Round-trip ticket to productivity

How to build artificial train rides into the design process


In 2011, I invented paid carpooling.

It was a Saturday. I was living in Santiago de Chile, and we had planned a day trip to Valparaiso. As I was having a shower in the morning, I thought about how cool it would be if I could jump on of the hundreds of cars who were doing that trip that day and just share the costs.

An airbnb for car rides, how cool would that be?” — being part Start-up Chile got me thinking about startups all day.

I got obsessed with the idea and, as I hopped on the bus, I started writing and drawing on my iPad. By the time we arrived to our destination, I had a business model, a tentative product name, and sketches for some key screens. Now I could enjoy the visit.

Illustration of a Bus

Illustration by Silvia Fernández Palomar

As soon as I got home that night, I started googling to further develop my idea. It turned out some other people had invented carpooling before me, and they were doing a pretty good job.

I forgot about it shortly after, but to this day I cherish that cloudy Saturday morning. I was impressed, almost scared, by my ability to deliver: on that bus ride, I completed something that could easily take me weeks.

Whenever I have the chance to work on a bus or a train (I get dizzy on airplanes, so no work for me during flights), I love it. I have a flashback to that bus to Valparaiso, trying to reproduce the adrenaline rush I felt by getting excited about what I am creating within the constraints of the journey.

And it works.

So, what are some factors that make working on trains great for me?

Duration. I feel way more excited about getting something out in a few hours than in a few days or weeks (not to mention months).

Isolation. Sure, there is data and even Wi-Fi, but there aren’t any meetings, phone calls, books, the coffee maker, a cigarette break, those strawberries in the fridge, and wouldn’t it be nice to get some whipped cream from the bodega.

An amplified sense of progress. When I am at my desk, I can measure progress by looking at what I have done, or by checking the time (I know, it’s stupid, but it happens). When you are on a train, everything that surrounds you looks like progress. There is no escape from reaching the destination, and you cannot go back to that nice river you just passed. The world is conspiring to get you somewhere else.

A redefinition of ‘done’. I cannot ask the bus driver to drive slower because I need more time, and I cannot aim to get perfect results… so I redefine ‘done’ to something that I know can be achieved with the time and resources I have available.

I find myself wondering how to reproduce some of these factors during everyday work. And, what seems to be more interesting and difficult, how to build artificial train rides into the design process.

🚂 This article was written on the Keystone Service 641 to Harrisburg, PA.