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
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BeyondPod for Android
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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.

Your Digital Personal Assistant: 5 Apps to Improve Productivity

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“Work smarter, not harder” may be a worn cliché, but until the earth slows its orbit and we all get that 30-hour day, any tool that can improve productivity is worth looking into. There are plenty of apps that claim to increase efficiency but wading through the sea of useless products to find a few truly helpful ones is one more chore to add to your never-ending to-do list.

Lifehack.org recently posted an article on Bob Parsons' 16 rules for survival. As the founder and CEO of GoDaddy, the largest registrar of domain names in the world, businessman Parsons knows a thing or two about productivity. His rules centralize on the importance of advancement and management. What better way to help with that than some of the best personal assistant apps available?

Dragon Mobile Assistant

How much more could you accomplish in a day if you had an assistant? Especially one that worked for free and was available 24/7? Dragon Mobile Assistant, compatible with Android and iPhone, is the next best thing. It lets you schedule appointments, speak to text, make calls and update your social media accounts all with voice command. The app will also read aloud your incoming messages and calls. Dragon Mobile Assistant has been updated with several new features including Driver Mode Auto Detect which automatically switches to hands-free and eye-free mode when it detects you’re in a moving vehicle.

Expensify

Expense reports are one of the most dreaded, time consuming and necessary tasks an entrepreneur needs to stay on top of. Expensify makes it easy to capture and organize receipts, mileage and all your billable expenses without the hassle of paperwork. With Expensify you won’t waste one more minute tracking down misplaced receipts. The app is free and available for Windows Phone, BlackBerry, iPad and iPhone.

My Sticky Note

No pen? No paper? No problem if you’ve got My Sticky Note for BlackBerry. My Sticky Note is free and keeps track of all your million-dollar ideas, random reminders and last minute schedule changes. No more time wasted because you forgot an important detail. This app lets you place a note directly on your home screen so there’s no way you can miss it. You can also customize the font, color and size to make it most functional for you.

LastPass

Nothing slows down productivity like waiting for the email that will allow you to change a forgotten password, again. LastPass is a free app that securely and automatically stores passwords for all of your accounts, and as a busy entrepreneur, that can be a lot. It’s safe, easy to access, and according to the LastPass site, the app gets top ratings from companies like Lifehacker, PC Mag and CNET. LastPass works with Windows, Linux and Mac.

Coffee Break

Sometimes you get so busy you forget to have lunch, but that doesn't automatically equal productivity. U.S. News reports that taking short breaks approximately every two hours can actually make you more productive. After a quick walk, a healthy snack or a drink of water you can return to your work with a fresh mind and actually get more done during the day. For $3, Mac users can be reminded when it’s time for a short break or to take lunch with the Coffee Break app.

It’s up to you to make little decisions that ensure the success of your business. Using technology to improve productivity is one of the smartest decisions you can make. Apps that increase efficiency and improve production are like money in your pocket.

 

New Help for Old Project Management Problems

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Over the years, I've done a lot of jobs.  One thing that's remained constant: Effective project management - especially in a team-oriented project - can mean the difference between success and failure.

Once the project and budget have been approved, the real work of project management begins. Tracking the project tasks and communicating with the team are ongoing efforts that every PM faces. For some time, a PM has had to rely on the same set of tools. With the latest cloud technology, software as a service (SaaS) solutions are available to help the PM stay more organized and connected with the team.

Netsuite

According to PR Newswire, Gartner research states that almost 50 percent of manufacturers will be using some form of SaaS by 2015. Netsuite is a cloud-based resource management system that provides leaner manufacturing and resource planning to stabilize your company. It gives you visibility across the business in real-time. With this level of visibility to the various processes, you have better manufacturing resource planning and management. You can pay close attention to forecasting and inventory management. Netsuite gives you demand planning capabilities to create a more finely tuned forecast. Using sales projections, trends, seasonal fluctuations and historical data, you can come closer to your on demand inventory needs.

Asana

This tool provides a lot of organizational flexibility. The PM has various ways of slicing-and-dicing multiple projects and teams to allow better collaboration and communication. The PM has control over how workspaces, projects and tasks are organized for visibility and easier tracking, according to lifehack.org. Workspaces are work areas that can contain one or more projects and tasks. They can be shared with multiple people. Multiple workspaces may be created to reflect different areas of focus. One workspace could be created for a new-product development effort and another for marketing campaigns for an existing product.

Projects are created within workspaces and can be either public or private. A public project may be accessed by everyone who has access to the workspace, like when you need the entire team to access smaller projects for only a subset access.

Tasks are the work units of a project and they also can be created as public or private. The comment system within tasks allow a greater collaboration between the team members without relying on email. A project history of task communication can be stored this way.

Once a project manager understands how to set up workspaces and projects in Asana, it can become a tool to make collaboration, communication and tracking easier for the PM.

Smartsheet

Smartsheet is structured like a spreadsheet with rows and columns and is flexible and customizable that integrates with Google Docs. This is a good choice for specific project management needs that other solutions don't offer. Spreadsheets can be organized in folders or workspaces. Each sheet can be shared with multiple people. The reporting capability is more than just formatted output. Reports can be made to be drilled-down into or used interactively, such as in what-if scenarios. Smartsheet is supported by a number of articles, videos and tutorials. There are webinars available to learn more about how to customize the product to meet your needs, according to reviews.com.

Google Docs

If you are on a limited budget, or if you need a minimal project and resource management system, Google Docs may have enough capabilities for you and your team. This is a hybrid office automation system with word processor, spreadsheet, graphics capabilities and the ability to collaborate on documents. While not organized specifically for the PM, the pieces manage a small project. Just don't expect automatic Gantt chart creation or resource leveling across tasks, according to lifehack.org.

Project managers have dealt with tools that came out 20 years ago or more. Even updated, they don't take advantage of the features that the cloud offers. These tools give the PM more flexibility and choices on how to set up and manage their projects.

Those are a few options, in a nutshell.  If you're using something different that you absolutely love, or you have real-world feedback on any of these options, please leave a note in the comments..

The Perils of Cloud Apps

In the past month or so, a couple of cloud applications announced they were pulling the plug:  Google Reader and Astrid (a cloud-based task management application, which was purchased by Yahoo).  Luckily, both of these gave plenty of lead time to their users and provide ways to export their data for migration to other services.

But what if your cloud app disappeared without any warning?

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What are some things that can help you if a cloud application disappears out from under you?  Here are some things I thought of - if you have others, please leave them in the comments.

  1. Openness: Applications that use open standards or output formats make it easier to move from one service to another.  

    For example, Google reader supports OPML (for input and output), making it easy to import and export feed lists from one program or service to another.  In many cases, data can be exported to CSV (Comma-Separated Value) format - not a fancy format, but very broadly supported.

    The main thing?  Figure out how you would move out before you move in.
  2. Backups:  It's OK to rely on a cloud application, but don't be too trusting.  Periodically make copies of your data and store it in a safe place outside the cloud application.  The frequency, number of versions, etc. should be driven by the value of the data you're storing in the cloud app - the more valuable (or the harder to recreate), the more you need to increase the backup frequency, number of backup locations, and version depth.
     
  3. Look for offline / "permanent" options, or hybrid solutions:  Some cloud applications have local clients that cache / synch data locally.  Often, this feature is present to allow offline access to the data, but it also provides security if the cloud app is unavailable, or goes out of existence.
     
  4. Backups, backups, backups: I mentioned backups before, but I'm serious - having a backup is your best bet in case the unexpected happens.  You may even want to go as far as printing out some of the data (or printing it to a PDF) as an extra precaution.
     
  5. Pay for your service:  These days, I am more open to paying for a service that I like under the naïve assumption that if I pay the vendor for their service, they are more likely to keep providing the service.  Even if there is a free option, I often pay for services that I find to be "indispensable" - Evernote is one such example.
     
    Of course, that isn't always a guarantee - I had a paid Premium subscription to Astrid, and they're still shutting down the service due to the Yahoo acquisition.  Of course, they'll be giving me a refund for the unused portion of the subscription, but I'd rather have the service.

Those are just a few tips that come to mind - any other lessons learned that you care to share?  If so, leave a comment.