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.

 

Productivity tip for podcast listeners

I listen to a lot of podcasts during my commute, while traveling, and while running or walking.  For me, this is a crucial activity to "feed my head" with data about topics I care about.  If you like podcasts, but feel like you don't have enough time to keep up, I have a tip to make it more productive:  Variable Speed Playback

Back in the day, I began listening to audio books on my iPod and discovered that the iPod had a built-in setting to allow me to adjust the playback speed of the books (you could slow it down, as well as speed it up).  I began to enjoy the time-compression advantages of listening to the audiobooks faster (typically 1.5x) - after all, a 30-hour book suddenly became a 20-hour book - what's not to love?

Since then, Variable Speed Playback is a must-have feature for any podcast player I use.

Here are some additional tips and things I've learned about this:

  • Not all time-compression algorithms are created equal.  All of the variable-speed algorithms attempt to speed up the playback while maintaining the pitch of the voice so people don't sound like chipmunks.  Some players use algorithms that are good at this, others suck at it - you have to try them out to find one that sounds 'natural enough' to you.
  • If you are bothered by the faster voice rate, give it 3-5 minutes to settle in.  Your brain will adjust and it will sound normal after a few minutes.
  • My default playback rate is 1.5x, but there isn't a "one speed fits all" option.  Some podcasters talk very slow, so you might need to go to 1.75x or 2x.  Others talk very quickly, so you may not be able to speed them up at all - no biggie, you're being productive enough because they are loading you up with high-density information.
  • Some podcasts are not well-suited for speedups - for example, those with a lot of music, or being presented by people with strong accents, or by groups of people with at least one "fast talker" in the bunch.  You'll get to know which of your podcasts are accelerate able, and which aren't.
  • Along the same lines, I prefer podcast players that can maintain a speed setting for each podcast so you don't have to adjust any time a new one starts.
    • On iOS, I love Downcast (image on the left at the end of this post) - it has a default setting that works globally, as well as making it easy to define a local setting for each podcast.  It also has a great variable speed algorithm that works well for a variety of podcast types.
    • On Android, I like BeyondPod (image on the right at the end of this post) - it has a default setting globally, an easy way to adjust the playback speed on the fly (with pre-set rates, or an variable slider), as well as a great algorithm for variable speed playback.  The only thing is lacks is the ability to remember the speed setting for each podcast individually - still on the hunt for that on Android in a player that isn't fatally flawed in some other way.

I've had a few folks who thought I was crazy when I recommended this, but several of them have come back telling me they are believers.  By the way, I use sped-up playback with the Audible player for audiobooks - also a huge time saver.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

 

Downcast for iOS
(click to embiggen)

BeyondPod for Android
(click to embiggen)

 

Take better notes: Top tips for students and professionals

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time in meetings, and you can't remember everything that happens.  That means you take a lot of notes, right?  Unfortunately, many of us have had to learn how to take notes via "trial by fire" exercises - in other words, you just have to figure it out on your own.

Note Taking 101: Have a system in mind

I recently discovered a great resource with information about taking notes:  an article from OnlineUniversities.com on "Note Taking 101" which does a great job of covering the basics of good note taking, focusing on tools and systems you can use to take better notes.  This is in the "student resources" category of their site, but I think their tips will help whether you are a student or working out in the business world.

One of the techniques they outline, "the Cornell Method," is similar to one I was taught about 10 years ago.  This system involves breaking your page up into "zones" (as shown in the illustration, which I have borrowed from their article).  Essentially, you create a systematic way of capturing different elements of a talk or meeting in each zone which makes it easier to reference an process the information after-the-fact.

I noticed that Moleskine has recently begun offering "Moleskine Folio Notebooks" that have similar organizational blocks pre-printed on the page (see right, and click for a larger view.   The Moleskine structure is a bit different, in that the summaries are at the top of the page, but I think it can be used in a similar way.  I also like that the "Cue Column" is always on the edge of the page.

I like this model, and augment it with my own shorthand, like noting things I learn about clients and people with whom I'm trying to build relationships. For example, prefixing something as "BG: " means it is a business goal of theirs, "PG: " precedes a personal goal, etc.  In the "Cue Column" I use little boxes to denote action items, "RD" for things I want to Research & Develop; F/U for things requiring Follow-Up, etc.  You can, of course, evolve your own nomenclature for this to suit your needs.

Electronic Notes

With the advent of tools like Evernote and OneNote (both of which are mentioned in the "Note Taking 101" article) I have taken more notes electronically over the past several years.  Using an iPad Keyboard has helped a lot - both in terms of accuracy, as well as share-ability (I can immediately email my notes to other attendees via Evernote, or even share an electronic notebook for team collaboration).

The elements of note taking are similar to those outlined in the article, but the structure is different because of the nature of the online "page" structure.  This is another area where coming up with consistent  nomenclature is a key factor in making the notes usable over the long haul.  

Note: I've been experimenting with adding hashtags to my notes for better search ability,  such as "#BG:" for business goals, and "#PG:" for personal goals.  I like that approach and will likely switch to that standard in my handwritten notes, just to make the habit more consistent.

A Hybrid Approach

Of course, I switch back & forth between paper and electronic notes, for various reasons.  Evernote has been making it easier for the last year or two, but joining forces with Moleskine to create Evernote versions of the Moleskine notebooks.  These have special stickers and special colors on the Moleskine pages so that your notes and drawings can be process and indexed more easily by Evernote (which can decipher most handwriting and make it searchable, by the way).

These notebooks are nice, since you can write in them with any old pen and convert them to digital by taking a picture of them with the Evernote app on your smartphone.

Much More in the Article

I've focused on some of the tips in the article that are more relevant to me, but there is a lot more there, including:

  • 12 Tips for standardizing your notes
  • How to use Mind Mapping to take better notes (I'm a big fan of mind maps, since I'm a visual learner)
  • Audio notes
  • Outlines as a note taking tool

Note Taking 101 is a great resource - go check it out, and let me know how it goes.


Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

[Updated] Hands-on Review: Typo Keyboard for iPhone 5

I pre-ordered the "Typo" keyboard for my iPhone 5s and have now been using it for about a week.  I was intrigued by this keyboad when I heard about it - it promised to give me an experience that was a lot like my old Blackberry keyboard, but with the modern capabilities of my iPhone.  So far, it is delivering.

Here are some thoughts and observations.

Nice form factor, "feel," and build quality

The Typo keyboard is well-built and very sleek.  It doesn't significantly add to the thickness of my iPhone, so it still fits in my pocket just fine.  The keyboard adds a bit to the length of the iPhone (probably about a half-inch) but doesn't feel cumbersome.

The keyboard pairs with your phone via Bluetooth and has a backlight you can toggle on and off.  The feel of the keyboard is reminiscent of the Blackberry keyboard, so I find it easy and accurate in normal use.  There are some layout quirks, but I got used to those in a day or so.  One cool thing I like: you can long-press a letter to have it toggle from lower-case to caps - I always loved that on my Blackberry.

[Update: The balance of the keyboard is great - I was concerned it would want to tip forward or something while typing it, but I am able to hold it very much like I used to hold my Blackberry and it feels very stable in my hands.]

The keyboard charges separately with an included micro-USB cable.  I haven't had it long enough to comment on battery life, but there is a way to check the battery by pressing the keyboard icon and looking for a series of flashes that tells you how much charge is left (a week into this, mine still says "full").

Effects on your access to iPhone functionality

With the case on, you still have full use of your screen, but not your actual Home button. To access the Home button, the Typo provides a button that mimics the Home function - you can see it in the lower right corner in the picture above.  Of course, that means you lose access to your fingerprint reader if you're using an iPhone 5s, but everything else works fine.   

As for the rest of your controls, you have full access to all your normal control buttons since they are not covered by the case's structure.  

[Update:  If you want to use voice functionality, there are two things to know:

  1. To speak to Siri, just hold down the keyboard's Home button (square icon) and Siri will respond just as if you'd pressed the home button itself.
  2. If you want to fill in a field with voice dictation, you'll note that there is no-onscreen keyboard so you can't press the microphone button.  There's an easy solution:  Press the keyboard key on the Typo and the on-screen keyboard appears - you can press the microphone button from there.

On a related topic, the keyboard button also allows you to access international keyboards, emoji keyboards, etc. that you have enabled on your phone.]

You can also use your headphones and Lightning connector, with some restrictions - the original lightning connector and headphones fit just fine, but third-party accessories with thicker connectors may not fit in the pass-through holes on the Typo.  For example: most of my headphones fit well, but  the ones with angled connectors were prone to pulling out, and I had a 3rd-party power / sync cable that had a thicker connector that didn't fit. 

The bottom line

The bottom line?  I like this keyboard so far and I expect I'll keep using it.  The first batch of pre-orders sold out quickly, but they are working on the next batch which they expect to begin shipping next month.  If you want to get yours, head on over to the Typo site.

Fitbit Force Hands-On Review

When it was announced a few months ago, I pre-ordered Fitbit’s new wearable fitness tracking band, the Fitbit Force (I’m a previous owner of the Fitbit Flex and I liked the improvements in the Force). I’ve had the Fitbit Force for about 3 weeks now, and now feel informed enough to share a hands-on perspective about it.

What is the Fitbit Force?

The Fitbit Force is a fitness-tracking bracelet that you wear on your wrist to keep track of various types of activities, including:

  • Steps
  • Flights of steps climbed
  • Hours and quality of sleep
  • Estimated calories burned
  • Minutes of intense activities each day
  • Current time (so you can use it as a watch)

The data gathered by the Fitbit Force is synced to your computer or smartphone, using either Bluetooth Low Energy (a newer standard) or via an included wireless receiver that goes in your computer’s USB port.

There is an accompanying web-based dashboard and smartphone app that allows you to view the data, set and track fitness goals, track food intake, set silent alarms, and more.

Overall impressions

  • The Fitbit Force is very comfortable to wear, and keeps a low profile on your wrist. You can use either wrist, and Fitbit provides a way to increase accuracy by telling it whether you are wearing the Force on your dominant or non-dominant hand.
  • Fastening the Force’s clasp securely takes a bit of practice but after a few days I was consistently able to get it to fasten properly. In the first couple of days it fell off a few times while I was taking my jacket off, but once I became accustomed to squeezing the band until the clasp “clicked” it hasn’t fallen off since.
  • I have the black version of the band (there is also a “slate” version which looks more like teal to me). The design of the band is very nice and inconspicuous - it blends in fine with formal business attire, and fits under the sleeves of my dress shirts with no problem.
  • You change modes (from awake to sleep mode) using a button on the side of the Force. I like this method much better than with the Fitbit Flex, where you had to tap the band to change mode (I found that he flex changed modes too easily and it was annoying).
  • The same pushbutton is used to cycle through the LED display to view the time, monitor your progress against the various goals, and silence the silent (vibrating) alarm.
  • The silent alarms are great - I use them to wake up every day and I like the flexibility of being able to set different schedules for different days. The silent alarms wake me up by vibrating on my wrist without disturbing my wife - definitely a plus when I have to get up ridiculously early for a flight.
  • The battery life has been excellent. I am getting full 10 days on each charge, and the band warns me when I have about a day left so I can plan ahead to recharge it. Recharging takes a little over an hour. The only complaint I have is that it uses a proprietary cable instead of a micro-USB cable so be careful not to lose the cable!  (By the way - on my iPhone, which supports Bluetooth Low Energy, I have not noticed any reduction in battery life from the syncing).
  • I like the dashboard and apps, particularly the feature that lets me engage in friendly competition with friends so we can try to beat each other on the number of steps we walk in a week. Sometimes, that little bit of competition makes the difference between me staying on the couch and heading outside for a nice walk.
  • I don’t use Fitbit to log my food - instead, I use MyFitnessPal because it syncs seamlessly with FitBit and has better functionality (my favorite feature is the one that allows me to add foods by scanning their barcode). The integration of these two apps enables me to see my “net calories” (calories in minus calories burned) so I can see if I am meeting my daily calorie targets or not.
  • The Force is water-resistant and I’ve worn it in the shower and in the pouring rain with no ill effects.
  • I like using the sleep tracking function of the Force, especially when I’m traveling as it lets me know how well I slept. You have to manually tell the Flex you are going to sleep and waking up, and sometimes I forget. Fitbit has thought of this, and you can retroactively enter or adjust your sleep times via the app or the web site - this has been handy after I realize I’ve been walking around for 2 hours but never told the Force band that I was awake again.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I have no regrets about buying the Fitbit Force, and I recommend it highly. Based on my experience with other bands, the big thing I’m wondering: How will it hold up over time? If anything odd happens with regard to reliability, I’ll post it here.

Positive productivity: How increasing your energy maximizes your efficiency

The traditional concept of time management focuses on the practice of ardently planning and mastering conscious control over the time allocated to specific tasks.  It sure sounds hard, described that way, doesn't it?  In real lifeespecially business settingstime management requires tools, skills and processes all laced together by the ultimate goal of increasing efficiency and productivity. Frankly, time management takes a lot of time. 

But what if increasing productivity was much simpler than that? What if instead of involving project management software, schedules, graphs and apps, the process required a decent pair of walking shoes and a fluffy pillow?

Master your energy

Based on the assertions of Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their bestseller, "The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal," our most precious resource is energy, not time. Certainly making the best use of your time is critical to your success but, if your energy levels are depleted, your productivity takes a dive regardless of what the clock reads.

Of course, managing your energy in a world abuzz with communication gizmos is no easy task. Energy replenishment takes effort. Think about it:  how many times during your workweek lunch breaks—an hour that should be devoted to refueling and recharging—have you allowed the chatter of texts and emails to further drain your energy?

Build your energy on 4 strong pillars

According to the ideas in "The Power of Full Engagement" as well as those on Tony Schwartz's blog, "The Energy Project," physical energy is the foundation to our overall efficiency. While emotional, mental and spiritual energy are also critical components of high performance, when our physical bucket is empty, all heck breaks loose. By incorporating these four key pillars of physical fulfillment into your typical day, you can elevate your energy levels and in turn, take a major step toward positive productivity.

1. Nutrition: Eat small, high-protein, low-carbohydrate meals throughout the day.  You've likely heard this before but eating mini meals throughout the day is a simple way to sustain your energy. For busy professionals who spend long days at the office, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends keeping single-serve packages of crackers, fruit, peanut butter, low-sodium soup or canned tuna in your desk. Tuck snacks in your travel bag for a quick refueling between meetings (I always have a couple of Kind bars stashed in my backpack). If remembering to eat  at the right times is a challenge for you, download an app such as the Temple Hydration, Food, Fitness and More iPhone app (TheTempleApp.com), which comes with customizable reminders that kick in when it has been too long since you last ate.

2. Fitness: Make regular exercise a habit.  According to the MayoClinic, regular exercise not only controls weight and helps you avoid a slew of health conditions and diseases, it improves your mood and boosts energy levels. If hitting the gym is not your style, buy a pedometer and record the number of steps you take every day. The Energy Project blog recommends shooting for 10,000 steps per day.  (By the way: I love my pedometer — I have a new one that is fantastic and will be reviewing it next week)

3. Sleep: Get an average of 8 hours of sleep every night.  To aid in developing a sleep-conducive cycle, the National Sleep Foundation suggests sticking to a regular bed and wake time schedule, including weekends. They also recommend creating an environment that is cool, quiet, comfortable and dark. If light is spoiling your sleep space, invest in room darkening or blackout cellular shades to block out the light. Finally, keep the gadgets out of the bedroom as much as possible. Computers, tablets and cell phones distract you from the task at hand: a good night's sleep.

4. Renewal: Plan regular vacations, social outings and personal time. Whether it's a massage, Frisbee golf with the guys or a week-long camping trip, detaching from the daily grind altogether for substantial pockets of time is key to replenishing your physical and mental energy. In the "The Power of Full Engagement," the authors redefine the old paradigm of "downtime is wasted time" to "downtime is productive time." Use your downtime wisely by doing something fun.

Bottom line, don't throw away your precious time management tools and apps just yet. But do make your physical well-being a top priority and start to take note of how your energy levels impact your focus and productivity. It's worth the time.

Got any tips that work for you?  I'd love to hear them.