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.

 

Using New Tech for A Better Night's Sleep

Having trouble sleeping is not only frustrating, it's also inconvenient. Your entire day can be ruined by a terrible night of sleep. Some people have more trouble than others, while some simply aren't aware that they're having trouble. Here are a few signs that probably indicate a lack of sleep:

  • You're cranky and easily stressed
  • You're not as productive as you could be
  • You're putting on a few extra pounds.
  • You look tired all the time
  • Your coffee intake is at an all-time high due to drowsiness

These are some of the most common signs that you might need either more sleep or better-quality sleep. Thanks to the new technology, you can not only get help with your sleep, but you can determine what's really going wrong.

Sleep Masks

The classic sleep mask is always a good go-to. Blocking out light is what signals your brain to start producing melatonin, which is the chemical that makes you fall asleep. However, these can be uncomfortable for people with long lashes or just don't like anything that close to their eyes. There are options like the Glo to Sleep mask that rest above your eyes, so they won't bother you while you're trying to sleep. This particular mask also features blinking blue lines that are meant to train your brain to fall asleep.

When I travel, I usually keep a sleep mask tucked away in my bag just in case you are in a bright hotel room, want to take a mid-day power nap (more on that in a bit), or want to try to grab a few minutes of sleep on the plane.

Supportive Pillows

Any pillow will do when you're trying to sleep, right? Actually, chiropractors recommend using a pillow, like this one, that will hold your head in the correct place and will support your neck while you sleep. Not only will this help you get a more comfortable night's sleep, it will also prevent injuries that will send you to said chiropractors.

I happen to like lots of pillows to provide extra support. I sleep with 3 pillows at home, and always request extra pillows at hotels when I travel (I use the Hilton HHonors app a lot, and you can request extra foam pillows before you even arrive).

Wearables

The thing about changing your habits is that you can't change what you can't measure. If you don't know how bad of a night's sleep you're getting, how are you going to accurately address and fix the problem? While buying a lower-priced wearable will be able to do some of the same things as a more pricey model, your best bet for fixing your sleeping habit is to go for the one that will be able to give you a better sleep reading like the Apple Watch Sport. Taking the plunge and spending more money can seem intimidating, but with the Apple Watch, you have access to a wearable without having to pay for it upfront.

There are also apps that use your phone to track sleep, typically by putting the phone under the mattress. That doesn't really work for me, but I know a few people who swear by it.

Noise Machine

We've all heard about white noise machines, but the Sleep Genius app helps you fall asleep by using what is known as pink noise. Developed by neuroscientists for astronauts, the app uses pink noise as a softer variant of white noise to help lull you to sleep. It also uses neurosensory algorithms to trick your brain into thinking that you're being rocked to sleep, just like a baby.

Not getting enough sleep can be stressful and downright harmful to your health. It may not be your first instinct to look to technology to be a sleep solution, but thanks to the huge strides that humans have taken towards helping each other live better lives, it can be that and more.

Power Napping

When all else fails and you are tired anyway, a 15-20 minute power nap can do wonders. Perhaps you sit in your car for a few minutes during lunch, or find a quiet corner to snooze - it can make a huge difference in your mental state.

To keep from sleeping too long, I use an app called "Pzizz" which is an audio app that has a voice-guided talk track to coach you into a relaxed state for napping. It then plays soothind sounds and music for the duration you specify, and gently wakes you when the time is up. I swear by this app!

By the way, Pzizz also has deep sleep mode that can help you get to sleep, by guiding you into a relaxed state, then fading away without waking you up. This is also helpful while traveling.

If you have other tips, please share them here!

Finding Relaxation in a Busy City

Did you know that where you live may be increasing your stress levels, hindering your motivation or even causing depression? Your mental health is an important part of your life, and it is vital that you learn what affects it and how to improve it.

According to the University of Minnesota, living in a busy city in particular can take its toll; the hustle and bustle may increase stress levels and make it more difficult to relax. But that doesn't mean all hope is lost for city-dwellers. If you are looking to move to a new city, here are some tips to finding peace in your fast-paced new life. They may also provide some ideas for how to make the time in your current city more enjoyable.

Choice of City

Before you take the leap and move, do plenty of research on the different neighborhoods in the area, looking specifically for the busy vs. the calm areas. If you love being near the water or find peace surrounded by trees, search out a city that caters to these needs. Helpful resources such as ParkScore, rank the average resident's ease of access to green space by city. Philadelphia, for example, might not have many open spaces, but just a quick train ride out of the city will bring you to more rural areas of Pennsylvania. Love hiking to relax? A place like Denver will provide you with that option just a few minutes outside the city lines.

You can often find reviews of your city online via Yelp!, local community forums, and by connecting with people you've met who live or work there. I have found good connections that can provide a local's perspective through connections on LinkedIn and Facebook, for example.

Location of Home

Once you know where you are going to move, it is time to find an apartment or home in that area that will keep you stress free. Take Chicago as an example. While the city is highly populated and full of action, you can easily find homes that fit your criteria. Start by checking online for available apartments to rent — you may find listings that face Lake Michigan, giving you a scenic view of the water, or overlook one of the many parks in the city. Be sure to read user reviews to find out if complexes attract busy and loud neighbors. If you are someone who needs peace and quiet for your mental well-being, see what the tenants say about the building before making a move.

Think about your commute and other lifestyle elements when you decide where to live - if you like to cycle, living near a good bike path would be helpful. If you plan to commute, make sure you know what you're getting into (distance, time in traffic, options for public transportation or biking / walking to work, for example). This is a good reason to rent for a while before you buy - try they location for a while to see if it is compatible with you.

Peaceful Activities

You can participate in peaceful activities like yoga, meditation or writing in any city. If you don't have a lot of access to the outdoors or quiet places, turn your apartment into a serene oasis. Set aside time each day to meditate to clear your mind and relax. If you are new to the practice, use an app like Calm, which lets you choose the length of your session, voiceovers, background sounds and more. With a pair of headphones and your eyes closed, escape to the peaceful area of your dreams. Try a few different activities and reflect on which makes you feel the most calm, and then stick to a routine to improve your mental state.

Moving to a busy city doesn't mean your mind has to speed up to keep pace. There are plenty of places to relax and find peace if you do your research and set aside time for your mental health.

I like to get out into the country for a hike, horseback riding, or volunteering at charities - all of these are relaxing for me. Your particular relaxation needs might be different, so make a list of "must haves" and "nice to haves" from an activity and amenity perspective, and plan so you have good options for the things that are important to you in your new home city.

Back for Seconds: Why Burglars Will Hit The Same House Twice

In 2015 more than 8 million property crimes were reported to the police, according to data reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI cites that property crimes include larceny-thefts, burglaries and car thefts. These crimes resulted in $14.3 billion in financial losses. A burglary can happen to anyone. Even if you’ve experienced one already. Here’s how you can protect yourself and your home against brash, back-for-seconds, criminals.

Secure Your Entire Home

Many homeowners will take precautions to alarm their homes, but some only secure the front of the home. Only securing the front of the home leaves the back of the house vulnerable to quick-thinking thieves. Gates that lock and deny access to thieves, movement-triggered lighting systems, window and door locks and security cameras can keep not only the front of the house, but the entire home protected against burglars. Lorex technology, a well-known brand in the home security industry, offers a wide variety of security cameras for the home. From weatherproof night vision cameras to high definition styles, you can sleep better at night knowing your home is protected with a security camera system.

Get a Home Security Check

In many areas, you can get your local law enforcement team to stop by your house and perform a home security check. During a home security check, local officers will come to your home and walk the entire house and around your property to identify any weak points in your home security. This service is underutilized but highly suggested. Whether you’re a new homeowner or if you’ve lived in your neighborhood for decades, scheduling a home security check can not only give you a sense of your home’s security, but peace of mind, too. The officers can also give you an idea of the types of crimes that are common in your area, so you can better prepare.

Store Your Outdoor Items Appropriately

You might think that there’s no harm, but items left out on your home’s property can lure thieves looking for "easy pickings." Bicycles, children’s play equipment, yard tools, expensive lawn mowers and other yard accessories are easy targets. And these items can also give thieves a good idea of what’s inside of your home, too. Police officers strongly advise storing these items in a locked shed or secured garage to avoid theft rather than keeping them visible to criminals in your yard.

Use Deterrent Strategies

Investing in a home security system is just one way you can protect your home and assets from thieves. However, there are a handful of additional methods that you can install around your home and property to prevent theft. From placing alarm company, Neighborhood Watch or Operation ID stickers on your doors and in your windows to planting uninviting bushes underneath windows, such as rose bushes or other thorny plants and even having a family dog, can make your home less of a target for criminals. And if you have a home security system, keeping a yard sign advertising that fact can help deter thieves.

Control Your Keys

While it may seem convenient to provide keys to friends, family and others who frequent your home, security experts advise against doing so. You never know whose hands your home’s keys will end up in. And while it may seem logical to provide a set of keys to your babysitter, maids or even contractors working on your home, don’t. Additionally, authorities cite to never leave your keys in your mailbox, underneath your doormats, a rock or other common hiding places around your property, as your keys can easily be found. Some of these may seem like common sense, but people still do these things all the time. If you really need to provide a key to someone, a temporary lock box is often a good compromise since you can bring the lock box back inside when the other person no longer needs access.

Is Your Garage Door Opener An Easy Way In?

One method thieves can use to access your home is to break into a vehicle that contains a garage door opener, use that to open your garage and enter your home that way. Even if the interior door is locked, they can close the garage door and brute force the inner door without worrying about being seen. If you have a garage remote control, either ensure it is not visible from the outside of your car or bring the remote with you when you leave the vehicle. Additionally, if you live in an area prone to break-ins, you may want to rely on the "standalone" garage remote rather than programming your garage code into the garage door opener that is built into your vehicle (note that some newer car models won't open your garage if the key is not present, but older vehicles often function any time you press the button).

These are just a few ideas to help you make your home more burglar-resistant. What do you think? Do you have more ideas?

The Best Battery Case for iPhones

I don't often declare "bests" when it comes to gadgets, but I have tried a whole slew of battery cases for the iPhone series of phones, and I believe I've found an excellent choice. It's called the "BoostCase" and it is way less bulky and obtrusive than some of the alternatives (such as Mophie and other "battery jackets.")

I first started using a BoostCase when I had an iPhone 5 - it was purple, and I loved it. I've since used BoostCase battery cases on an iPhone 6 Plus and my current phone, which is an iPhone 6s (my last two were black).

What's the big deal?

First, let me tell you about my relationship with battery cases:

  • I like to use a case on my phone.
  • When I travel, I often run out of power on my phone and want an extended battery.
  • I don't want to put up with a bulky batter case all the time, but I also don't like changing cases or carrying multiple cases around.
  • I also need to have the battery case handy when I need it - and that is often not predictable.

The BoostCase works within all of those parameters. This is a two-part case.

  • One part functions like a normal case and is thin so I can leave it on all the time (that's the bit on the right).
  • The second part is a battery 'slice' that attacked to the normal case very securely, plugs into the Lightning port on my phone and has enough juice to recharge my phone at least once (that's on the left).

Yes, I know Apple just released their own battery case. Yes, I know there are a lot of options out there. But I'd venture to say that if you try the BoostCase, you'll be happy.

By the way, it comes with a microUSB cable (you can charge and sync through it), as well as a tiny adapter so you can plug thicker headphones in when the battery slice is attached.

If you're looking to boost the battery life of your iPhone, check out the BoostCase line of products.

Updated: How to lose 50 pounds in 6 months

Originally published June 17, 2014.

[February 16, 2015: Updated information about my fitness tracking bands]

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. [Update February 16, 2015: Fitbit has come out with updated trackers since my original pos, and I have tried all 3 of the new ones. Fitbit is by far my favorited fitness band provider, and my recommended choice right now. I have also used a Jawbone Up24 in the past and, while I like it, I prefer having a band with a digital display.  For the record, the brand of fitness band you choose isn't critical - pick one you like that has the features you need - for less stress, look for good battery life. Here are my three recommended bands at this time:
    • Fitbit Charge: This tracker is the most similar to the Fitbit Force I knew and loved. It tracks steps you take, flights of stairs you've climbed, tracks your sleep, can function as a watch, can show notifications from your smartphone, and has a vibrating alarm. Highly recommended for basic fitness tracking. You'll get 7-10 days of battery life from this (closer to 10 in my experience). The only issue I've had with this is that the clasp used can sometimes get pulled open on coats, or when reaching into bags.
    • Fitbit Charge HR: This is almost the same as the Charge, above, but adds a heart rate tracker that can track your heart rate 24/7. This one adds a more secure buckle in place of the Charge's clasp. Battery life is more like 5-7 days. This is my new favorite, since it adds the heartrate functionality but doesn't feel bulky.
    • Fitbit Surge: This is more like a traditional sports watch, with a much larger (and more useful) display. It has the same functions as the other two Fitbits above, but adds a run tracker with GPS that can record a run (time, distance, and route) even without your smartphone. It also has "record this exercise" functions for Hiking, Weights, Yoga, Elliptical, Spinning, and general Workout tracking. Battery life is about 5 days without using the GPS function - you'll need to charge much more frequently if you use the GPS function to track a run (though that feature is highly accurate, and syncs your heart rate with your location, elevation, etc.) This device is a close second for me, and would be first if the battery life were a bit longer and it were a little slimmer. End of update]
  • 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 have also learned that diet tends to trump exercise - in other words, I find that I get in more trouble with inconsistent dietary discipline than I do with inconsistent exercise discipline.

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.