Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘productivity

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.

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Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

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On Distraction, WeChat, and the endless staring at screens

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On any given day my waking hours might be colonized by the time spent staring at screens. During the working week I might spend hours, in accumulation, looking at a computer screen (my Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch laptop) or staring down at a mobile screen (my LG G3 smartphone).

It has reached a point where the habit is so routine that I wonder whether my mind is now corroded in its capacity to dwell undistractedly.

You probably know what I’m talking about.

Being a freelance writer I have perhaps more freedom than most to spend time staring. And throughout the day I’ll have my phone close to me, sometimes pausing to look at it, to see whether its tiny beacon of light is shining.

Notifications have become gratification, even when there are none…

WeChat is the app I spend the longest time with. It’s China’s version of WhatsApp, but far superior in its functions and utility. It acts as social portal and work-related messaging platform. It’s a gateway and hub for my personal and professional life.

Facebook is a reflexive distraction, where I’ll pay attention to unimportant and not really very interesting items uploaded by friends and “friends”.

I do feel more distracted.

And work doesn’t help. I don’t spend a day outside doing wholesome, outdoorsy things to compensate. My work also involves staring at screens: it might be writing emails, articles, or researching. I do use pen and paper. But a laptop is required for the business end of completing work and sending it off to clients to make a living.

And then I’ll stare at screens some more in off-work hours.

The reasons are varied for my reliance on screens: work/technology, life in a big city, geography, a freelance life, etc. And there doesn’t seem to be much I can do to be rid of the reliance. What would I do instead of staring at screens? I live in a large, highly urbanized city; I cannot go to the woods or the mountains or the sea. I could instead do more productive things like learning a language, painting, etc. Yes I could be more productive and use my time more usefully. Couldn’t we all?

I am aware of the screen and attention and distraction problem, even as companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube et al are increasing their sophistication in hooking and retaining my attention.

For a freelancer like me, when daily life is not structured according to the commute, office, lunch, standard working hours, what can I do?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 9, 2016 at 6:41 am

Wishlist: 4 gadgets I’d love to do journalism with

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1. iPhone 5S, £549 (32GB)

Why? Because it’s pretty much all you need to do journalism – it browses the internet, sends emails, makes calls, records audio, takes fantastic photos and records incredible video. It’s a media production machine. I’ve heard of at least one freelancer who wrote entire features for almost an entire year using just an iPhone (more on that in a future blog).

The best thing about it is the quality of the images it can make. More than that, it’s the ease and convenience of it that puts it head and shoulders above everything else.

iPhone photos have graced the likes of Time magazine (front cover!), New York Times and much else besides. Conflict photographer Ben Lowy uses it almost exclusively and he’s covered Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring.

Videojournalism? Guardian reporter Adam Gabbatt uses an iPhone to make short video reports which you can see here and here. The Guardian’s SE Asia correspondent Kate Hodal interviewed Suboi, Vietnam’s first mainstream female rapper: “I interviewed her and she gave me an exclusive freestyle, which I caught on my iPhone and then uploaded to our editors in London”.

If you are going to make a video report however, do invest in an external mic – that is extremely important. You want decent video and audio. Some sort of tripod/monopod for it would be very handy too.

2. Surface RT, £279 (with touch cover £319)

The Microsoft Surface RT is a great productivity tool for journalists. It is much lighter than most laptops, coming in at 676 grams (the Macbook Air in contrast weighs 1.3kg), and has a battery life of 8 hours. Why get this tablet rather than an iPad? Two words: Microsoft Office. Apart from being cheaper than an iPad, the Surface RT unlike all other tablets has Microsoft Word. You’ll want the optional touch/type covers – which click in magnetically – to do any serious typing work.

Yes it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of apps Apple and Android tablets have, but so what. They are distractions you don’t need. You have the internet, email and Word (plus a front-facing camera for Skype calls) – what more do you need as a journo? You have a smartphone anyway for those apps. Another benefit is that you can split the screen in half – so on one side you can browse the web, while the other is on Word for example.

There are two Surface machines. The RT, pictured above, is the cheaper, lighter and smaller version, and runs a custom RT operating system. The Surface Pro is much more powerful (on a par with high-end ultrabooks), much heavier and runs Windows 8, meaning you can install any/all programs you currently run on a normal laptop. Most gadget reviewers say get the Pro, but I prefer the simplicity of the RT and of course it’s a lot lighter and much less pricey.

UPDATE: The Surface 2, an update to the RT, is to be released later this month. It’ll feature an upgraded processor, screen, back and front cameras and a kickstand that is more adjustable. The Surface 2 will retail for £70 more than the RT, at £349 (for the 32GB version).

Panasonic GH3 – a much better choice than a Canon 5D Mk 3, especially for video.

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, £1299 (including 14-140mm lens)

This digital camera takes higher-quality videos than a Canon 5D Mk3. And it is well over £1000 cheaper. Here’s an excerpt from DPreview.com’s review of the camera: “The enthusiastic and largely unanticipated response to the GH2’s movie capabilities by working videographers (Google ‘GH2 video hack’ to get an idea for how keenly its capabilities are being exploited) has meant that Panasonic must now also consider that its camera is being integrated into professional video rigs”.

Needless to say it also produces great photos, and for video there is simply no equal. The sensor inside the camera will be much larger than most dedicated video cameras. And while it won’t quite be able to beat the Canon 5Ds for low-light capability, it does have better video features, frame-rate options and better detail at 1080p HD levels.

For the aspiring video journalist interested in producing films with professional-level picture quality, look no further.


4. Moleskine notebook, £9.41 (240 pages, 13x21cm)

Not exactly a gadget but for someone whose profession is the creation of words, the pleasure of putting pen on paper should still be paramount. I bought my first pocket-sized moleskine last year and I’ve loved the aesthetic, the pages are crisp and a joy to write in. The dimensions are perfect and the pocket in the back is great for storing business cards and cuttings. I recently purchased the larger moleskin (pictured) and I have to say I like it even more. A4-sized notebooks still have a place in my stationary, particularly for taking telephone and face-to-face interview notes, as well as for diagramming article structure plans. But for the simple pleasure of writing and jotting down ideas, the larger moleskin has perfect weight and dimensions.

As design critic and writer Stephen Bayley said in a 2012 article entitled ‘The joy of Moleskine notebooks’: “there aren’t many things you can buy for £10 that are the best of their kind. I buy them compulsively. It makes you think you are just about to write, for once, something brilliant.”