How to wake up fresh with a smarter alarm

Most of you might not know that your brain is in various phases while you sleep. Yes, even if you think you are a deep sleeper, you aren’t in the “deep sleep” stage the entire time you are in the bed. The brain alternates between various stages and there are times when you are in deep sleep and times when you are in the light sleep stage.

The problem with traditional alarm clocks are that it is based on a fixed time and what stage you are during that time is totally dependant upon what time you started sleeping (not what time you went to bed). Waking up to the “nuclear warning” sound of your alarm clock while you are in deep sleep is the worst way to begin your day.

You can wire up your brain and monitor what stage you are in and ask someone to wake you up at the right moment. But It is too costly and no human would be willing to monitor and wake you up every single day.

The alternative is to use the various sleep monitoring apps available for your smartphones. These apps use the accelerometer in your smartphone and detect the minor movements you make when during the lightest stage of your sleep. Using that, it can wake you up at the right stage and you would wake up refreshed and not wanting to kill everyone.

SleepTime alarm set screen
SleepTime alarm set screen

The app I use is SleepTime by Azumio, which is available for both iPhone and Android phones. All you have to do is set up a Alarm Time by which time you “should” wake up. The App chooses a 30 minute window before the set time. Whenever you are in the lightest stage of your sleep within that 30 minute window, it wakes you up. It also has nice graphs of your sleep stages and how often you woke up, etc. It is interesting if you love to measure metrics about everything.

The alarm sound is also very light and pleasant sounding (much relief to my wife) and since you are in the lightest stage of the sleep, even the lightest sounds is enough to wake you up. I tried similar apps long time before but the old android smartphones were more of a battery extractors and the phone died out before I could even finish a night’s sleep. Constantly monitoring the accelerometer is a battery drain.

But nowadays batteries are much better and on my iphone I lose about something like 20% of battery from a fully charged state. I did try this app many days and I have definitely been woken up at the lightest stage of my sleep to the lowest volume. There was an exception on a day or two, but that was because I was too tired to wake up because of not enough sleep (I am a night owl).

If you are a normal living person and want to wake up fresh everyday, do try SleepTime. You would notice a small difference in how you wake up.

Learn Social Psychology on Coursera

Ever wondered why people do what they do? How simple things that is not very noticeable, alters human behaviour. Why we like some people and dislike someone else? How some can be very persuasive when they talk to others?

social-psychology-courseraAll this can be understood from the online course on Social Psychology, from Coursera. It is a 6 week long course and the workload is about 4-8 hours per week. It is taught by Scott Plous of Wesleyan University who has also made parts of bonus materials free for students. Also students of this course get to subscribe to the Social Psychology Network for the lowest rate of $10.

The course starts from Aug 12th, though early subscribers have had the first week’s modules available as an early release. Plus, if you complete with enough credits, you could get a Statement of Accomplishment.

I have the nasty habit of starting these courses and not sticking with it after 2-3 weeks. But now I am determined to follow through as I have blogged everyday for more than a month. This shows that if I want to, I can make something as an habit. Maybe I will have to cut down on my blogging (to 1 or 2 posts a week) and spend more time on these courses and my other hobbies.

Overall this is looks like a nice introductory course to have a basic understanding of how people think and I do want to complete this course. I have already finished 6 lecture videos of the first week’s modules (released early) and must sit down for the first assignment.

Bonus: To make you interested in this course, here is a nice video (part of the course) that demonstrates the effect of Change Blindness – Colour Changing Card Trick.

Tracking your workouts using your smartphone

For a long time, I was tracking my workouts (which was just plain walking and jogging) using an iPod Nano which had a simple pedometer. It could track how many steps you take and how many long runs you do and a very simple calorie calculation.

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

It worked great as I can listen to podcasts and also silently tracked my workouts. But it doesn’t work for cycling. There are however a few options where you could buy a cheap cyclocomputer which can measure your average speed, max speed, workout time, distance travelled in a trip, etc.

If you want to track more info about the route you take, you can use some of the costlier GPS solutions which track the elevation gradient, draw your route on a map, etc.

Or if you want to just start tracking your workouts today, there is however a device which you already have in your pockets – your smartphone. There are apps for both Android and iPhone which allow you to track the speed, distance, route, etc., all using the built-in GPS.

There are two apps that seem popular among the community. Best part is, both these apps work for running/jogging/cycling.

Strava: This is a free app for both iPhone and Android. It does have a monthly subscription for premium features. It looks very polished and seem to work really great for me. Can track your average/max speed, elevation gain, calories, routes, etc. It also has social features where you can follow the activity of your friends and even compete on segments for the fastest time. It also works with some of the other GPS devices you may have.

Endomondo: It is also very similar and has the same functionality of tracking speed, elevation, route, etc. Can work on both iPhone and Android or any GPS enabled device. Free, though there are membership plans for some advanced features.

You can choose either of these and start tracking your workout easily. The only problem is having a heavy smartphone in your pocket, which is easily solved if you can get an armband for you phone.

Once you are into serious training and want to track really long distances, you can choose to get a GPS device which does its job well and integrate with your account on either of these two sites. Till then, I will be using my smartphone app to track my workouts.

Cycling after 9 years

Today’s post isn’t about money or investments. Instead it is cycling. It was something I used to enjoy when I was a kid, which was the primary mode of transport from home to school. But soon, I got my license and stopped cycling.

After 9 years, I was looking back at cycling and found that there is a good community around bicycles. Even though cycles form a very small percentage of vehicles on the road in India, young people have started cycling – both as a hobby and also competing amongst others.

I wanted to start cycling again after a 9 year break for various reasons:

  • I am not so badly out of shape, that I need some form of exercise. Running and jogging? Nah, I wasn’t motivated enough because all I could run around was the neighbourhood. Gyms? I don’t want to pay the money and let the membership go waste.
  • I do need some time out of my home office as I was getting bored and irritated sitting behind the desk all day long.
  • I want a new hobby and also to meet some people who are passionate about it. And Chennai does have a lot of groups who are interested in cycling.

I read through various forums, articles and learnt a lot about the various types of bikes and finally last week I went and got a very simple bicycle.

montra-jazza-blue-new

I did cycle for 4 days getting up early in the morning – not very long distances, but enough to make me go out of breath (given that I weigh quite a bit more than 9 years back). I couldn’t get up early then because of my cold and a painful sore throat.

But I am determined to cycle regularly and I find it is fun. I seemed to have forgotten all the fun I had cycling so many years back. I don’t cycle because it is green and saves the planet and is faster to commute in traffic or other reasons. I cycle because I need a hobby and I find it is fun.

You should also try it too. A quick search would get you lot of information about cycling, maintenance, etc. But I would suggest starting out with this thread which discusses about the various types of bikes and which is best suited, especially for Indian readers.

P.S.: Check out my stats in my Strava Profile.

Increase your concentration using the Pomodoro Technique

real-world-pomodoro-timerThere are times when you would want to sit down and work on a task, but lack the determination & concentration to sit through it and finish it completely. Add colleagues or family members who constantly disturb you for petty things and you have got the perfect recipe for a huge list of tasks that are half-complete and you don’t even know where your entire day had gone.

After trying lot of techniques for handling my time and task lists better, I finally found the Pomodoro Technique which is quite easy to stick to and also leads to much higher productivity. Pomodoro technique divides your entire work hours into 25 minutes intervals with 5 minutes break in between. There are also times when you can take a longer break. But the 25 minutes (called a pomodoro) is purely spent only for work with no distractions (there are ways to handle interruptions too)

Starting on the Pomodoro Technique is quite easy. All you need is a piece of paper, a simple countdown timer and some tasks which you must get done. You can read the official book which does a good job of explaining in detail how to start using the technique. But here is a very quick version that you can read now. Once you see how effective it is, it is hard to not use it when you want to be productive.

Step 1: List out all the tasks you want to be completed today. Order them by the highest priority first.

Step 2: Pick the first task, start your countdown timer for 25 minutes and work on the task at hand.

Step 3: When 25 minutes has passed and you hear your alarm, stop working, mark an “X” against the task and take a break for 5 minutes. If you are programmer, get out of the desk and go drink water and look out the window.

Step 4: If the task you picked is completed, strike out the task and pick the next task. Else continue working on the same task. Now start your next pomodoro (25 minute counter) and repeat until all tasks you listed are completed. At the end of the day, the task sheet you have will show you how productive you were and how many tasks you got completed by the day.

Note: After every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. You could do anything during this break like checking email/facebook, having lunch, drinking coffee, etc. So you get a big break every 2 hours.

This is the very short version of the technique and is enough to get you started. But do read the book (you can complete it in 1 or 2 pomodoros) and it explains in details on how to handle interruptions (both internal and external). It also explains how to do time estimation and lot of other tips that may be useful for advanced users.

There are various apps for smartphones, for the pomodoro timers. Even though I have a physical timer (the pomodoro shaped one) I got from Chile, I use the Mac app Pomodoro Desktop which also has a free open source version for download. The good thing about it is the ticking sound which when you hear on a earphone, will drive you to push yourself harder to complete as much of the task possible before the current pomodoro completes and I love this for just that.

Stop procrastinating using this 2 minute rule

Are you a super procrastinator like me? Do you always wait till the last minute to finish off something? Use this 2 minute rule to finish off the small tasks and have a clear head for your important tasks which take longer time to finish.

If something can be done in 2 minutes, do it NOW. 

Simple. Thats it. These include things like throwing the garbage out, calling your bank to enquire about a transaction you don’t remember, booking your travel tickets, etc. Some of the tasks might require some thinking (like the travel dates) and it wouldn’t be complete in 2 minutes exactly (like the phone call). But you do get the idea right?

If it is so simple and can be done in a very short duration, do it immediately and strike it off your task list (you do have a task list right?). Your mind has limited bandwidth and once these silly tasks are completed, you would be off to solving real problems that matter.

Throw out the crap

recycle-binMost of us have lot of crap filled in our homes – as dresses that don’t fit, books that we don’t read or finished reading, electronic gadgets, chargers & earphones that don’t work anymore, etc. The above list is just a sample of things I could see around in my room.

Last month my wife and I decided that we would clean up our room every month – throwing out things that we don’t use. Last month we cleaned up the entire room – lot of paper, small things that hide in corners or behind tables, etc.

Today, I sat down and pulled out all my jeans in the closet and tried them one by one. I found that most of the old ones don’t fit me anymore (I prefer to say they shrunk, but my wife says I have become fat) and they won’t fit me anytime soon. There were two that fit now and would be comfortable if I lose a few kilos. So I saved those two and threw the rest in a bag.

My wife took out her entire closet of clothes and found lot of old clothes that either don’t fit or are too old to be worn at all. She has packed a bigger and heavier bag than mine. These bags will be collected from our house by people from charities who give these clothes to people need good clothes to wear.

Result: We now have cleared quite a bit of space in the closet. Hope wife doesn’t go out and buy more clothes to fill the empty space.

Next month I will throw out the old desktop that doesn’t work and maybe also a few other gadgets that we don’t use (like my wife’s extra hair iron & curling iron).

Why don’t you try throwing out things you haven’t used in years – once a month and minimize the clutter in your life? Look at your closet, drawers and shelves and put those things in a bag and give it away, today.

Beautiful Journal App “Day One” – Free now

hero-dayone-icon@2xDo you want to get into the habit of writing regularly? Do you want your journal protected from others and easily accessible across various devices?

Try Day One, an awesome looking journaling app for both Mac and iOS. Think of it as a facebook timeline for your thoughts, but visible to only you on your own device.

It has pretty simple features like a uploading photos, calendar view, reminders for writing, quick search, export as PDF and lot more. You use even use markdown to format the text. It automatically syncs via iCloud or Dropbox, so you can view your journal on any of your Apple devices.

Though it is ideal for any kind of creative writing, I think it works best for maintaining your food journal, movie reviews or even as a dream log (yes, thats what I am going to use it for, to record my dreams).

Check it out at the App Store. Free for a limited time as part of the 5 year anniversary of Apple App Store, but worth the $2 it costs actually. The Mac version costs $10.

8 Ideas to keep you motivated when working from home

When I say I work from home, my friends and relatives imagine me lying down lazily on the couch and watching TV, with one hand on the laptop and another hand in a bag of chips. No boss to breathe down your neck or micromanage you. You’ve got all the time in the world and can even take a quick nap if you are feeling sleepy.

Actually, working all alone in a room without any direct interaction with your team members is slightly depressing sometimes and can take a hit on your productivity. Sometimes you would miss that micromanaging boss who sits near your desk with a list of tasks to complete – printed out on paper from your bug tracker.

Here are 8 ideas for you to work smartly and be productive working alone from home.

1. Have a routine and stick to it

clockWorking from home gives your the joy of 0 minute commutes. But that doesn’t mean you can wake up any time you want to and sit down to work in your pajamas with your breakfast in one hand.

Start your work just like you would do if you had to go to an office. Wake up, go to gym or a jog and have your breakfast before you step into your home-office (yeah, refer it as Home-Office next time you talk to friends). For some people they feel productive and in the zone only if they dress up, just like in an office. Try doing it and find what suits you.

Find the right time for yourself. Few of us are a morning person while some are night owls. I personally prefer working late at night and get into the zone only after midnight. You can try talking to your boss if you can shift the time a bit based on what kind of a person you are. But do make sure you have at least a few hours of overlapping time zones between team members.

2. Have a separate work area and time

You know how working from home means, you can lie down on your bed with your laptop and your boss wouldn’t even know. Or how about catching up on the shows on TV while you lean back on the couch. You could never get things done that way.

Always have a place at home where you can draw an imaginary border separating your home from your office. Most of the times, a simple desk with a good chair in a separate room would suffice.

Make sure the place is well lit and the temperature is set to the optimum as too hot or too cold can be a real irritant and can cause a huge drop in productivity. And also keep the desk clear of all clutter. Close the doors and tell your family that during your work hours, you are not to be disturbed unless your house is on fire.

The border should work both ways. Whenever you are in the work area during the work time, do only work related activities. And once you step outside the work area, spend your time with your family. This means having your lunch/dinner away from the desk.

It may be tempting to have your lunch at the desk. DON’T DO IT. Step away and spend your lunch time with family/friends if you can. Lunch can also be a nice time to meet some mentors and network with them asking for advice.

3. Have a prioritised task list

task-listStart every day by creating a list of tasks that need to be completed today (better if you could do it the night before) and make sure you specify how much time it would take to complete. Sort it based on priority or whatever magic number your team uses. Manually ticking off each task as you complete is a small treat to your brain.

Its OK even if you miss the time estimations initially. Unless your task list has a deadline, it would never get completed. Having the set of milestones to complete will really make you forget about those little distractions you might have every day.

I use Trello for tracking the tasks and it works great when you have a team working on various parts of the project. If you are working on a simple project as a solo developer, something as simple as a pen and paper would work great.

4. Take regular breaks

Working continuously for long hours can have problems to your health and also affect the quality of your work. Everyone can work for long hours without a break, but pretty soon the body will break down and you would have to take a longer break than the occasional 5-10 minutes break you should’ve taken in the first place.

Sitting for long hours in the desk is very damaging to your body and make sure you take a very short 5 minutes break every 25 minutes. You can use the pomodoro technique for this and it is very effective.

5. Talk to your team – either through IM or Skype

skypeSometimes it could be lonely working in your room with no one to talk to. If you have a team which is also working remotely, always communicate with them – either through instant message or call them up using Skype. All it takes a couple of minutes of discussion with another person to spark off the solution to the hard problem.

If you are a single developer working on your own startup, call up some friends or mentors and have a quality discussion for 5-10 minutes.

When you call your friends, you don’t have to always talk about your work. If you do, pretty soon you will be reaching only the voicemail. Instead ask about their day and suggest something that might help them. Remember everyone has problems and just like you, they are also looking for a place to express their emotions.

6. Block Social Networking Sites

The constant checking of updates on social networking sites is the most distracting thing you can do while at work. Block them completely during the work hours or use the “separate social networking device” method I talked about earlier. Also make sure you measure your productivity and identify key areas where you can improve.

And social networks also include your personal email or GTalk account. Remember to do your personal work on your personal time and not while you work.

Of course this rule doesn’t apply if your job is dependent on the constant access to these sites.

7. Work from a cafe/library at least once a week

Working from the same place could become boring after a while and soon you would be irritated at even the tiny things on your desk (thats why you should clear up your desk regularly). When that happens, just throw your laptop into your bag and head off to the nearest cafe or library and sit down for couple of hours and work.

If there is no internet connection, means no distractions – even better. Going offline for a few hours isn’t that life threatening as you would think. The two hours of concentrated work in the cafe will be more productive than 8 hours of monotonous work in your desk.

8. If everything fails, work from a coworking place

This is seriously the best option for some of us who could never get things done sitting alone. In a coworking place, you have the company of like-minded people in a proper office setting. Sometimes this is all the motivation you need for working. So try working from some coworking place in your city for a month and see if it helps.

Sometimes there might even be casual coworking events called Jellies where people gather in a place and work together. Search for a Jelly in your city. If there isn’t one, host one for others in your house.

The new faces you meet in such places are refreshing and help in the creative brainstorming. If you are interested, you could also try collaborating with them on their projects in your free time.

Try these 8 tips above and drive out the boredom of working alone. Have you got any more ideas to stay motivated working at home? Leave your tips in the comments section below.

Measure your productivity using RescueTime

You can’t improve something unless you measure it. If I asked you how productive you were last week, you would not be able to give an accurate and objective answer. You might say “Well, I emailed the proposal to the client and added feature A, B and C to the product”.

Measuring productivity by tasks completed is good, but can you say what percentage of time you spend on your code editor/IDE vs checking status updates on social networking sites? Unless you find out your productivity percentage, your time will leak one distracting site at a time, everyday.

I use the perfect tool for measuring how productive you are everyday and you can also start using it for free. And it runs in the background, not needing any kind input from you, but gives insightful information about your computer usage. It is called “RescueTime“.

rescuetime logoRescueTime offers a free software that runs silently in the background of your computer, tracking the various things you do on your computer – applications you work on, files you edit, websites you visit, etc. It stores them all securely on the server and allows you to see them and put them in 5 broad categories – very productive, productive, neutral, distracting and very distracting.

For example, your IM client is marked automatically as very distracting, while your spreadsheet would be marked as very productive. It can even use the URL of the websites you browse and classify them accordingly based on what type it is – like News and Opinion for Reddit and Reference for Wikipedia.

You can view your reports per day/week/month/year and you get interesting metrics about total time you spend on your computer, productivity %, most productive days, efficient time of the day and lot of nice looking graphs.

My this week's rescuetime dashboard.
My RescueTime dashboard.

You can edit the categories a site/application belongs to easily and also set the productivity score for them individually. You can even setup goals for completion everyday – like minimum of N productive hours from 9AM-6PM, no more than X distracting time for the entire day, etc.

If you are a freelancer, working on multiple client’s projects, you can create multiple projects and setup keywords to match activities to the respective projects automatically. Pretty neat, huh!

The basic version is free which is sufficient for most of a beginner’s needs. There is also a Pro version which provides detailed analysis of individual activities you did, access to data older than 3 months and track offline data like meetings/calls. Apart from the individual version, you can also buy RescueTime for your entire team and track the productivity of your entire organisation.

Do install it and give it a try. In a week, you would be hooked on to the information you measure about yourself. And once you start measuring something, it automatically improves like magic. Do come back in a week and leave a comment here on how productive you were.

Disclaimer: I am a long time RescueTime user and love it. However the links are referral links and if you sign up using the links above, I would get a few days of the Pro version free.