Self-care as a habit

As readers of this blog may know, I use Habitica to keep track of habits, such as writing, exercise, eating healthy – the possibilities are endless. Habitica allows you to track what you do in three ways: habits you could do multiple times a day, dailies which you do every day (or every Monday, etc) and todos. For the writing example, a habit could be writing 500 words, a daily could be writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning, and a todo could be writing a specific section of your paper. Completing any of these gives you experience, gold, items – all ways in which you could associate the habit with a reward.

Habitica also has a fourth category you can use for motivate yourself – rewards. Some rewards are defined by Habitica, such as items you can buy with gold collected from your habits. But you can also define real-life rewards, like going to your favorite restaurant, which you can buy with gold (you do still have to pay the restaurant, though!). I have not talked about this category much before, and in this blog post I explain why.

Habitica has examples of rewards you could define for yourself here. Here are a few examples that I am uncomfortable with:

  • Leisure reading
  • Call friend/relative
  • Long hot bath
  • Time alone with favorite music
  • Take a walk

For me, these are habits, not rewards. I am perfectly capable of just doing the productive things that need to be done, and not taking time for a bath or leisure reading. Not very healthy!

So instead, I intentionally add habits that are enjoyable for me to do, do not have negative effects (other than “wasting” time and perhaps a little money), but do not necessarily HAVE to be done. Next to reading and baths, here are a few other options:

  • Listening to a podcast episode. I learn a lot from various podcasts I listen, including how to be more productive, so perhaps this isn’t even such a “time waster”
  • Trying out a new recipe
  • Going out to dinner or movies. I tend to stay in a lot so it’s a nice change of pace.
  • Organizing things around the house. I realize this is a chore for many but I find it relaxing.
  • Dressing up or doing something special with my nails or make-up
  • Having friends over
  • Playing with the cats
  • Looking at photographs or notes from your “be kind portfolio

To be honest, I had a bit of trouble coming up with a few of the things above and they were not on my list. Most things I thought of straight away, were “too productive”, which just goes to show how necessary it is to pay attention to these things. Then I remembered a thread I saw on Twitter about mental health and doing things that make you happy, which had many other ideas I could borrow them.

There is one suggestion from this thread struck me the most and I will definitely be adding it to my list: “Having a day with nothing to do”

My goals for 2018 – progress report 2 & 3

It’s already October (!) and the fact that I’ve managed to forget writing anything in the progress reports category, probably tells you something about my progress… Nevertheless, I’m holding myself accountable, so here a few short updates.

Writing

I finished THE survey on semi-supervised, multiple instance and transfer learning I’ve been working on in April and uploaded as a preprint to arXiV, inviting feedback from readers. This was quite scary to do, but in the end also very rewarding. I now submitted the paper to a journal.

I also published a workshop paper about predicting melanoma from visual ratings of the images, which I crowdsourced from my undergraduate students last year.

Kanban board in my office | veronikach.com

Progress is slower than I would have hoped overall – to catch up with my goal I would need to finish two other papers by the end of the year.

A strategy that is helping somewhat is to aim to write 250 words a day. That’s not a lot of words, but I notice that on the days that I do it in the morning, I am probably going to write more than that, whereas on the days that I ignore it, I will not end up writing at all.  Having a Kanban board in my office where I see in which stage each paper is, also helps – thanks to Eiko Fried for the idea.

Blog

Once I’ve relaxed my blogging once a week goal, I’ve started slacking off on this… It has been good for me to not have this obligation on top of everything else, but at the same time it is a shame because in the end I feel like this is one of the most important things I’m doing. What was great is that at one point I prescheduled posts for several weeks. I’d like to do this again, but it’s difficult to get into a mindset of writing a lot upfront.

I did get a little bit of income (perhaps $25) from the blog, especially after the How I Fail post by Ian Goodfellow went a bit viral. But because my provider was so unhelpful about the problems the traffic caused, I also had to switch providers, so it’s definitely not a profitable business 🙂

Health

I am still not particularly enjoying the running itself and don’t recognize this feeling of endorphins that people talk about. I have, however, become an avid sign-upper for 10K races. Not an avid runner, but the accountability of the races at least forces me to train regularly, so that the race is not terrible. I recently did the same race, as my first ever 10K one year ago, and improved my time a little bit (though not what you would expect after a year of training).I haven’t been doing particularly well mental health wise. Although I do say no to more things (and slack off from things I “have” to do, like blogging), anxiety has been getting worse and so has depression. It’s easy to view everything I do in a negative light – I haven’t made enough progress on this, I haven’t been appreciated enough for doing that. But, I’m fortunate to live and work in a place where I can get support for these things. This is therefore the most important goal to focus on right now.

Ups and downs of habits

I recently read the book Superhuman by Habit – a quick read that I definitely recommend. The book got me thinking about what I’ve been doing with regards to habits the last two years or so, and especially what I have not been doing.

I started with the whole habit thing while struggling with anxiety and depression. I started organizing things – from my todo list to my house – as an attempt to reduce overwhelm.  Keeping track of habits was a natural next step. Being able to check things of a list gave me a feeling of accomplishment. One of the habits was blogging, which helped me a lot with starting to feel like I had a purpose.

I have a tendency to overdo things if I put my mind to it. For example, when I was 18 or so I decided to had to lose weight. I didn’t actually need to, but I thought I’d be more confident and people would like me better. So I started counting calories. I got really good at it and would never miss a day. I even started to decline events where I wasn’t in control of what I would get to eat – kind of counterintuitive if the end goal was to have more friends.

A similar thing was starting to happen to habits – I got stressed about doing them, and feeling like a failure if I wasn’t able to keep them up. Not great if the original goal was to feel better. I definitely was not feeling like a superhuman.

Thankfully I now have people in my life who say things like “be kind to yourself”. I thought that was good advice and let a few things go, and was enjoying this new “freedom”. A morning where I would just have breakfast and then play a computer game, but not exercise, meditate etc. suddenly felt like a luxury.

But, reading the book, I realized I’ve let go of too many things. A lot of them were really good for health, and I shouldn’t let those benefits disappear. So I’m giving habits another try – but hopefully allowing myself more space to NOT do them when I need to. This hopefully also means more blog posts again – please help me stay accountable 🙂

5-minute journal with Evernote and Zapier

5 minute journal with Evernote

All the productivity resources I’ve been consuming over the past year seem to agree that journaling is an essential habit that helps with everything else. See for example this blog post by Tim Ferriss or this podcast by AsianEfficiency (both my favorites).

 

There are lots of journaling apps, such as Five Minute Journal and Day One. They remind you when it’s time to journal and offer prompts on what to write, such as “what are you grateful for?”. However, I didn’t want to add new apps to my list, so I decided to maximize the apps I was already using for this purpose.

 

Evernote

My journal simply lives in a notebook in Evernote. I currently have a single note per day, with the following template, which follows the 5 minute journal prompts:

It is possible to set a reminder in Evernote that will alert you when it’s time to journal, but I have a daily in Habitica that helps me remember.

 

Zapier

That’s great, but doesn’t this mean you have to copy and paste the template each time you want to journal?

No – that’s where Zapier comes in. Here I have a “zap” that automatically creates the note with the template each day, so on the day itself I only have to open it. Zapier takes you through the process of creating the zap, but here are the steps:

  1. Create a trigger using Schedule and set it to every day, or however often you want to journal.
  2. Create an action using Evernote and select the “append to note” action.
  3. Enter the name of the notebook (“Journal”), the name of the note (I use the date, this is provided as one of the defaults)
  4. For the content of the note, copy paste template below* Edit the text, formatting as you prefer.
  5. Test the zap and you are done! Happy journaling!

 

*I have tried to update the code so that it’s only needed to specify the border once, but this removed the formatting – let me know if you have a better/neater solution for this!

[sourcecode language=”plain”]

<table style="border: 1px solid black;">

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Morning</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
I am grateful for
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
What would make today great?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Affirmation: I am…
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Evening</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #1
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #2
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #3
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
How could today have been even better?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

</table>
[/sourcecode]

 

 

Year of blogging

It’s been a little over a year that I’ve been blogging every single week. I want to thank all the readers for the comments and tweets, as this helped me with staying motivated. Blogging has really contributed a lot to my life in the past year, such that I regret not doing it earlier. In this post I summarize a few things that helped me stay on track.

 

1. Make it a habit

I think I started using Habitica a bit more than a year ago as well. I added a “Publish blog post” daily that would occur only on Saturdays, and my goal was that the post would be up by 18:00 Amsterdam time. I have done this every week since then (except the one time where I wrote the post but forgot to click “publish”).

Since the post had to be public by a specific time, I couldn’t risk actually doing all of the writing on Saturday, so I began drafting a few days in advance. I also had various habits, such as “Write 200 words in Evernote”, to help with this.

 

2. Do a series of posts

Earlier in 2016, but before the blogging habit, I did already blog a bit more than in previous years – in particular about my CV of failures, general tips and, interestingly, my relationship with blogging. I think these posts were infrequent because I was waiting until I would have the time and inspiration to write a whole post, which didn’t happen often.

Then came the first post after which I started posting weekly: defending propositions, a tradition in many Dutch universities. This was the start of a series of posts. None of these were popular by any measure, but they gave me a couple of very clear topics I wanted to discuss. Together with the blogging habit, this made the “what should I write about” and “when should I do it” very simple.

 

3. Share and learn from others

It has been very helpful to actually HAVE to publish the posts, which I then also shared on Twitter (really scary!). I even received some comments, which was very motivating! I also met a few people on Twitter, who were on their own blogging quests, who helped with the motivation:

 

I studied the blogs that I liked, such as PhDTalk, which originally inspired me to do this. And finally, I started listening to several podcasts about blogging – in particular I would recommend ProBlogger. It focuses on having a blog for your business, but since you can treat your career as a start-up, it fits!

 

4. Write first, cluster later

I used to struggle with not having a theme, which restricted me in terms of topics, because some topics didn’t fit to what I thought I *should* write about. This is unproductive – any writing is better than no writing! But during the “writing because it’s a habit” process, I noticed that I enjoyed writing some posts more than others, which influenced my following posts.

The topics are now more or less starting to converge. At the time of drafting this post, I had 16 How I Fail posts, 11 on habits and productivity, 7 “research hacks”, 5 progress reports, 5 posts about my shadow CV, 3 “firsts” and 2 uncategorized posts. Looking at these categories, I’ve come to the following realizations:

  •  I really like How I Fail and the habits/productivity things, so I’ll keep doing that!
  •  I really like the hacks (printing posters on fabric, travelling for conferences), but I think “research hacks” is not a good category title
  • Progress reports overlap a bit with Shadow CV, and not everything in Shadow CV actually fits under that title
  • One of the popular posts, Gift ideas, is uncategorized! It’s not a “research hack”, where should it go?

I hope to answer these questions in the coming year but appreciate any suggestions you might have ?

 

5. Look at the statistics

I really enjoy looking at the statistics provided by Jetpack. I like seeing which pages people visit more, and how I’m doing overall (visitors per month). The more posts there are, the more interesting the statistics, so increasing the sample size is rewarding too! Here is the progress throughout the year:

It’s great that the overall numbers are growing – from barely 1K visitors per month last year, to an average of 3K now. And here are the most popular posts:

How I Fail and reflections on my own CV and failures are clearly popular – alongside with the poster skirt and gifts for academics! The habits & productivity posts are lagging behind, but since they help me write, it’s not a habit I want to give up yet ?

 

Thank you all for contributing to all of this – it’s been a great year of blogging, and I look forward to what will happen in the next 12 months!

Keeping up with habits while travelling

I just returned from MICCAI, where I had a great time, met some wonderful people and got lots of new ideas! But, other side effects include sleep deprivation and generally not feeling very healthy because I haven’t been keeping up with my habits on Habitica. In this what I’m aiming to be short post, I share some experiences of keeping up with habits while travelling.

In Habitica you can “rest in the tavern”, which pauses your daily habits. This means not doing your habits for the day will not hurt you and your party. However, you can still complete the habits if you want and get rewarded for it, but the reward only benefits you, not your party (i.e. you don’t do damage to a boss, if your party is on a quest).

I think this is the first trip since I started using Habitica, which was several days AND in a different enough timezone. On other trips, I would usually not use the tavern feature, but instead disable the 1-2 dailies that I would not complete. But with the time difference, and having to prepare things on top of the conference, I thought the tavern was the best choice.

What I noticed when filling in the habits when I would open the app, is that most habits fell into three categories:

  1. Completed, but without thinking about it, such as walking 10K steps (my average for the conference is 15K!)
  2. Did not complete, but could have done so, such as stretching
  3. Could not possibly complete, such as exercise with weights which I didn’t bring with me

Since I knew no habits were going to hurt me and others, I didn’t even really try to “check in” with myself and see if there were habits I still needed/wanted to do. That’s too bad, because several of them are really good for me, and can be done in under 10 minutes.

I think a better strategy would have been to disable habits in category 3 for a while, and still try to complete habits in category 2. It would be great if Habitica had an option to “customize” you Tavern experience, but in the absence of that, here is how I think I will implement this next:

  • Create a tag “Off during travel”
  • Add the tag to all dailies which might fall into the “could not possibly complete” category
  • Before going on a trip, filter dailies to only see “Off during travel” list
  • Go through each displayed daily, and unselect all days Monday-Sunday, so the daily is never “on”
  • Select the days again after the trip

If you use Habitica, would you use this type of method? Or do you prefer the Tavern as it’s available now, without any pressure?

How to use Todoist and Habitica together

Recently I have written a few posts about how I use Todoist and Habitica, a habit tracker (check out my posts on decision fatigue, food, and exercise).

It can easily seem that there is overlap between the two. For example, if you want to run 10K, you could schedule a recurring task “go for a run” in Todoist, or you could add “go for a run” as a habit in Habitica. Or you could try to do both, and sync the two apps by hand – the horror! In this post I describe a few alternatives I have tried to use Todoist and Habitica together, and the system that I currently use.

1. Daily Most Important Tasks

My first attempt at using the apps together was a Habitica daily, “Add 3 MITs (most important tasks) to Habitica”. These are three tasks that advance your important projects, and, if these tasks are the only things you get done, you would be satisfied with the day. So every morning, I would go through Todoist, decide my MITs, add them to Habitica, and (hopefully) complete them by the end of that day.

I think I abandoned this system because I tried to add “actions”, like “Start working on task A”, to Habitica, since I knew that “Task A” was not feasible within a day. Breaking down tasks is something I need to improve in general, so while it didn’t work for me at the time, I think it is a good way to use Todoist and Habitica together.

My Habitica avatar from June 2017 – who wouldn’t want to complete tasks to be able to buy pirate gear?

2. Use Zapier

Zapier is a service that connects different apps together. It waits for a trigger in one app – for example, a new task in Todoist, and then performs an action in another app – for example, creating a new task in Habitica. This process is called a “zap”, and with a free account, you can have five free different zaps. Another zap could be, that if you complete a task in Habitica, Zapier checks off the corresponding task in Todoist. You can read more about setting this up on the Habitica Wiki.

There are a few options available, for example only syncing a single project. This is what I did, since I have 100+ tasks in Todoist, and I didn’t want to see all of them in Habitica. I chose an important, but not urgent personal project, and for a while, it was working great. But then I made a mistake – I added sub-tasks to one of the tasks in Todoist, which all showed up as individual tasks in Habitica. I disabled the zap shortly afterwards – way too overwhelming.

Another option is not to have a one-to-one correspondence between Todoist and Habitica. For example, when you complete a task in Todoist, you could increment a “Completed Todoist task” habit in Habitica. This is something I might try net.

3. Use Todoist for “will do”, Habitica for “should (not) do”

Todoist is great for keeping track of what I need to do when. I use it for both one-time (writing a paragraph for a paper) and recurrent (cleaning the kitchen) tasks. I will probably procrastinate on these tasks, but I will do them eventually. Another way to see these tasks is that they are more outcome-oriented, i.e. in the end they add up to a written paper or a clean house.

Habitica helps me finish the “will do” tasks more effectively, for example, by rewarding me when I write for 1 pomodoro (What is this?), or by cleaning the dishes right after dinner. These things are also a bit less outcome oriented – there are obvious benefits to them, but the reward (a paper or a clean house) is further away.

Habitica also helps me to NOT do things, such as checking email the first thing in the morning. Again, not checking email in the morning has benefits – see this post for some examples – but it’s not a really a task, and simply not checking email will not add up to a finished project.

This system means that I end up never using the todos.  But, the todo feature is very motivating, so I came up with a way to use it anyway!

I use the todo feature to keep track of difficult habits that I want to do at least X times within a period of time. Let’s take reading as an example. “Read 10 pages” is a habit for me, but I don’t do it often enough. If I start reading, I never read just 10 pages by the way – but these bursts of reading should happen more often, if I want to develop the habit of “reading more”.

Habitica does have counters for habits, but these do not REALLY remind me I should do the “read 10 pages” habit more often. Instead, I create a multi-part todo “Read next book”, which I split up into five parts, based on the number of pages. Then each time I’m reading, I get a small reward for the “read 10 pages” habit, but I also have an overview of my how much I should still read. Over time, the “read next book” todo becomes red, motivating me to hurry up with the habit and get the much larger reward for the entire thing. I’m actually starting on a fresh book today:

4. Use Todoist for work, Habitica for personal

Perhaps another way to divide tasks between Todoist and Habitica is to split up work and personal projects. It is not the system I use, since there is overlap. For example, I’m reading a book that is helpful for my job, and interesting to me personally.

However, as you might have noticed from my posts, my Habitica is biased towards self-care. Not that that’s strictly “personal” – I need to be healthy & sane to be able to do my job well. But the types of habits I’m trying to build up, such as exercise, tend to be put on the back-burner a lot, especially when things are stressful at work. Adding these “should do” habits to Habitica helps me to prioritize them in a way that I wouldn’t be able to achieve with a task manager alone.

More examples?

Do you use a task manager and/or habit tracker? I would love to hear about your reasons to use only one or the other, and your approach if you are using both!

Why playing computer games is easy but writing a paper is hard

This post contains some thoughts about a recent conversation I’ve had with my fellow Habitica group members @AidanBudd and Valerie about why it’s enjoyable to play computer games, but not so enjoyable to write a paper.

Games

I think many games are engineered to be enjoyable in a way that it’s easy to lose track of time. This is a function of several features that many games have a common:

  • receiving an immediate reward
  • continuous feedback that allows to adjust actions
  • being able to see improvement over time

For example, many games start out with an level where it’s easy to learn how the game works and earn points or collect items, so the activity starts out with a reward. During the game you are continuously aware of how well you are doing, for example based on a score, or because you can predict the outcome of your actions based on previous experience with the game. Lastly, the game continuously gets more difficult, but as you are often practicing by playing it, you can handle more and more challenging situations.

[The above is more true of recent games like Candy Crush than for example the quest games I’ve played in the 90’s. These often gave you zero direction where to start or could end up in a “dead end” situation where you can never solve the game due to an earlier decision. While this could be a very frustrating game for a beginner, I think with more experience it’s still enjoyable to solve these type of challenges.]

 

Flow

In other words, games have a good “challenge-skill” balance that contributes to the feeling that time is going so quickly. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, people with more complicated last names than mine exist) calls this balance one of the components of “flow” – being completely immersed in an activity or “in the zone”.


You can probably think of other enjoyable activities you call hobbies which fit this definition. I’m always fascinated by people for whom running is a hobby – you get to do something fun AND become healthier at the same time! But if you are like me, you can’t “just” take up running is a hobby because of the challenge-skill balance. The immediate feedback is discomfort. Then you are likely to avoid going running because of this discomfort, and once you do get to it again, you probably won’t see enough improvement that will motivate you to continue. And that’s not a way to develop a hobby!

Writing a paper, in many cases, also doesn’t have this balance. You might already fear that the task is too big, so if you sit down to start writing, but nothing comes out, you get demotivated, so there is no immediate reward. The task becomes only more daunting, and every time you get stuck you feel like you have not improved at all. Since you are not enjoying the task, it will be easy to get distracted and procrastinate, making it even less likely that you will produce a result you are happy with.

The features will be there, but over a longer scale of time, for example, if your paper gets published, or you start noticing that after several papers, it takes you less time to finish one. But since this reward/feedback/improvement is not immediate, so you might not be too excited to start, or to continue writing.

 

Flow through habits?

If you want an activity you SHOULD be doing, be it running or writing, to be easier, you need to find ways to:

  • get a reward for the activity
  • get feedback
  • do it long enough until you see improvement

This will help to improve the challenge-skill balance, and hopefully help in turning the activity from an “ugh” to something you genuinely look forward to.

 

Habitica

For me this is where Habitica comes in. First, I define habits – activities that I know are relatively easy to accomplish, such as writing for 1 pomodoro (rather than finishing a paper), or just going out for a run (regardless of how quickly I do it). I get an immediate reward in Habitica each time I accomplish one of these items.

Habitica also keeps track of how often I do each habits – habits I’m keeping up with are shown in green, OK habits in yellow and poor habits in red. For habits, there is a counter which tracks how often you did a habit, which resets every day, week or month. This shows at a glance how well I’m doing. If there is too much red, maybe I need to reduce the number of goals I’m trying to accomplish and/or make it easier for myself to earn a reward. If everything is green, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty level!

For dailies (habit that you set to do every X days), Habitica keeps track of streaks – how many times in a row you have successfully completed your habit. Longer streaks are quite encouraging, and motivating not to break Together with the immediate reward, this encourages me to keep up with the habit, even if I’m not yet noticing results “in real life”.

 

A few of my avatars, November 2016 to June 2017

 

Results!

Maybe it sounds a bit magical, but after using Habitica for a few months I AM noticing results in real life. For writing this post, I even checked my Fitbit, and decided to share some results with running, from early May and end of June. The round is the same, but I can run it without stopping and a few minutes faster (although I wasn’t specifically targeting either of these things, just showing up).

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
My usual round, early May

 

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
Same round, end of June

With writing, I’m noticing that it happens more and more often that I don’t realize the Pomodoro is over, and just continue – which is great for moving projects along.

But it’s not just writing or running. I’m enjoying the overall challenge of translating a goal into habits, thinking of different parallels between activities like writing and running, and thinking of how I can improve further.

An extra benefit is, although your goals may not seem related, tackling several problems this way exercises the same muscles of not forgetting what you *should* be doing, focusing more, and getting things done even if you don’t have the motivation. For example, stretching every morning motivates me to work on an important writing project every day.

And now that this blog post is finished… I’m afraid I have no excuse for going on that run! 🙂

5 more apps to improve your productivity

Just a quick post today – I share 5 more apps that I recently discovered that are helping me be more productive.

Twilight

Twilight reduces the blue light from your phone that keeps you awake at night, and turns it into red light, while dimming the screen. You can control when you want this to happen (following the sunset and sunrise at your location, or at a fixed time) and how strong the effect is. I have mine set pretty high, so I immediately notice it’s time to put the phone away and wind down.

Bonus: An alternative is f.lux, which exists for multiple platforms including your desktop (thanks to @rebeccalinnett for the tip!)

 

Fitbit

I recently bought a Fitbit Alta HR with the goal of improving my step count (exercise is great for your productivity!). But an expected benefit of the Fitbit and the related app was that it gave me more insight into my sleep. I thought I was doing pretty well by going to bed around 22:00 and waking up at 6:00 – that’s 8 hours, right? Fitbit knows better, because it tracks your sleep stages, including the time you spend awake when just going to bed, or when waking up during the night. Here’s one of my reports:

Turns out I might be sleeping a whole hour less than I thought (and waking up 34 times apparently?). Oops! Now that I know this I try to go to bed earlier to get at least 7.5 hours of actual sleep, which feels awesome the next day.

 

Coffitivity

Ever feel very productive in a cafe? Well, Coffitivity now brings the cafe to your desk! It’s just a radio channel with cafe background sounds. It is a bit similar to focus@will, which I wrote about in my previous post, but focus@will has different channels and costs around $10 after 1 month – unlike Coffitivity, which is free.

Side note: although I was previously promoting focus@will, I recently unsubscribed. First, the pricing wasn’t very transparent – I had to log out of my account to see what plans cost. Once logged out, I saw that the plans have been lowered in price with respect to what I was still paying – with no notification to me. Not endorsed.

 

Forest

Forest is based on the idea of the Pomodoro technique – working without distractions for a period of time (say, 25 minutes) and then taking a break. Only now, while you are working, the app is growing a virtual tree. However, if you get distracted (for example if you pick up your phone and use a different app), the tree dies. The app also exists for Chrome and can help to block websites you find distracting. If you buy the app for EUR 2.19, you can link your phone and browser and sync your progress. Here’s my tiny forest so far:

 

 

Bonus: Forest is also growing real trees

 

Rescuetime

Rescuetime gives you insight into where you are spending the time you are using your computer and phone and whether it’s productive or not. It works out of the box, with default settings for what is considered productive or not, but you can adjust these if you like. Each week, you get a productivity like this:

For example, I can see that I managed to spend 7 hours in total using Twitter, which is more than I spent on using email. You can also set goals for how much (or how little) you use different apps or categories. Above you see I have a goal of “Geography Time”, which is a quiz app I’m using to improve my geography trivia.

Rescuetime has both a free and a paid version, which offers extra features like notifications about your progress. For me, the free version already feel sufficient because of other habits I have in place (such as uninstalling Twitter from my phone unless I’m at a conference) are helping me to stay focused.

For an in-depth review of the possibilities of Rescuetime, check out this blog post. It’s written by TimeDoctor – another app to track your time, which I haven’t had the chance to try yet – but maybe that’s something for my next post about apps!

 

Do you have any apps that you use and that are helping you to be productive during the day? 

 

How I use Habitica to improve my diet

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – specifically, to improve my diet. See also an earlier post how I use Habitica to improve my exercise.

I don’t follow a special diet, but I already eat relatively healthy – an inheritance from some earlier dieting years. But a side effect is that food is often my mind, because I’m always busy with optimizing between satisfying a craving, eating on time (so I don’t get too hungry), eating healthy, not wasting food etc.

Here is a typical example. I decide what I feel like for dinner while coming home from work. Already a bit hungry, I stop by the store, and look through their recipe suggestions or what’s on sale. In my mind I match what I feel like having and what’s available to a recipe that I know. I start collecting the groceries. Then I see something interesting in the store, and consider changing my plan. Or I remember I still have this ingredient at home. During this process, I get hungrier and hungrier… In the end, I might give up and get a pizza instead – and probably feel bad afterwards.

This is all way too much unproductive thinking – therefore perfect for building habits and eliminating decision fatigue! I achieve this by just two habits: meal planning and bringing lunch to work.

Meal plan

I have a daily that repeats only on Saturday, that involves selecting 4 dinner recipes and doing groceries. This seemed like a big change to implement for me, but the benefits were so obvious that I didn’t have to wait long for this to become a habit. The catalyst was probably Evernote – as I was clipping recipes, I realized I finally had ONE place with all my recipe ideas. It was easy to see a recipe and say “oh, I haven’t had this in a while – I should get the ingredients next time I’m at the store!”. Multiply that times 4, and you have a meal plan! Here are some of my favorites:
I move the selected recipes to a different notebook, so it’s easy for me to find them once I’m cooking. I then add all the ingredients I don’t have yet to Todoist. In the store, I actually check off the ingredients I put in my basket as I collect them. Perhaps there are specialized apps that streamline this process (i.e. add the ingredients once you select a recipe), but for me this works because I already use Evernote and Todoist often.

Home-made lunch

This is a daily that repeats on all work days. Since I leave the house pretty early, to achieve this I need to prepare my lunch the day before. To simplify things, I just double the amount I prepare for dinner, and bring it with me the next day. Hooray for microwaves!
Notice that I have 4 dinners, but 5 lunches. This is because from time to time dinners with friends, lunches at work, etc come up.  Some leftovers therefore get postponed to other days.

Result

By batching my decision-making into one day, I have 5 days worth of (relatively) healthy meals, that use ingredients I already have at home, and that save me money. During the week, I still have to cook, but since I often prepare the same dishes, this becomes less demanding. All of this frees up my brain to do more interesting things 🙂

Are you considering trying out a meal plan, or maybe you are already an expert at this and have some advice for others? Leave a comment below!

 

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