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.


Managing Money: 3 Unconventional Strategies to Adopt

When it comes to improving your money management knowledge and skills, a little unconventional thinking can go a long way. Instead of simply being a victim of your impulses, spend your hard-earned money in a more conscious manner.

Here are three strategies that can help you:

Shop Smarter, Guided by Practicality

Gone are the days when your location and a store's sales limited your shopping habits. Thanks to online shopping, the options are endless, making good bargains more accessible than ever before. You no longer have to wait for Black Friday to get the best deals on your holiday shopping, either.

But avoid emptying your bank account for the sake of fulfilling your holiday shopping list. To save more money around the holidays, downsize your list and check everything off before the holiday madness begins. Get creative by giving gifts you can create on your own. Or, if you must buy something for someone, make it as practical as possible. For instance, instead of buying your spouse a new iPad that they don't really need, buy them a new set of winter tires for their car, or a new winter coat. Necessities are the new "fun" gifts.

Think of the Future like the Present

Many of us fail to save as much money as we could — and should — due to plain old procrastination. Why do it today if you can put it off until tomorrow, right? But that line of thinking — the assumption you have plenty of time to save money — is precisely the problem, and it sneaks up on you.

UCLA behavioral economist Keith Chen found a direct link between our failure as a culture to save adequately and the manner in which we understand the future is near. Chen divides languages into two categories: futured and futureless. Like the English language, futured languages have different verb conjugations for the future tense. However, in futureless languages, like Japanese, Chinese and German, the same verb forms are used when the speaker is expressing something in the present or future tense.

This seemingly minor difference actually makes a major impact in how we perceive the "future" based on our native tongue. Those who speak futured languages tend to view the future as something significantly different from the present, thus making it easier to disregard its imminence and the need to save for it. Meantime, futureless language speakers view the future much more similarly to the present and, as such, tend to be much more successful at saving money for the future.

In order to better manage your own personal finances and savings, try to adopt the same concept of the future that futureless language speakers have. In other words, think of the future like it's tomorrow or just months away and allow it to positively impact your bank account so you can enjoy the benefits.

Question Your Motivations

Many industries are taking advantage of an emerging field called behavioral finance, which combines principles of cognitive and behavioral psychology. In business, the concept is used to manipulate consumers into doing what big business wants: for you to spend more.

To avoid falling for these behavioral finance ploys, it pays to be conscious of when your emotions are signaling you to make a purchase. Companies often use or take advantage of consumers' emotions in order to influence their decision-making and override their rationale. Instead, consumers like you should be especially mindful of their instinctive reasoning. Instead of going with the flow and following the herd mentality, be especially prudent of potential purchases if you know other people who have recently made the same purchase. A little extra caution will go a long way to help you better manage your money.

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.

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.


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.

Wonderful Day: Productivity, Jerry Seinfeld style [Updated]

I've been experimenting with a new productivity / motivational tool that I discovered the other day.  It is called "Wonderful Day," and it is an iOS app that is designed to give you an easy, in-your-face way to establish and reinforce productive habits.  It reminds me of that old adage, "How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time."

Apparently, this app was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld's productivity technique - very interesting.

Set a goal, create a chain

The premise is simple:  You pick a goal you want to achieve that requires persistent commitment, and you put it in the Wonderful Day app.  You decide how often you want to perform some activity that contributes to your goal (daily, weekly, etc.), and set up how often you want to be reminded / nagged so you don't forget.

Now, for each of your goals, you have a "punch card" that you use to record whether you actually did what you set out to do.  The objective is to build a "chain" of punches that advance your goal, and to keep at it so you don't break the chain.  If you stick with it, you'll get a lot done, improve yourself, and establish new habits.

My example

One of the goals I used Wonderful Day to track was to spend at least 30 minutes each day working on a specific work project.  I wanted to do this because I keep forgetting about this particular project, but I want to get it moving.

Now, the app reminds me of this project every day and I pick some element of the project and work on it for 30 minutes.  Each day I do that, I get to punch my card in Wonderful Day.  I didn't think this was rocket science, but punching that card turns out to produce a rewarding feeling.  Here are a couple of screen shots to give you an idea (these aren't mine - they are from the App Store, but I think they illustrate it very well and show a longer "chain" than the ones I have so far):



In the screen on the left, you see the Activities (I call them Goals in my head) and you can have as many as you'd like.  I recommend starting with no more than 5 to keep from overwhelming or annoying yourself.

On the right, you see one of the "punch cards" I mentioned.  Each dot is an interval (in this case each dot represents a day).  The green dots represent the times you did what you wanted to do, and the red dots are times when you didn't do it.

This is a pretty simple and effective way to log your progress and ingrain habits into your daily life.  I think the Wonderful Day app is a novel approach to getting things done, and worth a look.

If you try it out, let me know how it works for you.

[Updated] Beeminder - put your money where your mouth is

How many times have you said you were going to do something, then seen your commitment evaporate?  I know it's happened to me.  In the past, I've written about how to overcome procrastination, how to turn to coaches and other 3rd parties to help keep you on task, etc. But what about online tools to help keep you on track?

Recently, I was contacted by the creators of an interesting productivity service called Beeminder and I was intrigued enough to give it a try. Beeminder is an innovative approach to help you commit to specific goals, and stay focused on them. What’s the secret sauce? If you don’t do what you said you’d do, it will cost you money. In other words, it creates accountability by getting you to put your money where your mouth is.

The premise is pretty simple:

  • You decide on a goal and commit to it.
  • You decide on a dollar amount as a "penalty" you'll pay if you don't meet your commitments.
  • You agree to Beeminder's "contract" (including an "I promise not to weasel" clause) and commit to your penalty amount. Right now, looks like $5 is your only choice - I suspect that will change at some point.
  • You use Beeminder to track your progress.

Beeminder tracks daily progress against your goals to help you monitor whether you are on track or not.  You can report progress via email, text message, or directly on the site.  You also receive daily email updates from Beeminder to let you know whether you're on track or not.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

In tracking progress against your goal, Beeminder has a very good visual helper that I like a lot.  They call it the "Yellow Brick Road" and it is the sweet spot of progress against your goal - here is a sample of my graph (at right).  If you want a better illustration, check out the example from the Beeminder site.

Beeminder GCBlog

In my case, my commitment is to blog 4 times per month (I know some of you have noticed how occasional my blogging has become, and I want to change that).  I also have my own internal guidelines about what it means to "blog" 4 times a month - for example, I'm talking about original content (not reposts), and the posts need to be long enough (I don't have a hard guideline on post length - but I know it when I see it).

I've established daily milestones toward a weekly blog post, and my goal is to stay within the bounds of the yellow line (my Yellow Brick Road) or above it, which means I'm ahead of my goal.  If it falls below the yellow line, I have a short amount of time to correct it, or I pay my penalty (in this case $5) to reset my goal.

The effect is cumulative, too - the first time you miss your goal, it costs what you committed originally, but each time you fall off the path, the price goes up - very motivating. Here is the formula for increases, per the Beeminder site:

What exactly is the exponential fee schedule for subsequent derailments?

Going off your yellow brick road the first time costs nothing, the second time (if you chose to unfreeze after the first attempt) it costs $5, the third time it costs $10, then $30, $90, $270, $810, etc. In general, the cost of going off the road the ith time is:

Formula beeminder

You can chicken out at any time, of course.  Which leads me to the next point...

It's free if you stay awesome

One cool thing about Beeminder is that it will cost you nothing if you meet your commitments - you only pay when you fail to do what you said you'd do, at which point you have to pay to reset/restart your goal.  I think this approach is pretty cool - they provide a great tool to help you track your progress, and it stays free if you adhere to your plan.  Mess up, and you pay the site's owners - yep, they reap the rewards if I don't do what I committed to, which is a fascinating business model.

A lot of thought has gone into this approach, from what I can tell - there is a good overview about Beeminder on the site that goes into a lot more detail, and I suggest you read it if you're considering using Beeminder.

On Goals and tracking

You can pick just about any general goal, but I encourage you to think about what daily progress looks like, as Beeminder expects you to check in daily.  They provide a bit of guidance on this on the site, as well as some specific guidance if you want to use Beeminder to track weight loss.  More on that, plus general information about the approach and "akrasia" are detailed on the Beeminder blog, in the post "The Magical Widening Yellow Brick Road."

Update: I was having trouble figuring out how to effectively track my goal, which has a weekly "deliverable" rather than a daily cadence. I just spoke with one of the Beeminder founders and he pointed me at a great blog post on that very topic: Chunky Time! - it's a must-read if you have a "chunky" kind of goal.

Give it a try

If you need a little help overcoming procrastination, or some extra motivation to keep you focused on your goals, I recommend taking a look at Beeminder.  I think it provides an interesting, innovative, and motivating method to help you get more done.  You'll know whether I succeed or not - it will be measured in blog posts per month.

If you try Beeminder, let me know how you fare!