Category Archives: Productivity

The 1-2-3 Rule

School started on Monday for me. That means prioritization, reading assignments, and grades.

However, I do find grades and deadlines somewhat motivating. This is why I typically get more done per week during a semester than over a break when I tell myself that I will get work done, but don’t get it done.

Here is a quick hack that I am trying out to apply the motivation that the education environment gives me to my todo list. I call it the 1-2-3 rule.

Each day before you go to bed, select 1 big task, 2 medium tasks, and 3 small tasks. Set the due date to tomorrow night. Award yourself 30% for completing your big task, 20% for each medium task, and 10% for each small task. An A is 100%, A- is 90%, B is 80%, C is 70%, D is 60% and anything below is failing.

At the end of the week, you can check to see what your GPA is, and track how your GPA changes over time. For those of you strive for good grades, applying this hack to non-school related items may carry enough connotation to push you to do things you otherwise would push off.

15 Worthwhile Paid Apps in ’15

In 2015, I really got into the hang of budgeting. One of my categories was ‘free money,’ a small allowance I gave myself each month to spend on the ‘ooh shiny’ things that would catch my eye. A lot of people use this sort of category to buy tea, go golfing, watch movies, buy clothes, get their nails done, and cut their hair. I’m a productivity junkie, and productivity junkies spend their fun-stuff budget on apps.

I do a lot of computer programming, and there’s a lot that goes into making an app. Free apps are great, but occasionally when the developers ask for a few dollars in return for an exceptionally well produced application. I have learned that in free apps, you’re always paying for something, whether it is extra time, ads, or missing features.

Not all free apps are worth their while, but what follows are apps that definitely are, ranked by how useful I believe they are to the average iOS user. Without further ado, the top ’15 of 2015.


You Need a Budget saves me any cost that I would have paid them if I weren’t a student.

YNAB (pronounced why-nab) stands for You Need a Budget. YNAB is an example of a company that markets a vision, but also happens to sell an app.

YNAB’s value comes from its four rules of budgeting:

  1. Give every dollar a job – when I started out with YNAB this spring, I went through all of my bank accounts and assigned a ‘task’ to every penny I owned across all my bank, credit card, and miscellaneous accounts. By budgeting money where it needs to be, I never have to worry whether I’ll accidentally spend too much money on groceries that needs to be allocated to bills. The bill dollars have it covered, freeing up my money and my mind to worry about other things.
  2. Embrace your true expenses – Once a year, Christmas comes. Birthdays happen round the calendar, and I have to buy books at the beginning of every semester for school. Rather than paying 1-time huge expenses, I count them up as small monthly installments ahead of time. I never grimaced this Christmas in buying gifts for my family, because I had saved up a nice size budget by stashing away small amounts every month. Christmas was a very happy time to splurge on carefully saved money.
  3. Roll with the punches – Unexpected expenses arise. Gas prices spike and I don’t have enough money to cover it. YNAB says it is okay to move money around when these surprises happen. It’s a liberating practice.
  4. Age your money – the paychecks I earn never get spent within that same month. Each month’s expenditures are covered by the paychecks of the previous month. No more paycheck-to-paycheck, no more timing bills. Get ahead once, and stay there.

YNAB is free for students as long as they are studying, after that there is a $60 lifetime license that goes on sale with the bi-annual steam sale for as low as $15. I’ve also heard rumors that you can watch some of YNAB’s training videos and get a free license there, but I haven’t tried it yet–I’m going to be a student for a long time.

YNAB’s budgeting practices make sure you have money for what you need when you need it. It promotes mindfulness and moderation and kills overspending and compulsive buying. Even if I had to pay the full $60 for it, I would still buy it without any qualms because it pays for itself in a year or so.

2. Dispatch


Dispatch Mail is the quickest way that I have found to process email on the go.


Once upon a time, I used an app called Mailbox. It was a cute little app that synced with your GMail and would let you do GTD-style inbox processing. One of it’s best features was the ability to defer an email until a time in the future. The message would disappear and come back after a time you set. Alas, Mailbox got acquired by Dropbox and no longer will be supported in 2016.

But, there is another app that does a lot of the same things, minus the defer button. Dispatch allows you to quickly swipe and triage your emails to other apps (task managers, read laters). You can take any email message and from inside the message view swipe the screen to the side to start your response. It creates a salutation automatically and puts your cursor underneath it with a custom signature at the bottom. For short emails (remember, GTD), this saves approximately 50% of the time it takes to process email in other apps.

Dispatch also uses user-defined snippets from within the app and from Textexpander to speed up the drafting of common responses.

And for the feature missing from Mailbox’s, I just forward the emails that need to be deferred to

Dispatch saves me time every single time I check email on my phone, and this collective time saved covers the cost of the app.

3. TextExpander

Textexpander saves time and typos by expanding short snippets and autocorrecting your frequent mistakes.

I never could muster up the courage to pay for the license on OSX after I discovered KeyboardMaestro, but I did find that most of my favorite apps on iOS (Dispatch, Omnifocus, Editorial, Drafts, LCP) support automatic TextExpander filling. For example, my email address is 28 characters long. Filling in forms takes forever if I type it out manually. But using TextExpander’s keyboard, I can simply type “emx” and TextExpander deletes three characters and then types the 28 characters in my email address. I do this also with my home mailing address (37 characters expanded by “adx”) and other frequently typed phrases.

This was mega helpful when I was planning my wedding. I wanted to send personalized messages asking people if they would be able to help with different parts of our wedding, but I knew that it would require a lot of copy-pasting, which is a pain on iOS. So, I made a short abbreviation such as ‘wedkar’ for wedding karaoke requests. When I would type in wedkar, it would expand out to a boilerplate paragraph and leave my cursor at the beginning to personalize a greeting (Hey Kimberly,)

It is also super useful in disambiguating. You can script TextExpander to add in the specific date when you type in a string like nextTuesday, and then it would fill in something like “next Tuesday, the 4th) for example.

I purchased TextExpander on sale, and for the price I got it for, I would definitely say it is worth it. If you do not have long emails, blurbs, and boilerplate paragraphs that you frequently have to type by hand, it might not be a worthwhile purchase for youj.

4. Cam Scanner

CamScanner produces well-formatted PDFs on your mobile phone and provides numerous options to share in other apps.

When I was taking Quantum Mechanics, I emailed all of my homework to my professor to have him grade. However, most of my homework was written out on paper. CamScanner takes pictures and then concatenates them into PDF files which can then be shared via email, dropbox, evernote, and a couple other more obscure services. CamScanner handles image sharpening, compression, parallax corrections, and so on so you can have quality PDFs on the go without the need for a portable scanner.

CamScanner also turns out to be free for students. I recommend it to classmates who want to keep copies of their work just in case their professor misplaces it (this has been a lifesaver for me once before).

CamScanner is cheaper than buying a scanner, and compared to the time and effort it takes to create PDFs through other means, CamScanner pays for itself in the time it saves.

5. Tweetbot

Tweetbot introduces features that make interfacing with the Twitter community a breeze.

There are a ton of different uses for Twitter. I didn’t appreciate any of them until I started doing PR for apps I was developing and organizations I was volunteering for. Since then I use Tweetbot to keep in touch with friends (without the bloat of Facebook), and for keeping up with specific news sources (without the bloat of ads and random stories I don’t care for). The biggest emotional reason is to make myself feel better when I’m inconvenienced. Recently I was stranded at O’Hare due to freezing rain canceling hundreds of flights. I was able to search tweets from hundreds of users complaining about their predicament, and I felt a little better after seeing how rough they had it.

I like Tweetbot over Twitter’s app because it removes all the ads. There are a bunch of other features, such as blocking and muting users and keywords, better list management, drafts, night-mode, and ease of switching between five accounts I manage.

Justifying the cost of this app will depend on your preferences. However, for me I simply enjoy twitter a lot more using Tweetbot than I do out of using the stock app.

6. Duet Display

Change your iOS device into a second monitor.


I bought this app about 60 minutes after I discovered it. Usually I wait a few days or even months, but this one just made too much sense to wait on.

When I do grading or software development, I like to have two screens, one for work and one for reference. A lot of the time, I’ll drag content from one screen to the other. Until now, I have kept a second monitor at my workspace on campus and another at my workspace at home, but these monitors are big and bulky, and difficult to transfer. They also consume a lot of desk space.

Duet is programmed by an ex-Apple developer, and so it works beautifully between iOS devices. You simply plug in your iPhone or iPad to your computer (which I do all the time to charge them), and Duet recognizes them as a second display. You can adjust resolution and frame rate to achieve Retina display quality images.

This was a no-brainer buy for me, because I was immediately able to sell my two bulky monitors to cover the cost of the app. This is also the one app that made tablets make sense to me. Up until now they were too big to be a phone, and too small to be a laptop.

7. 1Password

1Password encrypts all your passwords into a database protected by a master password. It excels in its autofill capabilities.

I am terrified of password reuse. Many of my friends use three or four passwords for all of their online accounts. Most web services and banks hash your password so that even they can’t figure out your password (that’s why they always ask you to reset lost passwords). But, suppose one of these free services decided to use your password to try to log into your primary email or your bank account? Reusing your bank account password could mean thousands in lost money. Reusing your social media means your reputation could be marred by hurtful private messages and comments that you wouldn’t be aware of until weeks later, and reusing your primary email password means that someone else could reset ALL your passwords.

The solution is to use different, secure passwords for all of your accounts. Then you keep all of these passwords protected in a single vault that is encrypted behind one password, hence 1Password.

1Password does more than just encrypting your passwords. It also autofills forms, and can even go to the website for you. Having 1Password navigate to the website is important because of something called typosquatting, where somebody creates a website that is linguistically similar to another site (ctibank or ctiibank vs citibank) that looks like the other site, but instead steals your password. Having 1Password type it for you protects you from this.

Considering the potential cost of lost passwords, both in time and money, 1Password is worth the in-app purchase.

8. Drafts


GTD-style quick capture of ideas and notes for rapid processing later.

I like to think as #8, #9, and #10 as the triumvirate of productivity on the iPhone. Each is rather pointless in and of themselves, but they derive their incredible value in their ability to integrate with other apps.

When I first tell people about drafts, they ask me what makes it better than iOS’ stock notes app. For many users, notes might be fine, but I find that Drafts is the best fit for my workflow because it is so blazingly fast.

Drafts excels in that as soon as you open it, you’re presented a blank screen with a blinking cursor. Good ideas are ephemeral, and the sooner you record them the better. In most note-taking apps, there is a menu asking what you want to call your document, where you want to put it, filetype, and so forth. Drafts shoots first, and asks questions later. Get your ideas down, process them later GTD style.

Drafts also excels in its options to share. I have actions linked to export my drafts in apps like Omnifocus, Evernote, nvALT, Dispatch, Beeminder, Calendar, Reminders, my printer, a push notification on other devices, or even to remind me again in another week through a python script in Editorial/Pythonista.

Drafts is the perfect fit for capturing information. I tell people that I have an awful memory, and use it as an excuse to write down everything that people tell me, from shopping lists to homework assignments. Drafts automatically captures the time created/updated as well as the location so I have extra context to jog my memory of what was going on (“Ahh! I was at Stephen’s house for lunch on Friday when I wrote that down.”)

Ideas and information are the currency of the 21st century, and the ability to capture, recall, and share them  more effectively has paid for the value of this app.

9. Launch Center Pro

Trigger actions quickly on your iOS device.

Similarly to Drafts, Launch Center Pro is really weak as a stand-alone app. It’s true strength emerges from the powerful automations with other apps. You can define actions (mostly defined through x-callback-url schema) for your most commonly used procedures. For example, I use a time clock at work to log my hours. I created an action in LCP that starts aTimeLogger for a given category, and punched in online. Another corresponding action in LCP will stop aTimeLogger and punch out, then open up an email draft with the To: and Subject: field already filled in to send a report of what I completed to my boss.

LCP launches, including the launch screen) in just under one second (compare to some other bloated apps that are still showing the launch screen after five seconds). Within the second second I can already trigger one of my other actions. In the third second, I can stick my phone back in my pocket and finish what I’m doing, resting assured that my “Just finished work, on my way home and can’t wait to see you” text message has been sent.

The longer I wait to start certain apps, the more prone I am to procrastinate or be distracted. By using LCP to automate actions, I spend less time fiddling and more time doing. This ends in more productivity which has justified the cost of the app.

10. Workflow

Powerful automation through a drag-and-drop interface for iOS.

Workflow is the third in the productivity triumvirate. It links together a bunch of actions, and lets you create a workflow by dragging and dropping panels. For example, every day I start my morning with a freezing cold shower. In order to motivate me, I have a workflow that does the following:

  1. Queue up Eye of the Tiger from my iTunes library
  2. Play Eye of the Tiger (except on Saturday mornings where I play a light-hearted mandolin concerto of equivalent length)
  3. When Eye of the Tiger is finished, play a notification that lets me know I can turn off the ice storm coming out of my showerhead.
  4. Log an entry in Evernote that records the date, time, and what I listened to.

I launch this workflow from Launch Center Pro right before I enter the shower, and know that even as I am shivering afterwards, I have logged my victory and can later review my cold shower streak (I’ve logged 42 cold showers this way, but did a lot more before I set this up).

I’ve done a similar thing logging my energy levels every hour throughout the month of November this year. I have another workflow that helps me take photos of receipts and store them in YNAB and Evernote, log activity in Beeminder via IFTTT, and even do reverse lookups over web APIs.

Workflow has helped me to automate processes that would otherwise not get done because of the friction required to go between apps and log them. I’ve done activities and created logs that are worth more than the cost of Workflow.

11. aTimeLogger

Personal time-tracking and reporting

I use aTimeLogger for keeping track of how much time I spend on given activities. A get paid by the hour for work, and I have to log research hours. A lot of time, I’m not immediately by a journal or time clock, but great ideas are flooding into my stream of consciousness. I quickly start aTimeLogger from LCP or the home screen and commence dumping of ideas into Drafts, Evernote, or Editorial.

aTimeLogger is an inexpensive app, and the hours that I have remembered to log because of it have more than paid off the cost of the app.

12. Scripture Typer

Memorize scripture by adding verses and typing them using spaced repitition. 2.0 bpb.

For anybody who wants to memorize text, this is the app to get. I tried an app called Anki for a long time for memorization, but the sticker price for iPhone was just too much to swallow (it is free on other platforms). I might use Anki for memorizing equations or images, or even foreign language vocabulary (but Duolingo is better for that). But as far as memorizing paragraphs and Bible verses go, Scripture Typer wins hands down.

Scripture Typer has an automatic import feature for Bible verses in an array of versions. But, if you want to memorize text for a speech, you can paste that paragraph in as well. You can review on the computer or in the app, and you have the option to only type the first letter of each word for faster review. A brilliant feature of Scripture Typer is that it doesn’t penalize you for typing an adjacent letter, which is a huge plus for those with big clumsy fingers.

I’ve used Scripture Typer to memorize about 8 chapters of the Bible. Between the decision to spend $5 on a 12″ at Subway or on memorizing the equivalent of a book of the Bible, I think this app’s cost is justified.

13. OmniFocus

Professional grade personal task management.

OmniFocus is not for everyone. Those who resonate strongly with GTD love OmniFocus, but those who cannot stand the overhead that goes into the GTD workflow probably would opt for something like Todoist.

OmniFocus is the premier platform for personal task managment per GTD system. It supports everything from calendar integration to capture and review. It syncs seamlessly between a beautiful iPhone app and desktop application. It supports custom filters and perspectives, geofenced contexts. Defer dates were the feature that were the selling points for me–I was tired of seeing tasks that I couldn’t yet take action on other apps like Wunderlist, and

OmniFocus has a huge sticker price, which is what dissuades a lot of potential users. Before OmniFocus, I tried a year of Todoist premium, but I quickly realized that if I paid monthly or yearly for more than a couple years, I would end up paying what OmniFocus would cost anyway. Because my digital task managers is such a huge part of my work flow, I decided that this huge purchase would be worth it.

OmniFocus probably isn’t worth it for the average user, but if you maintain dozens of projects with hundreds of tasks, you might want a GTD system that can do that sort of heavy lifting. OmniFocus is a trusted and celebrated industry solution that fits the bill.

14. Editorial

Markdown drafting and python scripting

I use Editorial for scripting. It was created by the same guy that made Pythonista and brought Python scripting to iOS. Editorial is a markdown version of Drafts but with a lot more power for scripting.

I use editorial for journaling. I have a document template that fills in with tomorrow’s date, and creates a template that I can fill in the different events and projects that I’m working on, what challenges I am facing, and other things that are relative to my life that I wish to journal about. I can then export to Evernote and email to share my journal entry.

I also use Editorial for batch-sharing notes from grading. When I am grading electronic submissions on my computer, I will save the notes and rubric scores in markdown documents into Dropbox. I can then batch process them from my iPhone (or grade on the go) by looking up student’s emails, creating a total of their score and sticking that in the subject with the name of the assignment, and send their feedback to them.

Editorial is my go to for drafting long paragraphs when I’m away from my computer. I’ve set up some actions to share to my blog, and to export to HTML for others to preview when I write speeches and sermons.

If Python is not your thing, but you still do a lot of writing, I might recommend Byword. Editorial won for me because of its ability to script in Python and to automate a lot of the regular journal entries that I write on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for my own review.

15. Pushover

Push mobile notifications to any of your tech gadgets.

This is the one app that I have not yet tried, but will early in 2016. One of the things that I love about Apple products is their handoff capability of passing states between your devices. Sometimes however, there is information that I want to pass that isn’t easy to do through handoff. How many times have you wanted to copy something on your computer, and paste it on your phone?

Pushover is a service that sends notifications to your iOS, Android, or Desktop device. You can configure scripts to send your clipboard as a notification to another device (or copy it to your device’s clipboard if you have Drafts, LCP, or Workflow). You can also use it with IFTTT to get a notification of a certain event. I turn off notifications, but I want to know as son as possible somebody sends an email with the word “URGENT” in it.

Pushover can also be useful if you are trying to free up space on your phone. There are a lot of apps that we install just to get news and alerts about something, but these apps take up several tens of MB at times, cramming out space for videos and images. Pushover can substitute for all those apps.

I’m not entirely convinced that pushover will be worth it’s while, but it will definitely be handy. Who knows, perhaps by setting up a script to check for the aurora forecast and checking for clear skies, I can get notified in time to see the next aurora! That by itself might be worth $5.

Biological Prime Time

Not all hours of your day are created equal. For some tasks, if you do them in the afternoon, it will take you perhaps 1 hour, but if you do it late at night, it may take you 2 or 3 hours.

Example: I code a lot, both for personal enjoyment and for work. One of the wonderful things about coding is that you are frequently having to pick up new languages and libraries that are suited best to your needs. Usually, when I code in the morning or the afternoon I can usually learn these new elements quickly. When I try to code late at night, they don’t assimilate into my brain as easily. The effect: coding at night means more time debugging and bashing my head in the keyboard because I can’t work out the bugs.

Sam Carpenter in his book, Work the System (which is available for free on his website) refers to something called Biological Prime Time, or BPT for short. BPT is the time of day where your biological make up dictates that you are most productive. You are probably already familiar with this concept as expressed by “night owl” or “morning person.” Regardless of the terminology, there is a time of day when you get your stuff done best.

The clock time as I am writing this

Equipped with this knowledge, you can start planning out your day to maximize your results and beat procrastination. Procrastination happens when you know you should do something, but decide to put it off. It is most insidious when you put it off by substituting in another project that is also important but more enjoyable. Example: not filing your taxes or writing a paper because you need to work on editing a video for a class you love.

The solution: plan your most daunting tasks to be executed during your BPT. If you do this, then you will have the most energy available to tackle the difficult task at hand. Be ruthless and don’t let anything else (ahem, Facebook, texting, email) to come in between. Go to a library or coffee shop, and isolate yourself from the world for two or three hours until it is done. And when it is done, you can do something you enjoy. You will be tired, and this is the time to do something you find recharging.

No human being can be in BPT all the time. Everyone comes with strengths and weaknesses. And everyone will eventually get tired. But, as Sam Carpenter puts it, just because a car is out of gas does not mean that it needs repair. You simply have to be mindful of how much “go” is in your car, and know when you have the energy to make a big trip, and when you need to refuel.

By the way, in closing, here are some of the things I do during BPT, followed by the things I do when I am drained:


  • Write papers
  • Read textbooks
  • Fill out forms like tax documents and applications
  • Grade

Refueling time

  • Exercise/go on a walk
  • Eat
  • Check social media
  • Email
  • Clean
  • Chores like folding laundry while listening to audio books
  • Journal
  • Run errands while listening to radio

These are my lists, and they work because of my personality type and interests. I would love to hear your lists and how this would be different for you!

Saving Time with No Lace Shoes

A lot of little things can add up to a couple big things. This is also true of time. If you do the same small action over and over and over again, even though it may take you no more than 20 seconds each time you do it, if you do it maybe 100 times a week, 100×20 = 2000, and 2000÷60 is about half an hour.

For a while, I had these nice shoes that I really liked. The only problem is that I would have to tie these long laces, and then double knot them. This probably didn’t take me the 20 seconds I mentioned before, but you do understand that it does take some time to tie your shoes if will you need to go somewhere. I tied and untied my shoes many times per day (I like to take my shoes off when I work), this would add up to a lot time.

The solution? Get shoes that don’t have laces. The shoes in this post are one of the sets of shoes that I have that don’t have laces. I have two pairs right now. I use them almost every day. It’s so nice just to be able to slip them on and walk somewhere and then set them off and then work somewhere with my feet.

Not only has a save me a lot of time, but also decreases the resistance behind doing something. With shoes that I don’t have to tie by my door, I can run out to the car anytime I need to and get something. Or I can go up to the attic or down to the basement on a moments notice; nothing is a problem for me.

This is just one of the many things that I am doing to try to find ways to cut corners without sacrificing quality to get more things done every day.

What kind of things do you do to save time systematically? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Done is Better than Perfect

I fail when it comes to blogging. I always view it in my mind as something that will take a lot of time, especially if I want a really nice final product.

For a while I’ve been wanting to blog about my financial workflow, and how I struggled for many years  to make it work, and then I would show the tools that I currently use, with screenshots, and checklists, and the works.

That sounded hard to me.

Let me tell you something. The mental resistance hindered me from ever starting the project and actually finishing it. Why? Because I wanted it to be really nice. I want this blog to bring a lot of value to my readers. I wanted it to be perfect.

The reality is that perfect products are seldom released. In software, they tell developers to release early, and release often. If the first product isn’t perfect, that’s fine as long as you release frequent updates and patches. Customers will tolerate the imperfections and glitches so long as you respond to them quickly and address the things that need addressing.

You have more time to do that when you’re not trying to reach perfection in all of your tasks.

So rather than getting hung up with trying to achieve perfection, aim to reach a 80% mark. Pareto’s principle argues that you can get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort you would need to get 100% of the results.

So that’s what I did with this blog post. 5 minutes in gimp. 5 minutes writing. #doneIsBetterThanPerfect, and I’m off to my next task on my to-do list for today.

How to Be More Productive with Spotify and the Pomodoro Technique

Once again everybody, it’s Friday, and my sister Jenny has made some great art for another post!

The spring semester is coming to a close, and I’ve been working on finishing several big projects. In order to get these projects done, I’ve needed to carve out blocks of time where 1) I was not distracted, and 2) I remained focused. Doing this is not always easy to do, but after a bit of trial and error, I think I’ve found a method that works well for me, and I hope for you as well.

The method that I use combines the Pomodoro Technique and listening to Spotify. Just a quick review on how these two things work:

The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro Technique Image

The Pomodoro Technique is method Francesco Cirillo developed in the 1980’s to break massive tasks down into digestible segments. Just for context, pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, named after the tomato kitchen timer traditionally used for the technique. This methodology helps one to remain focused, and makes daunting projects look more manageable. For example, one 4 hour project could be divided into 8 half-hour projects. There are five easy steps to implement the technique:

  1. Select a task that you want to make progress on
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes. This time can be different depending on your needs or preferences, but 25 is the traditional amount of time.
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off.
  4. Take a 5 minute break
  5. After doing steps 1-4 four times, take a longer break.

Here’s what it might look like if you started at 1:00 after a lunch break, and wanted to work up until supper at 5:30, you could break it into 8 pomodori and have the time look like this:

  • 1:00 – 1:25 Pomodoro #1
  • 1:25 – 1:30 Five minute break
  • 1:30 – 1:55 Pomodoro #2
  • 1:55 – 2:00 Five minute break
  • 2:00 – 2:25 Pomodoro #3
  • 2:25 – 2:30 Five minute break
  • 2:30 – 2:55 Pomodoro #4
  • 2:55 – 3:10 Fifteen minute long break (handle any major interruptions that may have occurred in the last two hours)
  • 3:10 – 3:35 Pomodoro #5
  • 3:35 – 3:40 Five minute break
  • 3:40 – 4:05 Pomodoro #6
  • 4:05 – 4:10 Five minute break
  • 4:10 – 4:35 Pomodoro #7
  • 4:35 – 4:40 Five minute break
  • 4:40 – 5:05 Pomodoro #8
  • 5:05 – 5:30 Handle any major interruptions that may have occurred in the last two hours. Write notes in Evernote or Omnifocus about what was finished and what still needs doing if project is still not complete.

When I first adopted this system, it seemed counter intuitive to take so many breaks. Over a 130-minute period for four pomodori, only 100 minutes, or 75% of the time is actually spent getting work done. But this actually allows you to get more work done. Here’s why.

First, sitting for long periods of time is unhealthy. Sitting for hours at a time can cause cardio-vascular problems, increased risk of depression, decreased metabolism, loss of focus and motivation, poor posture, the list goes on, and exactly zero things on the list help you get your goals done. By getting up between pomodori, you can avoid all of these effects by standing up, stretching, and even going on a short walk near your workspace, and if you can, in the fresh air.

Second, life is full of distractions. If you have ever decided to spend a block of time working on one task, only to be interrupted by a more urgent task and then not getting the first task done, you know what I mean. In a pomodoro, you do not allow yourself to stop what you’re working on until the timer rings. If you do get up and do something else, you decide to void your pomodoro and it doesn’t count. Instead, you should write down any interruptions that come up and take care of those during your 5 minute or 15 minute breaks. I will frequently send text messages, short emails, and phone calls during my breaks. These distractions are going to happen whether you are pomodoroing or not, and if you’re dedicating 75% of your time to focusing on an important task, the other 25% is there to help you manage everything that would happen otherwise, so the 25% is not actually time wasted.

Third, stopping periodically forces you to check-in on how you’re doing. If you get bogged down in one part of the project and start spending way to much time doing something that isn’t an important part, after spending one or two pomodori on that part, you have a natural opportunity to stop and reassess to see if what you’re doing is effective or whether you should change your strategy.

So that’s a quick explanation of the Pomodoro Techqniue which is only half of the equation.


Spotify Logo

Spotify is a commercial music streaming service that I have come to prefer over the last four months. You can select pre-made playlists, which has an advantage over Pandora and other commercial music streaming services that give you songs that a computer algorithm believes to be related, but aren’t always as related as one would like. You can listen to songs in shuffle-mode all by the same artist, all on the same album, or all in the same genre. You choose, and have a lot more control over what comes in your ear buds than many other services.

Up until March 31st, I was enjoying 3-month premium of Spotify with no ads for $.99, or about 1 cent per day. But after this was over, it would cost $5/month for a student license, and I decided to decline continuing premium for now. Now I was faced with jarring ads that might break my concentration and break my workflow. So rather than cave and give back in to the no ad service, I found a way to resolve the problem using the Pomodoro Technique.

Pomodoro + Spotify

Like I said in the beginning, the last two weeks have given me more projects that I usually have, that need me to be focused for hours at a time. I found that fewer people try to get my attention when I have huge headphones over my ears. While the music might not help me focus as much, it is great for drowning out distractions (especially if you have noise-cancelling headphones) as well as having fewer people try to get your attention. Don’t worry, if you’re using the Pomodoro Technique, you can still take the headphones off during pomodori and talk with folks.

So I’ve been listening to Spotify a lot, and I took time one evening to record the frequency of advertisements. I found out that the time between ads is either approximately 15 minutes or 30 minutes, and I say approximately because it rounds off to the nearest song.

This means that Spotify itself can act as a no-hassle pomodoro timer for you. For the every-30-minute advertisement, this signals that you are done with this pomodoro, and should get up and stretch or walk. In the case where you get 2 every-15-minute advertisements, I just remove my headset when I hear the first ad start, and keep working for 30 seconds before putting it back on, so I don’t get distracted. When the second ad starts, I know that I’m finished with that pomodoro again.

When I was using the Pomodoro Technique with Spotify Premium, I would have another timer running, often on my phone. But this was another app that I had to manage, and sometimes I wouldn’t hear the notification sounds over the music I was listening to. And sometimes I would forget to stop the timer from continuing onto successive pomodori, or I would believe that I started the timer when really I didn’t. Spotify does its best to make sure that you hear the ads, and it doesn’t forget to start or stop ads.

This system is great because I get the productivity of the Pomodoro Technique with essentially all the benefits of premium Spotify. I am pretty happy with it, and I am sure it will be a staple in my project-finishing techniques for a long time, or until I get enough income to justify Spotify premium again, in which case I will need another timer to notify me when I am done with a project.

The 12 days of Cell-free-mas

No cell phone is perfect, but when my Samsung phone stopped charging because the charging port got messed up, I was a bit disappointed. My phone was already showing the signs of it’s nearing demise, and I was hoping it would last until April when I could get a cheap(er) upgrade to a new phone.

I tried using different chargers with my phone, but one by one my phone destroyed the chargers so that they wouldn’t power any other devices. My mom experienced a similar problem in the fall, and her solution was to charge cell phone batteries, carry around a few spares wherever she went, and constantly replace the batteries when her phone ran low on juice. But that didn’t sound appealing to me, so I tried an alternative.

Not using my phone.

People wonder what it was like before people had cell phones. Since February 1, I have had a pleasant rewind into what my life was like when I was 16. Boy what a difference it made.

My normal self-check routine is to pat down my pockets and feel for three things: phone, wallet, keys. I often even say it out loud before leaving my room, car, workplace, friend’s house, etc… The list will change depending on where I am (passport gets added to the self-check list at airports, and so on). These last dozen days I’ve been readjusting to a self-check routine that consists of two-items, and it feels quite a bit more freeing.

I struggle to disengage from my day. From when I wake up until I go to bed, I’m constantly wanting to check emails, send messages to people, or even read different articles around the web. I recognize that the time I spend waiting here and there represents about 2% of my day, but I still feel horridly unproductive if I’m not doing anything during that time.

I am coming to realize that we as humans were not created to be constantly plugged in. Even though there are some environments that make us feel like we need to be constantly on call 24/7, this lifestyle is taxing, and never allows us to feel that we can truly unwind. In between classes, or during breaks, I am finding myself re-learning how to sit in a seat and just be content to wait without having to have a screen in front of me that is fooling me into feeling productive. It’s during these times that I feel like I can reflect on how my day is going, and re-align myself to those things that are important, like character development I talk with Jesus about every morning in my devotions.

I still make phone calls, but they are through my laptop or on a friends’ phone. My day becomes a bit more structured because if I tell people that I’m going to be there at a certain time, I can’t let them know last minute that I won’t be there. I have to be more responsible and even (heaven forbid) arrive places early, but nobody has told me that they mind much.

I could say a lot more, but I think you get the picture. I will likely upgrade to that new phone in April, but hopefully I can create positive habits of unplugging in the next few months that will persist even when I have the temptation of staying tuned in 24/7.

Why I won’t be playing video games on my phone/tablet/computer in 2015

This Christmas break, I found myself putting a lot of time into Minecraft and Clash of Clans. I had no school, and had finished some personal projects, so I had some time to burn and a nice iPad mini and MacBook Air.

From my experience time tracking in the past, I had an intuitive feel that gaming was taking up huge amounts of time, and that the hours per day that I was spending on games could be much better spent working on this blog for example.

I’ve made New Years resolutions before, and am well aware of the backsliding that is associated with the term. According to this site, only 8% of us keep our resolutions, and only 46% make it to 6 months. But I believe a big part of the reason we don’t make it is because we don’t understand the neurochemistry behind it.

Part of the goal of this blog, Making Gears Turn, is to better understand the mechanics that power the human experience. To keep a New Year’s Resolution, you need to understand the neurochemistry behind motivation, and video games have a fair bit to do with that.

A researcher at UConn discovered that dopamine, a chemical often associated with pleasure and our brain’s reward system, is not strictly about pleasure. He placed a pile of food near rat subjects, and another pile twice as large behind a small fence, and saw what happened to different rats. Rats with low dopamine lacked motivation to overcome their obstacle, and went for the small pile that was most accessible. Rats with more dopamine were able to make it over the fence and to the food. It turns out that dopamine has more to do with motivation, and increased motivation often gives us the willpower to achieve goals that give us pleasure.

Dopamine doesn’t cause pleasure in our brain, but it is the gatekeeper. Endorphins on the other hand are the chemicals released when we run, eat food, or play video games. So when someone particularly enjoys an activity, the brain (particularly the hippocampus and the amygdala) record the environmental cues associated with that activity, and the next time those cues are seen, then we get excited and motivated.

The problem with video games is that they are at a place where normally we are supposed to be productive. In the example of a mobile device or laptop, we are supposed to be writing a paper, or sending an important text, yet dopamine triggered by the sight of our devices and the tactile feel of the keyboard instinctively prompts us to log onto or open up our favorite game. This hijacks productivity.

So in order to stay on top of things like exercise, clearing todo lists, and fulfilling personal goals (like writing on this blog), the video games get to go this New Years. Completely off the phone. So when I feel compelled to log on, the game simply isn’t installed (and my hippocampus hasn’t yet associated the app store with endorphins yet :D). Less time gaming leaves more mental energy and more time for other things that really matter.

Oh, and for the record, playing a board game is something that matters. :)

How to Blackmail Yourself

This last month, I had a big paper to write for one of my classes. The syllabus required us to write a 12-page paper on the “Affirmation of Life: A Philosophy of Existence.” It took me seven different drafts to finally arrive at a paper that I actually felt I could turn in.

As the deadline grew closer, my motivation waned rapidly. I was sick and tired of discarding hours of work each time I realized a draft wasn’t going anywhere. Each day I lost more and more motivation, and I feared I would not finish the paper.

The solution? Blackmail.

I went across the dorm hallway to a friend and told him, “Hey, it’s Friday now, and I really want to have a draft by Sunday.” (This would give me a whole week to revise the new draft.) “If I am not finished by Sunday at 11:00 P.M., I will give you $10.”

It wasn’t a lot of money, but I didn’t want to lose it. That Saturday night, I procrastinated on a personal project. I worked on my paper a little more on Sunday morning, but again found myself unmotivated after lunch. By about 5:00, I realized that if I didn’t get to work on the paper, I would lose the $10 in six hours.

I have never worked harder on something that I didn’t want to do so much in my life. The strategy was effective, and I finished the draft in time.

I got the idea to blackmail myself on a blog by Joel Runyon. He suggests larger monetary amounts, like a month’s rent. The more it hurts, the more the motivation. I agree that would be effective, but I found that even $10 works for me.

Not only does $10 work for me, I’ve seen it work for others. The RA’s and the Deans at the dorm where I work use “Hamilton’s” as a motivator. If someone forgets to submit a form on time, $10. If somebody is late for a meeting, $10. And when the Hamilton fund has grown to a sufficient size, we throw a pizza party, and give a round of applause to all the “sponsors” who funded the party.

It works. We haven’t had a pizza party yet.

This is the principle that powers an online app called “Beeminder.” Any goal whose progress can be quantified is plotted, and if you fall outside the grace zone at any time, Beeminder charges $5 to your credit card. No questions. No excuses. Just Abraham Lincoln. It hurts the first few times, but eventually you learn how to stick true to a habit, because somebody else is blackmailing you.

So if you have something you can’t motivate yourself to do, whether a personal goal or a project you want to make progress in before a due date, give this method a try. Worst case scenario, you’ll make somebody else’s day brighter because they’ll get a free lunch.

If you want to read Joel’s original post on this subject, here’s the link: You can see a video summary of Beeminder here: