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.

 

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.

Increase Productivity by Changing Your Environment

I write a lot about gadgets, tools, tips, and tricks for productivity. Those things are important for productivity, but there is one aspect that I often take for granted that is a huge factor in productivity: your environment. 

I live in the Pacific Northwest of the US, and this time of year we see a lot of short, gray days. I've noticed that the weather here can affect my energy level, concentration, and focus. The good news is I can do something about this by altering the environment where I work to tweak the color, lighting, and layout around me -- and you can, too.

Color

Colors have been used to subtly influence emotion and productivity for centuries, dating back as far as ancient Egypt and China, according to About Education. Having the right colors in the right rooms has been shown to affect both your mood and how detailed or creative you are, explains Return Customer. For instance, colors like blue and green can increase your creativity and imagination while reds can stimulate, excite and increase your attention to detail and reaction times. Yellows and oranges can brighten a room as well as the mood of those within. Blues are great for conference rooms so as to boost friendliness and brainstorming. On the other hand, reds are often used in entryways to instill a feeling of power and excitement.

However, too much of any color can have negative effects. For example, a lot of yellow can be distracting and over-stimulating, and darker reds are often associated with anger and anxiety. Before you start painting, take a look at your workspace to see where you can incorporate new colors without going overboard.

Lighting

The right lighting can have a dramatic effect on productivity and effectiveness. A study by the California Energy Commission shows that the use of natural lighting can result in a 20 percent increase in productivity and a 25 percent boost for your mental functions and memory.

But again, it’s all about finding the right balance. Too much direct lighting can create glare, leading to headaches and other difficulties. To give you more flexibility, install custom shades that can control the amount of natural sunlight coming in and can impact the room temperature, which can lead to lower heating and cooling costs.

Layout

After you work on your colors and lighting, look at the layout and condition of your office furniture. Not only should your furniture be comfortable and in good condition, but it also should fulfill whatever needs your office has. Look for ergonomically-designed chairs, desks and furniture to help you stay safe and comfortable at work.

Additionally, make sure that the layout and flow of your office works for you. Don't just focus on how the office looks but also how effective it is for your overall 

Location

Of course, a lot of these thoughts pertain to the office I work in. There is another way to change your environment: change your location.

I use a lot of mobile devices (laptops, tablets, etc.) to get work done, and I also get an energy and productivity boost from getting up and moving to a different location from time to time. For example, I often work out of a library or coffee shop, and I really like the change of pace. That approach is also a lot faster than remodeling your workspace, so it can really help in a pinch.

What about you? What kinds of changes have you made that have enhanced your productivity?

Use your best iPhone pictures as postcards

Last year, I stumbled across an iOS app called PhotoCard, by Bill Atkinson. This app allows you to create free, electronic postcards from your iOS photos, personalize them, and send them via email.

You can also convert your postcards into gorgeous physical postcards and mail them to other people. That, of course, is not free but it is also very reasonably priced. I've sent quite a few of them and they are beautiful and very noteworthy, since they are 8.25 x 5.5 inch cards printed in high-quality color printing and mailed by US Mail.

Editing a picture I snapped of The Gherkin tower in London, which I sent as a postcard.

The app comes with over 200 of Bill's own photos, so you can compose something beautiful, or you can use your favorite snaps from your camera roll or photostream.

You create both the front and the back of the card, including your message and the style of the stamp if you are sending physical cards.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, this is a great way to do it. I love this app.

Pomodoro Technique: How a tomato can make you productive

Flat Tomato summary on iOS

Lately, I've been experimenting with a productivity method called the pomorodo technique. I'm not sure what "pomodoro" has to do with productivity (it's Spanish for "tomato"), but I like the technique, nonetheless.

The concept of this method is simple:

  • Pick a task you want to get done.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes (a pomodoro interval).
  • Focus on that task - and only that task - until the timer goes off.
  • When the timer goes off, take a 3-5 minute break, and really quit working on the task when the time is up.
  • After the break, repeat the cycle again (you can continue on the same task, or pick a new one).
  • After 4 pomodoro intervals, take a longer break (usually 15-30 minutes) and do something enjoyable.

This method is great for momentum, particularly on boring or daunting tasks, since you always feel like the next break isn't far away. The feeling of momentum and progress is also hard to describe - it reminds me very much of the 'sprints' used in the Scrum method of software development. In essence, this is very much like time boxing, but I prefer the use of fixed intervals in the pomodoro technique.

Gadgets can help

No surprise, I turned to gadgets to help me with the pomodoro method:

  • Old school: I started this process using a mechanical kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, which I found on Amazon. This was fun, but not really portable (or at least I never remembered to bring mine with me when I left my desk). I eventually graduated to using my smartphone...
  • Flat Tomato for iOS: On my iOS devices, Flat Tomato is my go-to pomodoro app. It is easy to use, and is perfectly-aligned with pomodoro, including timing the intervals, the breaks, and remembering that you've done 4 cycles so you need a longer break. It also tracks user-defined categories so you can review how you've spent your time (in an attractive, graphical chart). It also shows the status of the current interval on the lock screen.
  • Clockwork Tomato for Android: On my Android devices, I use Clockwork Tomato. It has many of the same functions as Flat Tomato, with the addition of weekly and monthly summary graphs to show how you've spent your time.
  • Computer- and web-based apps: I tend to use my smartphone for my timer, so I don't really have a computer-based timer to recommend for pomodoro. If you have one that you like, please share it in the comments below.

Bottom line, I am a fan of the pomodoro technique as a way to keep me productive, help me get through mundane tasks, and to reinforce the need for regular breaks during the day (that last one is huge in terms of energy management).

By the way - this blog post took almost exactly one pomodoro to write.

Do's and Don'ts for Password Creation

In today’s world of online shopping, online banking, cloud data management and Internet-based teleconferencing, protecting yourself is more important than ever. The recent batch of stories relaying the horrors of celebrities and corporations being hacked and sensitive data being exposed only serves to highlight the necessity of having good security. The first place to start is with your own passwords.

People assume that if something has a password, it is protected. This is not always the case. Many hackers are adept at guessing passwords, giving them total access to all of your personal information.

How can you make your password more secure? There are several techniques you can employ, all of which will increase the strength of your passwords and help keep you and your information safe and secure. Here are a few do’s and don’ts.

Do's

Do go long. The longer the better. While you don’t want to go crazy because long passwords can be impossible to remember, make sure yours is longer than nine characters. Can't be bothered to come up with your own unique passwords for every site you belong to? Check out Norton's free password generator where you can specify length and contents at the click of your mouse.

Do mix it up. Have a combination of lower case letters, capital letters, numbers and symbols, preferably at least two of each. And don’t put them in a predictable order (in other words, don’t start your password with a capital letter).

Do use an anagram. Create your password using an anagram or sentence. “W!t2gMp&#b4uX” may look impossible to remember until you realize it stands for “Wait! try to guess MY password and numbers before u FAIL.”

Do take precautions. Remember that even the best password is not foolproof. For added protection, take advantage of services like LifeLock. It'll keep track (and alert you) of any suspicious activity on your accounts and will help you get your life back on track if identity theft happens to you.

Do use a password manager. Keep your passwords in a password vault (such as 1Password, LastPass, or a similar product). These products allow you to create random, complex passwords for each web site and stores all of them in a secure manner. 

Do change it regularly. If you've had the same password for more than a year, it is probably time to change it. I recommend a minimum of once per year - more often for critical sites. For example, I know someone who changes their online banking passwords at every time change (the same time he changes batteries in his smoke detectors). That is a good habit.

Use two-factor authentication, if it is available. More and more sites are offering two-factor authentication in which you not only enter a password, but you have to enter an additional verification code that changes all the time. The most common method these days is to send a text message to your mobile phone with a code that must be entered to complete the login process. Many banks and payment processors (such as PayPal) offer this as an option - it is easy and adds a lot of security to your account, and is highly recommended. 

Don'ts

Don’t use common passwords or familiar patterns. Using common passwords that are easy to remember might sound like a good idea, but they are often the first ones tried by hackers. Don’t use things like “iloveyou” and “password1." Check out the 25 worst passwords and read as a cautionary tale.

Hackers are also adept at using familiar patterns to guess passwords. Putting a capital letter at the beginning, numbers at the end or finishing with an exclamation point are all very common and predictable.

Don’t use your names or numbers. Avoid using common names or people in your life as part of your password. Also avoid things like the street you live on or the company you work for. All of these can be found out by doing a little digging.

Same goes for any numbers that can be associated with you or someone close to you. Birthdays, anniversaries, addresses, social security numbers, etc., all of these are easily discovered by potential hackers.

Don’t overlap. Using the same password for multiple devices or multiple websites can put you in danger. It may be a pain to remember all of them, but if a hacker is able to deduce one of your passwords, it is the first thing he will try on the rest of your security locations.  See the "Do" about password managers for ways to make this easier.