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. 

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.

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:

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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 doctor 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] 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.

Maximize Your Business Revenue with Mobile Payment Options

MobilePayments.jpg

This is a little different from my usual topics, but a lot of people I know are beginning to start their own small businesses, or grow their existing businesses.  Recent conversations have caused my subconscious to tune into the nuances of this.  

For example, I was traveling this week and I noticed a couple of the cab drivers swiped my credit card on their mobile devices using Square readers and I was able to receive my receipt via email or text message.  That would have been unusual even a year ago, but it's very common now.

If you're a business owner that isn't accepting credit cards yet, here is some food for thought. 

In TimesFreePress.com, small business owner Josh Lattimer details how being able to accept credit card payments saved his business and boosted his bottom line. In the past, Lattimer required his customers to pay with cash or write checks for his car care services, but since he started accepting credit card payments on his wife's iPad, his sales have steeply increased. In fact, Lattimer estimates that customers use credit cards for 90 percent of his outside sales—that money would have been lost without the right technology in place.

Jumping on Sales

Small business owners have to optimize their revenue by jumping on sales anytime, anywhere. For the hot dog stand owner or the ice cream truck driver, this means realizing that not everyone carries cash, and that it is important to have the technology in place to take alternative forms of payment. For someone who runs an online business or even a storefront, this may mean offering more payment options at checkout. By increasing the number of ways that your business accepts payments, you can pick up more sales and boost your bank balance in the process.

Listening to the Growing Market

The demand is not only there, it is growing.  According to the Motley Fool, mobile payments in the U.S. are estimated to hit $90 billion by 2017. Last year alone there were $12.8 billion in mobile payments, representing huge growth. Business owners who are poised to take advantage of this sweeping growth will stand to make more money than their counterparts who let the shift pass them by.

However, the vast number of mobile payment products on the market means that consumers need to spend some time investigating so that they can find the right products for their needs. The main factor to consider is the cost of credit card processing services. This can cost users either a flat fee, or a percentage per transaction. Even large corporations like Starbucks have forgone their traditional credit card processing equipment in favor of more affordable and versatile mobile payments processing.

Companies like Intuit have stepped in to offer a range of credit card processing services for small business owners. Their mobile apps make it possible to process credit card payments using a phone or a tablet, while their online services are perfect for ecommerce sites. All of their services can be synced to your data files so that copies of all your receipts are readily available come tax time.

Expanding Technology

Business owners who accept mobile payments also need to keep up with the technology surrounding these types of payments. The umbrella phrase mobile payments can refer to devices which allow you to accept credit cards with your smart phone, but the phrase can also refer to accepting credit cards that have been stored in an app or accepting payments via a smartphone with a special chip, reports USA Today. The challenge for small business owners may be staying on top of these trends and anticipating how their clients want to pay both today and tomorrow, but information is available to the smart business owner seeking to stay ahead of the curve.

Mobile payments are going to grow, particularly as: more phones have NFC (Near Field Communications) capabilities;, more people move to digital wallets; and more consumers become comfortable with the convenience of mobile payments.  If you're not already doing so, it's time to get familiar with the mobile payment landscape, understand your options, and figure out how this shift will impact your business.