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.

 

4 Apps That Will Help You Achieve Your Daily Goals

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Many of us are busier than ever and increasingly more stressed. If you’ve got a long list of goals to accomplish, you might need a little help. The good news is there are apps you can download onto your smartphone that can help you accomplish those goals. Here are 4 that are interesting and a bit unusual, with a variety of focuses:

Pact

Going to the gym is something you know is important for reducing stress, helping your self-esteem and giving you more energy to do everything else you need to do. But, at the same time, working out tends to be one of the first things you put off.

To eliminate that problem, you can try using money as a motivator by downloading Pact. The concept is pretty interesting: LInk this app to your bank account and if you don’t go to the gym, Pact will take money out of your account. Where does the money go? It is redistributed to those who did make it to the gym. If you do accomplish things like completing your gym workout or taking 10,000 steps in a day, you’ll get a cash reward paid by those who didn’t meet their goals.

You can’t fake it either. GPS, photos and other services are used to keep everyone honest. It can also be used for other challenges, such as eating your veggies or tracking the food you eat.

CARROT

I've seen some people call CARROT "sadistic" because if you don't finish your tasks, the app gets very upset. However, it's not all bad -- if you complete your tasks, the task master will praise you.

This unique app works by calling you out for being a slacker. If you tend to forget to pick the kids up after school or don't pick up your dry cleaning, this app strives to ensure you don’t do that again. It can also be used like a tyrannical gym instructor if you’re trying to get fit or help you stick to your diet plan. CARROT will force you to accomplish your goals as if you have a nun hovering around with a ruler just waiting to make it sting. This one is a little intense for me, but you might like it.

BetterMe

If you have a difficult time waking up in the morning without several alarms or someone shaking you awake, BetterMe is an app that can do the trick. The twist? It’s based on public humiliation rather than private shaming. If you don’t get up when you’re supposed to, the app will post a message to your Facebook page that tells your friends you were too weak to get out of bed.

In addition to serving as a rude alarm clock, it can help you get to your classes or work on time. All you have to do is input the address and time of your commitment, and the app will use GPS to see if you’ve arrived at your destination on time. If not, it could be a little embarrassing when all your Facebook friends start asking why.

SmartyPig

If you’re having trouble saving money, SmartyPig is an app that can help you save for a specific goal such as a vacation or a down payment on a house. It also allows friends, family members and other users to contribute to your savings goal. It can make saving fun by "feeding the pig” and encouraging you to add money you would have spent on a latte into your savings instead. Because it shares your goals via Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites, it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll stick to those financial goals.

If you like edgy, you might like one or more of these apps. Enjoy!

OurGroceries Is A Great Family App

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For the past 6 months or so, my wife and I have been using an app called "OurGroceries" to manage our shopping lists, and I recommend it highly. Through a smartphone app, we can easily add things to various shopping / errands lists, see instantaneous updates as we shop, and a lot more. The app is very easy to use, both in adding and crossing off items on your shopping list - we use the iOS version on our iPhones, and there is an Android version, as well.

In spite of the "groceries" reference in the title, you can use this for just about any shopping or errands list. As you can see in the screenshot, we've set up lists for a number of our commonly-visited stores, as well as a general purpose "Groceries" list. As we think of something, it is very easy to add it to the list, and it automatically shows up for the other person.

As you use the list over time, you tend to repeat items, and the app makes it easy to add those items to the list. You can either start typing and it will autocomplete based on your history, or you can tap on one of the crossed off items (as seen below) and that item will be moved back to your list. I also find I am less likely to forget things if I scan through old items to jog my memory.

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Another cool feature is the ability to set up recipes (we only have one, at the moment as you can see in the first screenshot). With recipes, you can bulk-add items for a specific recipe or project. Once you define the recipe, a single tap will add all of its items to the appropriate lists. The recipes don't have to be literally recipes - for example, you might have a "Backyard BBQ" recipe that includes a bunch of items you want to stock up on to prepare for an upcoming event.

OurGroceries has two versions - a free, ad-supported version and a paid, ad-free version (paid via an in-app purchase). After seeing the value a few weeks in, I paid the $4.99 for the ad-free version and I haven't regretted it.

You can also edit and manage your lists via OurGroceries' website. We don't really use it that way, but it is good to know that the option exists.

If you need to coordinate shopping and errands with other people, give the free version of OurGroceries a try - I think you'll like it.  

Apologies for site issues and kudos to Hover.com

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Some of you have sent me emails, messages, etc. over the past few days regarding this site being offline. I apologize for that, but have good news: everything is back to normal now.

Yes, GenuineCuriosity.com was down for about a week due to a snafu at my domain registrar. All should be fine now, and you'll see some posts showing up here soon (I have a backlog).

Kudos to Hover

Part of the solution to my issue drove me to change domain providers. I have heard a lot of good things about Hover in the past so I decided to give them a try. Actually, I've been an email customer of theirs for a long time - I bought a vanity email from a company called NetIdentity in the mid-90's and Hover acquired them at some point. I've been very happy with the email service, but just never had a compelling reason to move my domains there until I had this outage.

One of the things I liked about Hover was that I was able to just hand the problem to them using their "Valet Transfer" service. I gave them access to my old provider's account and they went through all of the steps to unlock and transfer my domains to Hover, as well as configuring my settings on Hover to restore service.

This was amazingly easy, and I highly recommend using the valet service. They charged my $9.95 per domain to do this work, but also extended each of my 7 domains by a year.

On top of that, some of the services I used to pay extra for at my old provider (rhymes with GoDaddy) are now included in Hover's service (such as domain privacy, protection from unauthorized transfers, etc.

If you're looking for a great domain provider, I can recommend Hover without reservation. And no, I don't get any compensation from them - I just think they are a good company to work with.

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.

[Updated] SpiShutter hands-on - a great webcam privacy solution for MacBooks

A while back, I shared how you can use cellophane tape to keep people from spying on you with your webcam.

For the past month or so, I've been using an alternative called the SpiShutter which I really like so I wanted to share it with you.  Here is a brief video walk-through showing how it works:

I have the black version of the SpiShutter, but they come in a couple of other colors, as well. 

By the way - the privacy screen I mention is the 3M Gold Privacy Filter for MacBook Pro Retina computers - they are available for most other computers, as well.  That's meant for a different kind of privacy - namely, to combat shoulder surfers and neighboring travelers - and I swear by them. [Updated - corrected broken link]