normally be drinking my morning latte or coffee – my eyelids didn’t want to stay up on their own. I had NO energy. I just wanted to go back to bed. Mid-morning, I’d be dragging. But mid-afternoon, when I always tend to get sleepy, was the worst. I’d literally be staring at my computer, and no matter how much effort I put into keeping my eyelids open, they would not stay open. I never fell asleep at my desk, but there were times when I’d sit there with my eyelids closed because I just literally couldn’t keep them open. I’d give them thirty seconds and force them open again, or go for a walk to try to get some blood flowing and give me some energy. But I think week two was even harder than the headaches – I could barely focus, and there’s something really debilitating about just being exhausted all the time.

By week three, I’d gotten a little apprehensive about what was going to come next. Was it going to be headaches again? Was the perpetual exhaustion about to descend on me again? When neither manifested, I thought: hey, maybe that’s it. Maybe the withdrawal is done. I started thinking about when I might start drinking caffeine again, and what form that might take.

One day, in the afternoon, I was feeling sleepy and also craving chocolate, so I thought about getting myself a hot chocolate. I know hot chocolate has caffeine in it. I did some spelunking to determine how much. Turns out, it depends. Generally, anywhere from 5mg to 20mg of caffeine in a hot cocoa, versus 80mg to 200mg in coffee, depending on the bean and the brewing method. I decided that was benign enough, so I treated myself to a hot cocoa around mid-week during week three.

MAN, I felt that caffeine!

That hot chocolate tasted effing amazing. And I felt SO GREAT after I drank it. I felt like I could do ALL THE THINGS. My mood lifted, I had so much more energy and focus, and I was super productive for the rest of the afternoon.

That’s when I realized two things:

  1. Wow, the body really adjusts quickly to not having caffeine. I thought I’d barely feel it, because I’d been drinking so much caffeine before, but let me tell you I felt the results and was very aware that the caffeine was affecting me.
  2. Oh shit. This might be worse than I realize. If even a little hot cocoa makes me feel this way, I’m going to have to be damn careful about how I re-introduce caffeine to my life. Maybe I shouldn’t drink caffeine again at all?

I wrestled with that for a few days. On Sunday, about five days after the hot cocoa and a little ways into week four, I decided to try a latte from one of my favorite local coffee shops. I was going to be deliberate about it – we sat there and had breakfast, and I savored the crap out of it. It was one of the most amazing coffee-drinking experiences I’ve ever had. And I realized: mindful coffee drinking is even more mind-blowing than habitual caffeine consumption. (This was the latte in the picture at the top of the post. Yes, I took a picture of it. It tasted even better than it looks.)

The rest of that day was amazing. I was SO PRODUCTIVE. I did a million chores, and got a bunch of writing stuff done, and didn’t feel like napping at 3 o clock or any of the normal stuff.

Then, when night rolled around, I was still feeling pretty energetic when it was time to go to bed. I forced myself to lie down, but my brain wouldn’t shut off – I laid there tossing and turning for a couple of hours, just thinking about everything and nothing, because my brain was too busy for sleep.

The next day was rough. And I knew it was because of the caffeine. I could still feel it in my system 24 hours after I drank it. But by the time mid-afternoon had rolled around – around 30-32 hours post caffeine – I was crashing. I think most of it had left my system, and combined with the lack of sleep the night before, I was exhausted. I barely made it through the rest of the day, and I canceled my evening plans because I just didn’t have brain.

Then I started to wonder if I should really be drinking caffeine anymore. If one latte, drank first thing in the morning, could have that effect – should I even be ingesting this stuff, period?

But I enjoyed it so much. And I had felt so productive and focused.

When Thursday of that week rolled around, I was absolutely dragging. I woke up feeling really cranky and grumpy. I could barely keep my eyes open. I made a decision: I’m going to get a mocha this morning. I want the chocolate and caffeine, for the mood elevation and to help me wake up. Otherwise, work is going to be very unpleasant, not just for me, but for anyone who encounters me.

It was a good call. That mocha was amazing. By the time I got to work, I was happy and chatty. (Mildly obnoxious, too – I announced to at least a half dozen people that I’d had a mocha that morning, and I even made it my Slack status. I had previously shared with people at work that I was caffeine detoxing, so I wanted to let them all know the good news when I started drinking it again. In retrospect, I may have been mildly caffeine-high.)

In the end, I didn’t regret drinking that mocha at all. I’d made a very intentional decision to have it, because I wanted it (and perhaps because I felt I needed it), and it had the desired effect.

Now here we are into week five. It’s Sunday, and I’ve just bought a mocha again. This is my third caffeine-based beverage in about four and a half weeks. (Well, really, my third in the last week, because that’s when I started drinking them again – last Sunday.)

I thought, when I walked up the street to pick it up, that I finally had it figured out.

I could have coffee-based drinks when I wanted them, and ONLY then. Not when I felt I needed them. Not when I was feeling sleepy, or tired, or cranky. Not out of any sort of craving or habitual need – I’d gotten used to lattes every morning, and again every afternoon/evening, and I don’t want to get back to that state. Only when I deliberately, mindfully, WANTED a coffee-based drink should I have one. I was pretty happy with that decision while I was sipping my mocha on the way home.

But now that I’m sitting here, typing this out and thinking about my reactions, I’m wondering if that’s really a good call. I made the decision to have a mocha on Thursday because I was cranky and tired and couldn’t keep my eyes open. Was it really that I WANTED it, or did I feel I needed it?

How much can I trust myself to judge the difference between want and need?

I don’t want to get back to a dependency state, because withdrawal was no good and it can’t be healthy for my body to be going through all that. The migraine-level headaches completely eliminated my ability to do anything substantive in days two through four. The exhaustion I felt during all of week two of my detox made me realize how I’d been putting my body through all kinds of crazy, unnatural swings with the sleepy/caffeine cycle. I feel like the caffeine was just masking the fact that my body was actually tired, and shouldn’t I be listening to my body? Isn’t that the whole point of mindfulness?

There’s also the fact that it feels wonderful to be so focused and productive when I drink caffeine. I feel like I get so much done. (I really do get so much done.) But it also just feels like a better mental state. And how is that different than any of the more serious, less socially-acceptable drugs? It feels like a slippery slope to me. Not that I ever have, or ever would, use “real” drugs – with my family history, that’s just not a thing that would happen. But in terms of how it affects the body, and wondering whether I can trust my mind when I’m making a decision about whether or not to have caffeine – all of the same psychology of addiction applies, I’m beginning to realize.

There’s the added complication that this coffee-consumption is tied into my identity as a writer. I love sitting at my desk, typing away and drinking coffee. It’s a really satisfying ritual. But how much of that is habitual?

And coffee helps me through those lagging cycles, where I want to stop and rest, instead letting me sit in front of my keyboard and just keep on working. But is that the healthiest thing? Shouldn’t I instead get up and talk a walk, or exercise, or nap?

Let’s not forget the fact that coffee and writers go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a huge part of the cultural identity of writers. If I stop drinking coffee entirely, does that mean I’m less a writer than other writers? It does feel alienating.

In short, this is a way more complicated question than I thought it would be when I stopped drinking caffeine on Memorial Day Weekend. The coffee detox was only supposed to be temporary – no more soda, but I’d go back to drinking coffee because I love coffee and I don’t have a medical reason not to.

But now, I have to wonder… is it really that simple? I’ve seen very clear signs of the physical effects, and I don’t think it’s such a straightforward question anymore. So I guess today, I’ll finish drinking this mocha, and savor it, and acknowledge that I have some thinking to do about whether caffeine has a place in my life long-term, and if so, how it will fit in.