Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

Sharper Minds Through Video Games?

I play a lot of video games during my travels - it is a great release to unwind in my hotel room, and I find it very relaxing (yes).  I flit from one to another quite often, but my current favorites are Borderlands 2, Diablo III, and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  I also tend to apply lessons I learn from video games into how I view the world; for example, I have given multiple talks about what information security can learn from video games - such as this brief talk the RSA Security Conference earlier this year).  

With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I wasn't deluding myself - to find out if there really is something to this "learning from video games" thing I preach about all the time.

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, 59 percent of Americans regularly play video games, with the industry earning more than $10.5 billion in revenue annually. The survey also showed 44 percent of respondents play video games on their smartphones and 33 percent play on wireless devices. The rise in popularity of gaming has also led to the rise of studies investigating the potential negative effects they have. The Ohio State University found an increase in violent video game playing resulted in a spike in aggression.  

For what it's worth, I can definitely tell the difference between video games and reality and I think this resultant increase in aggression might be true of any competitive activity, such as organized sports.  Of course, that is just my theory...  

Since I know I benefit from playing video games and I don't feel they are harming me, I was curious about the "other end of the spectrum" when it comes to the impact of video games.  As it turns out, more researchers are looking into how video games can benefit us and report surprising results. Boosting memory, delaying cognitive decline and increasing multitasking ability and confidence are just some of the ways we can benefit from regularly playing video games.

Boost your memory

Recent studies from the Georgia Institute of Technology show gaming won't necessarily improve reasoning and problem solving, but can help boost your memory. Working Memory Capacity (WMC), is our ability to recall information relatively quickly even while distracted. The study showed that gaming can help strengthen our memory skills, along with our ability to work on a variety of tasks or switch between them quickly.

That makes sense, since practice with just about anything - including retention of data - tends to improve your abilities in that area.

Prevent cognitive decline

Playing games and using the computer may help prevent cognitive decline and preserve brain function. Staying mentally and physically active — whether by socializing, exercising or playing games — could also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Game resources like iWin carry a variety of puzzle games and mind teasers that could help strengthen memory, improve hand-eye coordination and encourage problem solving on convenient mobile devices or tablets.

I used to play Brain Age on my Nintendo DS to help in this area, and I know people who swear by Sudoku and other puzzles as a way to keep their memories and minds sharp.  I say you enjoy it and it doesn't cause any harm, why not?

Improve Multitasking

Researchers at UC San Francisco discovered video games, especially 3-D varieties, can actually improve overall cognitive performance in older, healthy adults. Senior citizens who played the games for 12 hours over the course of a month showed an improvement in working memory and sustained attention. Their ability to multi-task also improved as they became more skilled at switching focus during their gaming activities.

Of course, we can't truly "multi-task," but the better we can context switch and get back on our mental feet when switching from one task to another, the better.  I've noticed that my eyes take longer to adjust from close vision to far vision as I get older, and I suspect that resistance to switching from one context to another is a challenge from a mental perspective.

Build Confidence

Scientists at the University of Essex explored if people's self-esteem improves while gaming because it gives them the chance to experiment with characteristics they envision their ideal self possessing. The Researchers discovered gamers enjoyed gaming the most when there was little overlap between their actual and ideal self. Participants reported feeling better about themselves after playing with the personality traits they wanted, such as being outgoing.

I definitely agree with this.  Even though it is an artificial world, I find that taking risks in video games makes it easier for me to take risks in the real world - it can help you feel less anxious in the face of the uncertain.

Improve your vision

While some say excessive video gaming can hinder your eyesight, some new studies show the opposite to be true. Researchers at the University of Rochester discovered action video gamers who play a few hours a day over a month improved their vision by 20 percent. This improvement came from being able to pick out letters from a clutter of images. Gamers played for about 30 hours and saw a significant increase in their vision's spatial resolution.

Again, this feels right to me.  Not only do video games improve my reaction time, they force me to expand my attention to take in more things - this is true from a visual point of view, but also from an overall situational awareness perspective.  I need to keep tabs on where I am, how I'm doing versus my objectives, how the others in my party are faring, pay attention to new threats and opportunities, etc.

The bottom line

OK, so maybe I'm guilty of contrived rationalization, but in my book, the data says playing video games is good for me.  Enough said - I'm sticking with it!

Updated: How to lose 50 pounds in 6 months

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've lost over 50 pounds since last July and have learned some things along the way.  I thought I'd share some of my experience here, in the hopes that others might benefit.  By the way - I know this ended up being a bit long, but hopefully it's broken up enough to make it usable.

10 months into the process (I started trying to lose weight August 1, 2013), and I'm doing a good job of maintaining and sticking with my program  I was just updating my photo with a new one just taken for work, and I thought it was worth updating my original post from March with a bit of data.  My daughter showed me the Google search that came up with the freeze frame from a YouTube video posted last June - that's the picture on the left.

10 months into the process (I started trying to lose weight August 1, 2013), and I'm doing a good job of maintaining and sticking with my program  I was just updating my photo with a new one just taken for work, and I thought it was worth updating my original post from March with a bit of data.  My daughter showed me the Google search that came up with the freeze frame from a YouTube video posted last June - that's the picture on the left.

First, I started this journey due to a "wake up call" from my Doctor at my last physical.  Getting older, plus a lot of travel, plus some bad habits (no exercise, poor discipline when it comes to eating, etc.) had all stacked up and the odds were no longer in my favor.  Here is what I did.

Goals

Working with my doctor, I set a target weight based on my height, age, etc.  To get to my target, the basic math never changes:  you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.  I didn't want to try some "quick fix" fad diet, so I tried to approach this in a way that I could maintain over the long haul.

With the weight target in hand, I determined the number of calories needed to maintain that target weight, using an online calorie calculator.

From there, I set several goals to support my journey:

  • exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • consume calories at or below my daily target to maintain my goal weight
  • lose at least a pound a week until I reach "steady state" at this new calorie level
  • reduce my sodium intake (blood pressure was one of the concerns that came up in my physical exam)

Instrumentation

As you may gather from this blog, I'm a fan of gadgets. So, naturally, I looked for gadgets that would help me track my progress.  I used several tools for this - not required, but they help:

  • A fitness tracking band to track my exercise.  I chose a Fitbit Force which has since been discontinued, but I am also a fan of the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone Up24 from past experience.  By the way, the brand isn't critical - pick one you like that has the features you need - for less stress, look for good battery life. [Update: I am still using the Fitbit Force, and will likely switch to whatever they replace it with.  I am lucky - I am having no skin irritation from the Fitbit Force.]
  • A Withings WiFi-enabled digital scale with body composition sensors.  This scale is accurate, automatically updates my phone (the Withings App) with my weight, body fat percentage, pulse, etc. so I can track progress over time.
  • A Withings blood pressure cuff that connects to my iPhone and records blood pressure readings.  This takes your blood pressure readings automatically, and syncs them with the same Withings App that the scale uses.  [Update: I have since upgraded to the wireless version of the WIthings blood pressure cuff - no difference in accuracy, but I love the convenience of Bluetooth.]
  • MyFitnessPal which is a great app to track what you eat, as well as to track exercise.  This also syncs automatically with my Fitbit and my WIthings scale, which is pretty cool - you can optionally allow it to subtract the calories you burn, for example, so you can eat more if you exercise more.
  • A digital food scale - this is crucial for recording your portion sizes for accuracy
  • I later added a Polar Heart Rate Sensor once I switched form walking to running.  I use their app (Polar Beat) to track distance, pace, calories burned, etc.  I like this app as it gives me audio feedback as run, such as my distance (it uses the phone GPS to track distance), pace, average hear rate, and it tracks distance and calorie records.  You can even "replay" your run on a map view, showing your pace and heart rate at different points along the run.

Of course, you don't need all of these gadgets, but I find they helped keep me motivated.  I believe the "must have" items are MyFitnessPal, the food scale, and some kind of digital scale to weigh yourself.

Habits

Since I'd developed bad habits in the past, I needed to develop new habits to be successful.  The ones I targeted were:

  • walk at least 10,000 steps per day (tracked by the Fitbit) [Update: My target is now 12,000 steps per day]
  • diligently track my food consumption with MyFitnessPal (there is a web site as well as a collection of mobile apps for most platforms)
  • exercise deliberately (i.e. beyond just "incidental" walking during the day) including while traveling
  • once I added running to my routine (more on that below) I set a goal to run at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes each session

Diet

At home, I began weighing my portions so I could log them.  MyFitnessPal makes that easier because of its huge database of foods, and its ability (if you're using the smartphone app) to scan a barcode and auto-populate the nutrition and portion information.  After a while, this habit of weighing your portions also helps you guesstimate portions in restaurants to keep you from going way overboard.

I found that measuring and logging my food had another effect: I started thinking about the tradeoffs I wanted to make.  For example, when I realized how many calories I was consuming with my nightly glasses of wine, I knew I either had to "reserve" space in my calorie budget to be able to have my wine or just skip it that day.  The same thing for desserts - I could have that piece of cake, but I needed to not eat something else to make the budget work.  That took a while to get used to, but it's been a good change.

One piece of advice that has really helped:  my nutritionist told me that if I "blew" a day by eating too much, not to try to make up for it by under-eating the next day.  Instead, he advised me to start fresh the next day and stick to my calorie target.  He explained that we're dealing with averages and that if I'm able to stay at or below my target most 90% of the time, I'll be able to sustain a good level of fitness.

Exercise

Easy does it

From an exercise perspective, I started out with walking.  I'd walk for an hour a day after dinner at a pretty good pace - about 4 miles per hour.  Over time, I began to mix in more hills and occasionally walk for two hours when I could afford the time.  To make the time go by more quickly, I listened to podcasts and audiobooks (I listened to Atlas Shrugged during my evening walks, for example - it is NOT a short book).  I also did a couple of weight workouts per week at my local gym - nothing too extreme, but enough to build strength and balance out the lower-body work from the walks.

Pick up the pace

After a few months, a few things changed - first, the walks got to be a bit monotonous; second, the weather got to be unfriendly; and third my travel picked up which made it harder to find time for the walks.  I started looking for more time-efficient ways to get my workout in, so I began to do more intense (faster) walks in the gym on the elliptical trainers because they worked my arms & legs at the same time.  This worked well, but also got to be a bit monotonous and some hotel gyms didn't have the elliptical trainers. 

Full speed ahead

For my next phase of changes (roughly a month ago), I decided to add running into the mix.  At first, it was challenging since there is a big difference between walking fast and running (in endurance, impact on my knees & hips, etc.)  However, with all the walking I'd done, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  I did some running outside when the weather was good enough, or in the gym on a treadmill when it wasn't - and pretty much every hotel gym has a treadmill.  I've been gradually increasing my distances and my pace to keep things challenging, and the addition of a heart rate strap has been a big help there.

Planning

Along the way, I found that planning ahead was crucial to my success.  Rather than eating what happened to be available, I began planning ahead to try to aid in making good choices.  The same was true of exercise - if I didn't plan ahead, it didn't happen.  For example:

Food Planning

  • General
    • When I'm not traveling, I tend to plan my meals more so I have more control over what I eat rather than being tempted to snack on the first thing at hand or eat something just because "it's there" - this means having a plan before you go shopping, and knowing what your options are when it comes time to prepare meals.
    • When I don't have a lunch appointment, I make and bring my own lunch - again, planning ahead so I don't make less healthy or "off plan" choices
  • Travel
    • I now travel with a stash of Kind bars in my bag (good ingredients, low sodium, and a balanced nutritional profile) in case I find that I need a quick snack on the run.  Starbucks used to carry these, but they have since replaced them with a different brand that also has good nutritional composition, albeit with fewer flavor choices (I like the Almond Cocoa flavor a lot).
    • Grab a durable fruit (like an apple or an orang) and tuck it in your carry-on bag so you have a ready snack.  
      • Carrying napkins and some empty plastic bags can help for cleanup and disposal of the core, peel, seeds, etc
  • Restaurants
    • I do some quick research ahead of time to find out what's on the menu, narrow down my choices ahead of time, and and to determine low-sodium options
      • MyFitnessPal is a big help here - it has calorie nutritional information from a lot of restaurants so you can compare choices
      • I've also noticed that more restaurants provide nutritional information on their menus or web sites, and some even include "meal builder" capabilities so you can customize your choice and see the impact of the changes in real-time

Exercise Planning

  • Schedule workouts, walks, etc. and keep the appointments (it helps to pretend you are meeting with a customer or something so you don't break the appointment)
  • Leave (or plan) time in your travel for workouts
    • for example, I sometimes take advantage of "time zone math" to get a workout in late at night on the east coast, or early in the morning on the west coast
  • Find a good place to run or walk near your office and combine a short walk with a quick lunch a couple of times a week
  • Choose "exercise friendly" hotels.  Hotels have gotten a lot better at telling you what their fitness amenities are on their web sites, which makes this easier all the time.  By the way, through this process I have grown even more for fond of Starwood hotels:
    • Some Starwood hotels (Westin, Sheraton) allow you to rent workout gear for $5 a day - including shoes.  That is hugely convenient when you don't have a lot of room in your suitcase.  Other Starwoods (Le Meridién) will even wash your workout clothes for you overnight, free of charge.
    • Starwood hotels also offer running maps of the local area with short and long running routes.
    • Their Westin brands have begun offering "Westin Workout" rooms, which allow you to reserve a room (in some locations, not all) with a treadmill or an exercise bike right in your room.  I posted a video tour of one of those rooms last year.
    • Most Starwoods offer free apples as a good, healthy snack either at the front desk, in the fitness center, or both.

Results, not just activity

I'm happy to say that this approach (while it may seem overwhelming when you read through it) has worked for me, and hasn't been as difficult as I'd feared.  I have made consistent progress:

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

  • I've lost over 50 pounds
  • I've lowered my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels dramatically
  • I've trimmed down (warning, if this goes well, you'll spend quite a bit for a new wardrobe during the first 6 months)
  • I have much better energy and overall fitness

I'm still making progress, and now that I've added more strength exercise into my routine, my weight is holding more steady.  I am now in a "maintain" mode, which I feel I can sustain.

I know there is a lot wrapped up in all of this, and I've probably left some things out.  If you're looking to get into better shape, I hope my experience can help you make great progress.  If you have any questions, drop me a line via email (see my About page) or in the comments below.

Conquering Burnout, and Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Do you have to drag your body out of bed on weekday mornings? Does the idea of spending another day at the office fill you with dread? Are you finding it harder and harder to get excited about your job and the work that you do?

If so, chances are good that you are suffering from job burnout. This has been a big topic at tech conferences in the past year (I'm in the tech industry) but I think it applies far beyond tech.

According to the Mayo Clinic, work-related burnout is a form of stress that can cause us to feel mentally, emotionally or physically tired. It can give us unusual doubts about our abilities to perform as well as we usually do. Job burnout can also lead to unpleasant symptoms like headaches, a change in appetite, and poor sleep.

Why Do We Get Burned Out?

Although the reasons we feel burned out at work vary from person to person and job to job, some common culprits include feeling out of control at work. For example, having little or no say over your schedule or assignments, or having a micromanager as a boss can be triggers. When you're spending so much of your day at work, that it feels like there's never enough time or energy to be with your family and friends doing activities that you enjoy, that's when burnout sets in.

Fortunately, these negative and unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms do not have to last forever. There are steps that you can take to reduce job burnout.

Identify What is Causing the Stress

One of the best ways to reduce job burnout is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what is causing you to feel so miserable in the first place. If you feel you spend too many hours in the office, consider approaching your supervisor about the possibility of telecommuting. Or, ask if you can have more of a say in the projects or assignments you're part of in the future.

Take Responsibility For Your Own Well-Being

This is a saying I use a lot, and it relates to the previous point.  When they feel stuck, sometimes people need to be reminded that they can take action to shape their lives - maybe that's you, sometimes.  

For example, take the initiative to share your goals and aspirations with your boss; that can help them see you in a different light and reduce the risk that you'll be "type cast" in a specific, confining role.  Or, you may have skills and talents that they don't know about, so you can make them aware the things you're good at doing.  Or, perhaps a particular aspect of the job is energizing to you and you can ask them to let you do more of that type of work.

Realize That Your Job is Not Set in Stone

As the Huffington Post notes, if your best efforts to change the negative work environment do not pay off, you might want to consider changing your job. Sometimes giving yourself permission to start looking for a new career can be incredibly freeing. Take some time to research different jobs that might appeal to you, and if you can, talk to folks who are already working in those fields. For example, if you have always dreamed about owning your own restaurant, maybe you could speak with some local café owners to get an idea of how much work might be involved. Or, if you have always wanted to work with children, you might consider volunteering at a school to see if being around kids is truly for you. There are websites and services can also help you determine which new career path might be best, and they can even offer educational opportunities to turn your dreams into reality. For instance, if a career in the pharmaceutical field sounds appealing, organizations like the Penn Foster school offer convenient online education opportunities, including a pharmacy technician career diploma.

Nurture Your Non-Work Interests

As Lisa Gerry's article in Forbes explains, it is important to have interests and hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with work. For example, consider volunteering your time with a local charity. You can involves with a pet rescue group, sign up for a fun fitness class at the gym, or pick up that old box of stamps you collected as a kid and see if you can renew your love of all things philatelic. When you are passionate about something other than work, it can help to keep your life in a better balance.

This can also be a good reminder to create better boundaries between work and home or hobbies.  If you check email all the time when you aren't at work, your whole life can feel like work.  Try to consciously "switch" from work to home when you leave, to give yourself that physical and psychological break that you need to recharge.

Make Sure You are Getting Enough Z’s

Speaking of recharging, if you are routinely burning the midnight oil, do what you can to get more rest. Being sleep deprived can not only impact your mood and job performance, but it can also make you less motivated, making it more difficult to focus and get work done in a timely manner. Getting more sleep will probably help you get your work done sooner, which will allow you to spend less time in the office and more time doing things you enjoy.

Take Care Of Your Physical Health

A lot of what I've presented here is psychological, but don't overlook the value of your physical health.  As I mentioned recently, I've been focusing more of my attention on diet and exercise, and it has helped me a lot - not just from a 'vital signs' perspective, but by increasing my energy level, improving my sleep, and helping me feel better about what I'm doing both at work and away from the job.

The bottom line? If you are feeling burned out, don't just settle for a life of drudgery.  There is plenty you can do to improve things.

Make 2014 The Year of Getting and Staying Healthy

What was your resolution for 2014 on New Year's Eve? It may seem like a lifetime has passed, but a couple of months ago you decided to make some healthy lifestyle changes and become a brand-new you. If all of that went out the window in week two, now is the time to get back on track. Start the spring of 2014 with a plan to be healthier and happier.

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1. Ditch the list of ailments and set the stage for real change

Make a list, check it once and discover what pain or unhealthy cycle you seem to be repeating year after year. Changing unhealthy behaviors can be difficult because those changes are attached to fears that we won't succeed or that lasting change is not possible. To demolish the fear, try this:

  • Make a list of your health concerns.
  • Next to each concern, write a few words about how you'd like to feel instead. For example, if back pain plagues you, think about how it affects you. If you have trouble walking, set a goal for being able to skip (in a meadow, why not?) without pain. Work toward your goal by talking to a specialist, or beginning a spine exercise routine from Laser Spine Institute. If you wake in pain daily, it's important to think about a way to make a change that will really take hold, such as looking up resources for minimally invasive procedures. Imagine all of the activities you could participate in again if you could walk free from back pain.
  • Begin with three health concerns on the list you made, create a scenario in writing for each like the one above, take action and get ready to experience real change.

2. Stay young by rejuvenating your diet

Try this: In 2014, I'm going to eat for life and skip the fad diets." There's a difference between establishing an everyday healthy diet and dieting. Discovering the foods that serve you best and sticking with them is easier than you think.

  • Try new things. Make your regular grocery list and leave three to five blank spaces. When you get to the store, choose three to five new fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meats or fish that you haven't tried before. As you walk the aisles, pick from your list to create meals centered around the new food choices.
  • Stay organized. Some of the new foods you try will become your favorites. You'll want to remember how you made these dishes and how you can continue to enhance them for optimal nutrition. Try an app like Food Planner to keep your favorites fresh.
  • Fooducate yourself. Don't want to get stuck in the diet trap! Stay on top of the good and bad trends for an even keel with the Fooducate app. This app helps you understand where your food came from and whether it's a healthy choice to match your goals.

3. Keep your brain on point

A youthful mind is one that plays games. Keep your mental skills sharp and you'll be surprised what falls into place. Give Lumosity a try — their scientifically designed brain gaming program helps you:

  • Recall and organize daily improvements
  • Keep track of several concepts simultaneously without traditional multi-tasking

By the way, I have had some practice in getting back in shape lately because I'd fallen out of good eating and exercise habits in the last few years.  Since last summer I've lost over 50 pounds and gotten my vitals (cholesterol, blood pressure, etc.) back under control. I used some gadgets and apps to help with this, and will share more information about what I did and what I used in my next post.

Great Ways to Use Downtime for Improving Memory

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Remember what life was like before you had kids? Maybe it's a little fuzzy, but before the sleep-deprived juggling act that is parenting, you probably didn't forget things like where you parked your car, who that person was that you just ran into at the store, or that you also know her sister.  The good news is you can boost your memory by working out your brain in your down time.

Get Enough Sleep

Before you freak out at the impossibility of this suggestion, remember how important sleep can be. Harvard Medical School reports that "consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory." Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but you'll know if you are sleep deprived. If you are, start making an effort to carve out more time to sleep through the night.

I use a fitness tracking wristband that also tracks sleep to keep tabs on how long I've slept and how well.  My kids are older now, but I still have the challenges of jet lag to deal with and sleep tracking can help me make sure I don't go too far with burning the candle at both ends.

Play Games

Simple games are a great way to exercise your memory skills. Try a hidden object game, like this free jewel quest game. You'll have some fun and you don't have to feel guilty about it! If you're away from your computer, smartphone or tablet, substitute a book of crossword puzzles or sudoko to fill the time and exercise your synapses.  I know a lot of people who swear by these puzzles as a way to keep their mind and memories sharp.

Stay Healthy

A sedentary lifestyle is bad news in many ways. By increasing physical activity and reducing time spent sitting you can improve your brain function. In his book "Saving Your Brain," Dr. Jeff Victoroff tells readers to do everything they can to improve (or maintain) blood flow to the brain. That includes the physical exertion needed to stay in good shape as well as keeping your arteries open by watching your cholesterol, blood pressure and more. For you, that might mean walking, rather than sitting, during a soccer practice or even parking farther away when you go shopping.

This is an area that bit me during the last year or so.  I didn't pay enough attention to my physical health and ended up with not-so-favorable results at my last physical exam.  I got a strict set of mandates from my doctor, have been following his advice for the last 6 months, and am in much better shape now - and feeling much better.  Don't overlook the value of exercise, even if it is just a walk around your neighborhood every day.

Practice Remembering Things

Memory isn't a magical function that either happens or doesn't happen. The simplest (but often the most difficult) way to remember something is to really focus on it. By removing distractions like your iPhone, and the television in the background, you'll significantly increase the probability that you'll transfer it from short term memory to long term memory and therefore remember it.

Beyond simply focusing on something you want to remember, there are lots of methods that can help you remember a wide variety of information. Mental mapping, the peg system and memorization are all tried and true methods. You can't necessarily learn a system in your spare time, but if you choose one and begin using it, you can practice it in your spare time. Lifehacker has a great explanation of three popular techniques here.

Whatever you choose, stick with it! Eventually you'll know the teacher's name without peeking at your smartphone during your next parent-teacher conference. Who knows, you might even become a World Memory Champion (yes, there is such a thing). Good luck and remember to practice!