All posts by Bill

Five Cryptos to Know for a Freer Tomorrow

​Like it or not, if you want to be freer tomorrow, you will need some form of money. The newest forms of money to appear on the scene ​are cryptocurrencies (cryptos for short). An all-digital alternative to cash, they have been all over the news recently. You've probably heard of Bitcoin, the first, most popular and ​best known cryptocurrency. But the crypto world is now much more than just Bitcoin.

bitcoin the king of cryptos

Bitcoin (BTC) is the first, largest, and most popular of all cryptos.

There are hundreds of cryptos in ​use, with more appearing every week. And ​to understand any of them involves some heavy-duty math, along with the ability to sift through massive amounts of hype and marketing BS. It is tempting to just say the heck with it and avoid the whole crypto thing altogether. But that could be a mistake.

Many brilliant and serious people (from academics to managers of multi-billion dollar funds think this is more than just a fad. Whether as a form of digital money outside the control of gavernments, or as a speculation, they think cryptocurrencies are here to stay. 

​Getting Your Head Around Cryptos

​You don't have hundreds of hours to spend studying how cryptos work. And you don't have the PhD in math needed to really understand how it all works anyway (god knows I don't). So how do you deal with this?

As of today (September 2017) there are five really important cryptocurrencies. These five:

  • Bitcoin (and its recent derivative, Bitcoin Cash)
  • Litecoin
  • Ripple
  • Ethereum (and Ethereum Classic)
  • Dash

​are the most important cryptos in terms of market share and name recognition. If you can get your head around the basics of these, you will be in good shape. You will be able to think intelligently about what's going on and whether you want to be part of it. You will also have a basis for interpreting all the crypto "news" you'll be seeing in the media and hearing from your co-workers around the water cooler.

​To help you get your head around the important cryptos, Jeff Desjardins of VisualCapitalist.com has created an incredible infographic. It presents the key facts about each of the top cryptos in a visual, easy-to-understand format.

NOTE: Jeff breaks these out into six cryptos by treating Ethereum and Ethereum Classic separately. But however you count them, these are the most important cryptocurrencies to learn about today.

Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist


Site Redesign – Comments Welcome!

I’ve been working on a site redesign for a couple of weeks now. I have been learning a lot about using custom themes for another project and decided to apply what I have learned to this site as well. I also wanted a logo that exemplified the core “freer tomorrow” theme of the site. After some trial and error, and some custom CSS work by my daughter, I think it is ready to go.

What do you think of the new design? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Thanks,

–Bill

 

The Expat Life: Dishonest Salesmen and Unexpected Costs

Let’s talk about the expat life again. While there are many positives to starting over in a new country, there are negatives as well. Two of them are dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs.

Dishonest Salesmen

Wherever you go in the world, you will find dishonest salesmen. I’m sure you’ve experienced sharp sales pitches that leave out inconvenient details. And you’ve probably had salesmen lie to your face trying to get you to sign on the dotted line.

That stuff happens everywhere to everyone, but there are some twists to watch out for when you are an expat. Here are two I’ve seen:

“Gringo” Pricing

Most foreigners come to Ecuador from a place that has a much higher cost of living. And many are downright ignorant. Both of the language (Spanish) and of what things actually cost around here. As a result, prices often shoot up when a “gringo” is buying or is even in a party of shoppers.

Whether it is a price in a local market, or the rent on an apartment, some people try to take advantage of foreigners. Here in Ecuador, it is called gringo pricing.

For example, my brother and I went to look at an apartment that had been listed in a local newspaper. The rent was something like $325 per month. But when us two foreign boys showed up at the door, the landlady insisted that the rent was $375 per month. She stuck with it, even when we told her we had seen the $325 advertised price.

Your best bet here is to wait outside while a trusted local friend shops for big-ticket items. Once they settle on a price, you can go inside and pay the bill.

Different Ways to Play the Game

Another thing to watch out for is that the tricks salesmen use can vary from place to place. When I lived in the USA, the price that was posted in a store was the price you paid. That is not always the case here. In most stores, prices are open to negotiation.

But you need to know how to play the game. My wife illustrated this brilliantly when we were buying a rice steamer of all things. I should have realized something was up when she got dressed up to go to the appliance store. We are not part of the local elite, but she can present herself as someone of importance when she wants to.

I didn’t wait outside the store but followed her around the store, trying to look imposing. I am about 6 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than the typical local guy here in Cuenca.

She spotted the rice steamer that we wanted, but the price was something ridiculous like $109. She told the salesman that we wanted that rice cooker, but were not going to pay that price for it.

He countered by offering to let us finance it at some ridiculous interest rate.

She told him no, we were going to pay cash, but we would only buy it if he gave us his best price. She looked and acted like someone important, and I didn’t do anything to disabuse him of the notion.

He caved and gave us the rice steamer for $58.

Later, my wife explained that the high posted price was for regular people. It was also useful for making things too expensive for many local people to buy with cash. They would then have to use the store credit. As a result, they would end up paying several times what we did for the same item.

Unexpected Costs

The rice steamer incident leads nicely into the topic of unexpected costs. But here, I am referring to different kinds of costs. Some things that are cheap in your home country will be expensive in another country and vice versa. This goes for services as well as goods.

Unexpected Costs of Services

In the last year, I’ve had to get a lot of documents notarized and mailed to one place or another. In the US, that is not a big deal. You go over to your local bank and get someone to notarize the document, then you throw it in the mailbox. Cheap, easy, and quick.

getting documents notarized can be costly

Notarizing documents is easy in the USA. Not so in Ecuador.

But getting things notarized here is harder. There are a limited number of notaries that you can use. The price for notarizing a document is low, if the stars align for you. Some documents first need to be translated into Spanish by an approved translator.

Other documents need to be apostilled (authenticated in some government office in your own country). Once apostilled, they need to be translated, then notarized.

It Gets Worse

Sometimes a local notary is not acceptable. For most of the documents I was dealing with, the notary had to be an official US notary. And the only allowed official US notaries in Ecuador are in the US Consulates.

For me, that means making an appointment with the Consulate days or weeks in advance. Then a 3 1/2 hour trip over the mountains, several hours at the Consulate, and a $50 fee for each notarization. All followed by the 3 1/2 ride back home.

Once the documents are properly notarized, I can’t simply toss them in a mailbox. It will usually take weeks for mail to get from here to the US, if it even arrives at all. So mailing a notarized document means a trip to the DHL office on the other side of town. Depending on the size of the document it costs around $60 in shipping fees.

Unexpected Costs of Goods

Aside from examples like my rice steamer, you may still find that certain things cost far more than you expect. Your favorite brand of pretzels may cost double what they do at home, since they now have to be imported.

Depending on your new country’s trade policies, other costs may be far higher than you expect. Ecuador has had large import tariffs on hundreds of products for years. Phones and computers are particular sore spots. The latest tech is often not available here at all. And when it is, the price will be at least double what you would pay in the US.

A popular tactic is to get someone coming in from the States to carry these kinds of items into the country for you. Many people travel to a country with more liberal trade policies once or twice a year. One goal of the trip is to stock up on stuff that is way too expensive here. I’ve heard that if you do it right, you can save enough money to more than cover the cost of the trip!

Conclusion

Wherever you go, there are negatives as well as positives. The key is to be aware of the negatives so you can at least try to avoid them.

Things in the USA look ever worse for anyone who wants a freer tomorrow. Charlottesville is just a taste of what’s to come. Things like dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs may mar the expat lifestyle. But they are small things compared to what’s happening up North. If you value your freedom, I urge you to consider getting out while you still can.

P.S. For a fascinating take on the current events in the USA, check out this post by Scott Adams.

Androgen Deficiency: A Growing Problem for Aging Men

In my last post, I said I would talk about a hormone problem I am having. Its name is, “Androgen Deficiency.” It affects many aging men, particularly those of us who grew up in the USA. It is seldom diagnosed. It makes your life suck. And there’s a good chance it will affect you too (if it isn’t already).

Something Was Not Right

I am 58 now. Several years ago, I realized that something was not right with my life. I was living the life I had worked for years to achieve. I had achieved all the personal goals I had set for myself years earlier.

I should have been on cloud nine. But everything was kind of gray and dreary. I had little drive or energy. Staying fit was becoming ever tougher. I was starting to look and feel old.

I thought maybe I was lost because I had achieved all my goals. To fix that, I went to Puerto Rico for three months to work for a startup. That helped a little, but not much.

I started doing some research and found that I was exhibiting all the symptoms of low testosterone. I asked my doctor if I could get tested for this, but he said no. He told me I was simply depressed and needed to get more exercise and sunshine. That helped a little, but I was still dragging.

As I read more, I learned that Testosterone levels are declining worldwide. The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Long-term studies conducted in the United States have shown that at any given age, each generation has a lower level of Testosterone than the previous one.

Given all of the above, the idea that I was suffering from low testosterone (androgen deficiency) sure seemed to fit the bill.

This Is Where You Come Into the Picture

If you are an aging male from the United States, there is a good chance that this story sounds familiar. If so, you should definitely talk to your doctor about getting your testosterone levels checked.

Low testosterone is an ever-more common problem, but it is seldom tested. There seems to be stigma against the entire concept of testosterone up there. While my whole adventure with this has taken place here in Ecuador, I’ve read reports of guys in the USA needing to go to several doctors before finding one who would even agree to test their testosterone levels. Even here, my primary care guy said no.

So if you are seeing the kinds of symptoms I’ve described, you should definitely talk to your doctor. But before you do, keep reading. There’s another wrinkle to this story.

Self-Medicating: Finding Supplements That Helped

My research and my doctor’s refusal to test led me to try self medicating. (The fact that I was too apathetic to argue with the doctor is in itself a good sign that my testosterone levels were low!)

I started looking into ways to boost my testosterone levels. I found a lot of hype and bullshit, along with a few things that can have a small positive effect. Then I found a supplement that really seemed to do the trick. I started taking this stuff and within days I felt better, looked buffer, had more energy, everything. I figured I had found the answer.

Then the FDA forced the product off the market. Damn!

After a while, I found a new supplement. This had much the same benefits as the stuff I was using, but worked via a different mechanism. Life was great again.

For a while.

I got great results from the minimum daily dosage of the supplement. But as the months went by, I found I needed more and more to get the same results. After about two years I was taking the maximum recommended dose but it seemed to have little effect. I thought it was a problem with long-term use of this supplement. But it seems something else was at work.

Blood Tests with Very Weird Results

About this time, my brother had started seeing a new doctor for an unrelated issue. Amongst other good things, he prescribed more thorough blood tests for both my brother and me. He included testosterone levels and a bunch of other stuff I never heard of. It was expensive but very enlightening.

First I saw that the testosterone-boosting supplement I was taking was doing its job. My level of Total Testosterone was off the charts. As in higher than was normal for a guy in his 20’s.

The next thing I noticed was that two related results were also sky-high. Both my Estradiol and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) levels were way too high.

I started researching and quickly learned that Estradiol is a component of the primary female sex hormone Estrogen. Very roughly, in guys, Estradiol counteracts the action of Testosterone. So my high Estradiol levels were working to counteract my high levels of Total Testosterone.

And SHBG is a protein that tightly binds to sex hormones (both Testosterone and Estrogen/Estradiol). As a result, SHBG renders Testosterone and Estradiol unavailable for your body to use.

This is important because the level of Free Testosterone in your body is what matters. Free Testosterone is the fraction of your Total Testosterone that isn’t bound to substances like SHBG. That means it is available for your body to use. Using some equations I found online, I calculated that my level of SHBG was sufficient to leave me with virtually no Free Testosterone despite my high levels of Total Testosterone.

Estradiol and SHBG levels both tend to climb quickly as men age. Now throw in the generally lower levels of testosterone production that guys from the United States suffer from. The result is a straight path to Androgen Deficiency in our 50’s and maybe even our 40’s.

More and more people are starting to recognize that low Testosterone levels can be a problem. But there is more to the story than simply driving your Testosterone levels to the moon. Too much Testosterone can cause problems in itself. There are healthy ranges for Testosterone, Estradiol, and SHBG that you want to hit. If all three are not in the right range, you end up with problems.

This is an important point for you to bear in mind before getting blood work done. Oftentimes, doctors will test only your Total Testosterone, and not Estradiol and SHBG.

Without all three results, you are left guessing. Is my Testosterone high enough? Is my Estradiol too high? How about my SHBG? Both of them? All three things screwed up? If you don’t have all the information, you can end up like me, manipulating the one variable you know about and hoping for the best.

Now What Do I Do?

Now that I have all the information, I know what I need to do. I need to somehow generate more Free Testosterone. My Total Testosterone is already sky-high, so trying to push it higher doesn’t seem like a good idea. That leaves me with trying to reduce Estradiol and SHBG.

There are lots of things you can do to try and lower these levels.

  • You can change your diet (broccoli helps reduce Estradiol and eating more carbs can lower your SHBG)
  • Exercise more (if you do the right kinds of exercises)
  • Use fewer plastic containers (which contain estrogen-like substances that can leech into your food or drinks)
  • And more

 

I am only at the beginning of this process. But thanks to getting the comprehensive blood work, I at least know what I need to do. I’m already seeing results that show I am on the right track. Life gets better by the day.

Update

A few days ago, I met with my endocrinologist. This was a follow-up meeting to review testing he ordered for me. The result of that meeting was that I am now taking something to reduce my level of Total Testosterone. After making changes to my diet and supplements, I have gotten my Estradiol and SHBG into the normal ranges. But the Testosterone is still too high. Too much Testosterone is generally less of a problem than too little, but it makes sense to get everything into the normal ranges. We’ll know more in a month.

Conclusion

If you are a middle-aged male, particularly if you grew up in the United States, Androgen Deficiency is a real risk. If you are feeling run down, low energy, getting fat, and just don’t give a damn, you are probably already experiencing this wonderful syndrome.

Talk to your doctor. Get your testosterone levels tested. And make sure the doc ticks the boxes for Estradiol and SHBG too. What you learn could really change your life.

Leaning Into it Once Again

It seems that the universe is completely oblivious to the pathetic plans of us mere mortals. Back in early July, my life seemed to have settled into a regular routine again. I was looking forward to getting lots of work done and making real progress on my plans for my life.

Then my wife needed an entire week’s worth of medical testing before “minor” surgery. The surgery turned out to be not so minor and required a week of bed rest to recover. My brother became very ill and was bedridden, recovering just in time for previously scheduled major surgery of his own.

As for me, I had to make an urgent, unexpected trip back to the USA. Happily, there was a bright side to this trip, as I got to spend a few days with my wonderful daughter while up North.

Adding to the fun, I learned that I had developed a significant hormonal imbalance. This is forcing me to redesign my diet, my exercise program, and even my sleeping patterns.

Now that all this has blown over, it is time to get back to work. But I am not ready to get back into the regular Freer Tomorrow type of posts. First, I am going to write about this hormone thing that I am dealing with.

Why should you care about my hormone problems?

This issue that I am dealing with turns out to be a fairly common one. In particular, it manifests itself among men who are now in their 50’s, and grew up in the USA. In other words, guys like me and many of you. It is also something that is seldom tested for, so rarely diagnosed.

In my next post, I will tell you about the problem and what I am doing to try to resolve it. Chances are good that some of you are suffering from the same issue without knowing it. I hope sharing what I have learned will help you too.

Nootropics: Better Living Through (Neuro) Chemistry

Nootropics is a strange-looking word that most people have never heard before. But the word nootropics refers to a topic that you will want to understand if you want to live better in the future.

In this post, I will give you the rundown on this very important topic. I’ll also talk a bit about my own experience with some nootropics.

No matter what your vision of a freer tomorrow looks like, I doubt it includes slow thinking, lack of focus, and a crummy memory. Especially for people like us who are building our own future, instead of following the herd. It is very hard to be productive and do great things when you feel dumb, can’t focus, and keep forgetting the damn keys!

But wouldn’t it be easier to build a freer tomorrow if you felt sharp, focused, and had a great memory? Of course it would. This is why you need to learn about nootropics. Let’s go.

What the Heck are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that help you think better, stay focused, or remember stuff. Or any combination of those things. Also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, nootropics are becoming ever better known. It seems everyone is using them:

  • College kids use them to get better grades (high school kids too)
  • Top executives and entrepreneurs use them to compete at a higher level than they otherwise would
  • Emergency room medics use them to stay sharp and focused in total chaos
  • Military pilots use them to stay awake on long, dangerous missions
  • People dreaming of a freer tomorrow use them to make those dreams come true faster

Nootropics vs Stimulants

We need to talk about the difference between nootropics and stimulants. Nootropics are substances that boost your cognition or memory. They act on certain neurotransmitters to change the way your brain works. But so do stimulants such as amphetamines, which are not considered nootropics.

The differences include:

  • Which neurotransmitters they affect
  • Nootropics generally have few side effects
  • They don’t cause you to crash after they wear off like stimulants do
  • Nootropics also don’t have the addiction risk that stimulants can have

But these differences are somewhat subjective. And some substances have characteristics of both nootropics and stimulants. Which category they fall in depends on which expert you care to listen to.

Finding Useful Nootropics

There are lots of substances that people claim will boost your cognition or memory. Many of them don’t work. Others have very subtle effects that only show up in lab testing. But there are some that actually do what they say when used in the real world.

Some of these substances are newish creations fresh out of some scientist’s lab. And some are expensive, hard to get, or even illegal. But others have been around for a long time and are easy to get your hands on.

A guy named Scott Alexander did a survey of nootropic users in 2014. This survey got nootropics users to rate the substances they use. The survey is full of useful information. Among other things, it says that YOU likely use a powerful natural nootropic every day.

Caffeine – Your Grandfather’s Nootropic

Caffeine is the most widely-used nootropic in existence. Caffeine is the active ingredient in coffee, which people have been using for over 1000 years.

cup of coffee

The caffeine in coffee has both stimulant and nootropic effects.

Caffeine straddles the line between nootropic and stimulant. It definitely has some stimulant effects. You can develop a tolerance to it, and you can crash after you use it.

But caffeine also has nootropic effects. It inhibits the function of adenosine in the brain, increasing alertness. If you have ever used caffeine to stay awake and alert, you are well aware of how this works.

Other Plant-Based Nootropics

Besides caffeine, there are several other plant substances with reported nootropic effects. Here are two examples:

Rhodiola Rosea

Studies have shown that the extracts from this plant can reduce fatigue and boost memory. It is also known to improve concentration.

I had access to a very pure, very strong supply of Rhodiola Rosea for a short while several years ago. I noticed major improvements in concentration and resisting fatigue.

Unfortunately, that supply lasted only a few weeks. After that, I only had access to the much weaker concoctions available in health food stores. These didn’t have any noticeable effect on me.

Huperzine A

This substance comes from a moss that grows in India and Southeast Asia. Studies have shown it to give some boost to memory. It works by partially blocking the function of Acetylcholinesterase in your brain. This results in higher levels of Acetylcholine, which is important for memory.

I have no personal experience with Huperzine A. In Mr. Alexander’s study, nootropics users rated Huperzine A as mildly effective.

Products from the Lab

Besides natural nootropics, there are potent cognitive enhancers that come out of labs. While this is a rapidly changing area, we can talk about two products to get a sense of it all: Adderall and Modafinil.

Adderall

Much of the cognitive enhancement from caffeine comes from its action as a stimulant. Adderall provides a much stronger boost because it is a much stronger stimulant. Adderall is a combination of two chemical forms of amphetamine. Doctors prescribe it to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

It is no surprise that folks without these conditions would try this stuff when under the gun. Drinking black coffee or popping caffeine pills only takes you so far.

It turns out that Adderall does indeed improve cognitive performance in healthy people. Clinical trials show it can improve memory as well as attention. But remember that this drug is an amphetamine. Using this stuff for cognitive enhancement has serious risks.

Side effects from using Adderall can include:

  • Tachycardia
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Tolerance (requiring ever larger doses to get the same effect)
  • Crashing when the drug wears off
  • Addiction

In short, Adderall works as a cognitive enhancer, but if you use it, you are taking serious risks.

My Favorite Nootropic: Modafinil

Modafinil is a true nootropic. That is, it boosts your cognition and memory with few side effects. It doesn’t cause the crash amphetamine users can experience, and is not addictive.

Doctors prescribe Modafinil for people with narcolepsy and similar disorders. It is also used off-label to treat various conditions that cause fatigue. It is not a typical stimulant. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how it does what it does.

But as far as I am concerned, here are the important points:

  • It isn’t addictive
  • You don’t crash when it wears off
  • People have been safely using it since the 1990’s
  • It works

What Does “It Works” Mean?

What do I mean by, “It works?” I mean it boosts my focus and productivity tremendously. When I use Modafinil, I can completely lose track of time. Today, for example, I started working on a project around 8AM.

I was completely focused on what I was doing and blasted out a ton of work. When I finished the project, I looked up and realized it was 1:30PM. I also realized I hadn’t eaten anything in 18+ hours.

I wasn’t tired or hungry but it seemed like a good idea to have breakfast (lunch, whatever). So I quick grabbed some food, took a short walk, and got to work on this article. It is now after 4PM and I am still not hungry, or tired. And I’m still cranking out the work.

This is what Modafinil can do for you.

And you don’t need to take my word for it. Numerous studies have shown Modafinil’s effectiveness. Here’s just one example. It is the first study I encountered when investigating Modafinil for my own use. This 1999 United States Air Force Modafinil study showed that Modafinil helped keep flight crews functioning effectively after 40 hours with no sleep.

About Regular Modafinil Use

I’ve been using Modafinil for around 3 years now. But I do not use it every day. In my experience, it seems to lose a bit of its punch if you use it too many days in a row. Besides, I don’t always want to be so focused and alert! I like being able to relax once in a while.

It makes sense to limit the use of any drug, even safe ones like Modafinil. I have seen many different suggestions for usage schedules. Here are some of them, along with ideas on when they might make sense for you:

  • If you are still working a regular job, you could try using it during the workweek and not on the weekends
  • If your job features crunch times or hard deadlines, you could use Modafinil then. This is the way I do it
  • If you tend to party a little too much during the work week, you could use it the morning after to mitigate the effects

How Much Do You Need?

The exact dosage of Modafinil depends on you. Some people get the desired effect from 50mg. Others need 200mg. It depends on your weight, age, and who knows what else. It is something each person needs to experiment with.

How Do You Get Modafinil?

This is where things can get a little tricky. Here in Ecuador, Modafinil is an over the counter drug. I walk into any pharmacy and walk out with a box of 20, 200mg tablets for about $20. In most countries, it is a prescription drug. If you can get the stuff at all, it usually costs several dollars per dose. In the USA, it is a Schedule IV controlled substance. The legal treatment varies from country to country.

modafinil box - a powerful nootropic drug

Modafinil is a powerful nootropic that is available OTC here in Ecuador.

Despite the restrictions on Modafinil, large numbers of people use it as a nootropic. Some get a friendly doctor to write them a prescription. But many get the stuff through other channels.

Modafinil is easy to buy on the Internet. Several companies in India and China manufacture it and will ship it anywhere in the world. Apparently it ships in plain, non-descript packages. These usually make it through Customs and the postal system without problems.

If a package does get stopped by Customs, it doesn’t seem to cause any problems for the buyer or the seller. Some sellers will even ship another package as soon as Customs intercepts the first one! So expect the use of Modafinil and related drugs to keep on increasing.

Where is This All Going?

Now that you know what nootropics are, you may be wondering where this all leads. Real, effective drugs do exist that can boost your memory and concentration. More and more people are using them every day.

What does this mean for you? If you don’t use Modafinil or something similar, you are at a disadvantage against people who do. It may not seem fair, but that is the reality. What are you going to do about it?

Do you use Modafinil or some other nootropic? Are you in favor of their use or opposed? What will you do as more and more people start using this stuff? Leave a comment and let us know.

Can Pomodoro Technique Make You More Productive?

It has been a while since I last made a post in this productivity series. The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo, has been around for a long time. I have been using the basic to boost my writing productivity for more than a year. But I knew there was more to it than I was using. So I put off writing this post until I read Cirillo’s book, “The Pomodoro Technique.”

Would the rest of the technique be as useful as the part I already use? Here is what I learned:

As a writer, I need to sit my butt down in my chair and put words on paper. On big projects, I need to be in front of the computer for many hours every day. I need to be able to crank out lots of coherent, interesting content the whole time.

But I am vulnerable to getting into a kind of trance when writing. I may sit down at my desk and start writing. When I look up again, I discover that 3 or 4 hours have gone by, and I haven’t moved from my chair. I’ve been spinning out content like a mad man.

However…

While I can be in a writing trance or flow for hours, I can’t maintain full concentration during that time. While the quantity of words on the page keeps growing, after a while, the quality of the writing suffers. I need to take breaks once in a while to stay productive.

I’ve tried taking breaks when I feel that my quality is dropping, but it is hard to do it on your own. It takes attention away from the work. In the back of my mind I am constantly worrying at it (“Is my writing still good? Is it time for a break? Should I push myself just a little longer? Would this be a good day to go out for a pizza?”).

Plus, when I do pull away, it is easy to get sidetracked, and start doing something else. I tell myself I will play 10 minutes of Desktop Dungeons or something similar, then get back to work.

desktop dungeons

It is easy to get sidetracked when you control your own work breaks.

Two hours later, the guilt finally drives me back to the work I was supposed to be doing. Clearly, I need some external power to impose worktime discipline on me!

Enter the Pomodoro Technique

While looking for a solution, I kept seeing mentions of the Pomodoro Technique. At first, it seemed ridiculous to me. Get a tomato-shaped timer and magically become more productive. Yeah, right!

Even so, I kept reading about people who swore by their little tomato timers. So I decided to give the technique a try.

The Pomodoro Technique divides your work day into 30-minute chunks (called Pomodoros). It uses the timer to control what you do during those chunks. It tells you when to start and stop work. And forces you to take short breaks before your concentration flags.

Tomato timer to the rescue!

This means the timer is key to the whole technique. You can go the classic route and buy a kitchen timer (maybe even a tomato-shaped one). Or you can do what I did and look online for a Pomodoro timer app. There are free apps out there for every type of computer or mobile device.

I have found that the timer provides the worktime discipline I need.

Right now, I am using an Android app called Brain Focus. It runs on my tablet, which sits on the desk next to me. The app handles the whole process of setting the times for work and breaks. This saves me from having to set a physical timer for 25 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 25 minutes, and so on all day. I know myself well enough to know that I would grow tired of doing that. I abandon the whole technique.

The basic plan is that you set the timer for 25 minutes, then start working. When the timer goes off, you take a 5-minute break. Then the cycle repeats. 25 minutes is a short enough time to stay focused on the task, but enough time to get some solid work done.

The 5-minute break keeps you from getting bored or burnt out. It lets you recharge and recover. I like to get away from the desk for those 5 minutes. I go to the bathroom, get a drink, or do a few exercises. Anything to get my blood flowing and my conscious mind off what I am working on.

This leaves me refreshed when my 5 minute break is over and it is time to get back to work. At first I worried that this kind of work cycle would disrupt my flow and make me less productive.

I was wrong. When I use the technique I am far more productive.

Adding Nuance to the Technique

There is actually another time cycle to the Pomodoro Technique. After every 4 Pomodoros, you get a longer, 15 to 30-minute break. This break lets you do things like eat lunch, respond to ‘urgent’ messages, or whatever else you need to do.

I find that this helps a lot too. Even with the 5-minute breaks, after 2 hours (4 Pomodoros) of hard work, I am ready to step away for a bit. Then when I come back after a longer break, I am ready to settle in for another 2-hour push.

So far so good.

Going Deeper into the Pomodoro Technique

As I mentioned above, I decided to read about the full technique before writing this post. I was not happy with what I found.

First, Cirillo’s book tries to fit your entire workday into Pomodoros. This sounds logical, but it is impractical. Some tasks don’t break down like this.

For example, the book suggests that you dedicate the first Pomodoro of the day to planning the day. But I don’t need to spend the first 25 minutes of my day figuring out what I am going to do the rest of the day. That is a 5-minute task.

Likewise, one of my daily tasks is Spanish lessons. But the length of my Spanish lessons varies, and doesn’t map well to 25-minute chunks of time.

The book recommends using excess time in a Pomodoro to review what you have been working on. But after spending a few Pomodoros learningg Spanish conjugations, I am done. No way am I going to spend more time on them to fill the space in a Pomodoro!

Worse, from my perspective is the rigidity of the system. Interruptions are not allowed. If an interruption takes more than a few seconds, the Pomodoro is over. You should abandon it and start over from scratch.

Mr. Cirillo does offers a system for quickly dealing with interruptions. That helps, but this concept still doesn’t work for me. My life is filled with short interruptions that I am not willing to ignore. At the same time, I’m not willing to restart a Pomodoro that is almost done because of a short interruption. Following that rule would make me angry instead of productive.

One last objection. The book advocates tracking and managing all your work based on Pomodoros. This feels like a stretch:

  • This task takes 2 one-person Pomodoros.
  • That task takes 1 two-person Pomodoro, which is NOT equal to 2 one-person Pomodoros.
  • I completed 5 one-person Pomodoros and one 3-person Pomodoro today.

There is a certain logic to all this. If you are going to work in Pomodoros, measuring and managing with them makes sense. But for me at least, it is way too much.

Can the Pomodoro Technique Make You More Productive?

The Pomodoro Technique can boost your productivity. But you need to be smart about how you use it. When I need to stay focused for long periods, using a Pomodoro Timer is a definite benefit. Give it a try the next time you need to put in several hours of focused work.

But going too far with the technique can be counterproductive. The more advanced aspects are too rigid and constrained for me. Trying to build my whole work life around the Pomodoro Technique would drive me crazy. Still, if you like the basic technique, buy the book and try the rest of it. The full technique works for many people around the world. Maybe it will for you too.

Do you use the Pomodoro Technique? Do you like it? Do you use it all or just the timer part? Am I crazy to use it the way I do? Please share your thoughts below.

 

NOTE: This post originally appeared on STEEMIT.com

To Become More Productive, Stop Working

A lot of getting productive has nothing at all to do with your work. Think about it. We’re not machines. If we don’t take care of ourselves in general, we are going to be a lot less effective at anything we do.

This simple fact was brought home to me last night. I am in a Thursday night pool league, and have been doing very well. But yesterday, I suffered a mild case of food poisoning after eating lunch at a local restaurant.

By evening I was feeling okay, so figured I had better go play. It was too late to get a substitute and I didn’t want to let my teammates down.

It didn’t go too well.

I could not get it together. The focus wasn’t there. I couldn’t string together two good shots in a row. It was not an impressive showing. Not being 100% healthy in my guts affected my ability to shoot a pool ball.

We are complex systems and everything affects everything else. That’s why we sometimes need to stop working to become more productive.

The idea here is that we need to attend to various non-work factors if we want to be productive in our work. There are three factors in particular that you need to get right if you want to be productive.

You need to:

  • Eat Right
  • Exercise Your Body
  • Rest Your Mind

We should talk about these three factors in some detail here. You’ll soon see why they are so important. You’ll also see why stopping work to address them will make you more productive, not less so.

Eat Right

I am sure you realize that food is vitally important. And that “eating right” can help you be more productive. But knowing what is right to eat can be hard. There is so much conflicting advice to sort through.

And man is it hard to eat right when you are scrambling to get stuff done. I’m sure I am not the only person to work through their lunch to meet a deadline. And I’m sure I’m not the only person to grab a snack from the vending machine instead of eating a regular meal. After all, I was really busy.

You’ve got to resist these urges. Working through lunch might get that report turned in on time. However, you are likely to be less than 100% for the rest of the day. Your blood sugar levels will drop and you will be craving food.

This will lead you to the vending machine, where you will find only unhealthy junk. The junk food will drive your blood sugar up, then bring it crashing down. It will be hard to focus, possibly even to stay awake. And that will drive you back to the vending machine to repeat the cycle.

How to Eat Right (to Make You More Productive)

Now I am not a nutritionist or any kind of medical expert. Still my research and my personal experience tells me a few things. Foremost is that for most people, eating right means less carbs and more protein.

The US government recommends a diet made up of lots of carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. If you look around the USA, you can see the results. They aren’t pretty. Eating the recommended diet results in serious weight gain. It also tends to leave you far from your most productive.

usda food pyramid screen capture
Screen capture from USDA Food Guide Pyramid pamphlet.

One simple step you can take to be more productive all day is to eat a high-protein breakfast. Many high-performance people extol the virtues of a high-protein, low-carb breakfast. One such person is Charles Poliquin, who trains many Olympic and professional athletes. He says that this kind of breakfast leaves you feeling fuller. At the same time, you consume fewer calories.

Why? This kind of breakfast results in a slower, more prolonged rise in your blood sugar than a carb-heavy meal. This keeps you awake and alert, allowing you to concentrate better for longer. At the same time, with stable blood sugar, you are less likely to have cravings for junk food.

Combine all these effects and it is easy to see how this kind of breakfast can set you up to be more productive.

Try eating a high-protein breakfast for a few days and see if you notice a difference. I know that I am definitely more productive when I have the discipline to start my days off this way.

Exercise Your Body

We evolved in the wild, hunting, and fighting, and running for our lives. So it is only logical that our bodies are adapted to a life of action. Sitting in front of a computer for hours a day (as I am doing right now) is not natural for us.

Our world doesn’t force us to be active to survive the way our ancestors were. Several years ago, I visited a recreation of a Colonial New England town. I was told that people back then worked so hard that they burned over 6,000 calories a day!

Few of us would want to go back to that, but we do pay a price for our easier lives. Our bodies are not adapted to the sedentary modern world. We don’t perform as well if we never get any exercise.

Adding some exercise to your life will improve the functioning of your body. That can make you more productive in whatever you do. Happily, we don’t have to live the strenuous lives of our ancestors to benefit.

At almost any level, some exercise is better than none. And a little more exercise gives you a little more benefit. If you are not already doing so, it makes sense to start exercising. And if you are already exercising, try doing a little more.

I am not going to try to tell you what exercise program is right for you. That is way beyond my field of expertise. And I am not going to share my workout program with you. I am a 58-year old guy who was out of action for a long time after contracting the Chikungunya virus. My needs and circumstances are pretty atypical.

I can make a couple of suggestions though.

Number 1 is, start slow, and don’t worry about impressing anyone. The goal should be to do a little more than you are doing now, without injuring yourself. Impressing people with your pullup prowess doesn’t matter if you injure yourself.

Number 2 is, if you are far out of shape, talk to your doctor before starting. Exercise is good. Giving yourself a heart attack or a stroke is bad.

Rest Your Mind

We tend to forget this, but thinking requires physical energy. Our brains burn something like 20% of all the calories used by our bodies. It is unclear whether thinking harder actually burns more calories. Whether it does or not, we do know that concentrating on something drains us over time.

rest your mind to be more productive

Your mind is a busy organ. Sometimes it needs rest.

We can only concentrate on one thing for a limited amount of time. The amount of time varies from person to person, but we aren’t machines. We simply can’t stay completely focused on one task all day.

So what do you do when you need to be productive all day?

You can try to power through the mental exhaustion. But don’t expect to get good results. You can’t do your best work in this state.

I frequently take siestas during the day. The difference in productivity between right before and after the siesta, is amazing. I sometimes find myself thinking, “Wow! I was really stupid earlier today.”

Why such a huge difference? Right before the siesta, I will have worked hard for hours, and I am tired. Those two things, sustained focus and tiredness, really make it hard to be productive.

But then comes the siesta. Sometimes I sleep. Other times I read or simply rest with me eyes closed. Frequently I will be back at my desk, focused and working productively, in 20 minutes. It’s surprising how much of a difference such a short break can make.

This works because I am resting my mind. During a siesta, I am not concentrating hard on anything, even if I am reading. I am getting physical rest as well as relaxing my mind.

Whatever “energy” it is that allows me to stay focused runs out after a while. I need to step away from the work every so often to recharge that energy and be productive again. Whether you realize it or not, you do too.

If you work in an office, you probably can’t take a siesta in the middle of the day. But you can do something to rest your mind every so often. Even something as simple as walking to the restroom, or chatting with someone at the water cooler for a moment can do it. I am sure you will be more productive when you return to your work.

Conclusion

Non-work factors definitely play a part in becoming more productive. Eating right, exercising your body, and resting your mind are all things that take minutes away from working. But all of them make you much more productive, despite the lost minutes. Try it yourself and see.

References

References used in this post:

Productivity Power-Ups: Planning & Pareto Principle

Let’s add some more tips and techniques for getting productive. Today, we have these two Productivity power-ups to discuss:

  • The Pareto Principle
  • Planning Ahead

As in the previous post, we will cover these two techniques in some detail. This should be more useful than giving you a list full of one-liners like, “Plan ahead to stay organized” and so on. Since getting productive is the goal, let’s dive right in.

The Pareto Principle

There is a good chance you have never heard the phrase, Pareto Principle. But you have probably heard the more common name for it, the 80/20 Rule.

the pareto principle
The Pareto Principle can guide you to the most productive activities.

Vilfredo Pareto started the whole thing in the 1890’s. He noticed that a small percentage of the peapods in his garden produced the majority of the peas. He noticed similar patterns elsewhere. For example, he saw that that 20% of the people in his native Italy owned 80% of the land.

This general pattern shows up throughout the natural and man-made world:

  • The majority of the wealth on the planet is owned by a small percentage of the people.
  • The majority of the health gains you get working out come from a minority of the exercises you do.
  • The majority of the money earned by book publishers come from a minority of the books they publish, and so on.

Pareto and Productivity

What does this have to do with getting productive? You can apply the Pareto Principle to your work as well. In general, 80% of the results you get come from 20% of the work you do. What if you could identify the 20% of your work that gives the bulk of the results? Couldn’t you then:

  • Spend more time doing the stuff that gets the best results?
  • Spend less time doing the stuff that doesn’t get good results?

In other words, by changing what you work on, you could get more results for the same amount of effort. That seems like a pretty good definition of getting productive to me!

To make this happen, you need to do two things.

  1. Keep track of the time you spend on each work activity
  2. Figure out the returns you get from each activity

With this information, you can see which things generate the most return for the least effort. Once you know this, you can start looking for ways to do more of the productive stuff and less of the unproductive.

Exceptions to the Rule

As you well know, for every rule, there are exceptions. The approach I described above isn’t foolproof. Some things you do don’t have well-defined results, or have results that you will only be able to see in hindsight.

Let’s take responding to posts on social media. In general, there is no direct payoff from doing so. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop doing it. As I was reminded recently, making meaningful comments to posts can be a great investment.

But commenting on people’s posts is also a speculation. The only way you will know for sure that it paid off is by looking back. It might result in more followers who eventually become customers. It might result in a job offer of some other valuable connection. Or it might yield nothing.

What’s the Answer?

You need to decide how you are going to deal with stuff like this. Try setting aside a certain amount of time in each day or week for these kinds of activities.

You could schedule 10% of your time for social media and other stuff you can’t assign a specific value to. Then, somewhere in the future, analyze the results. See if the time you spent generated good results.

Planning Ahead to Be More Productive

Just sitting down and going to work without a plan will only get you so far. As we saw when talking about the Pareto Principle, some activities contribute far more to your productivity than others. Imagine that you simply sat down at your desk and worked as hard as you could all day. You probably got a lot of stuff done, right?

planning ahead
Planning ahead can boost your productivity.

But were you working on the right things? The things that benefit you the most or whatever was next on your to-do list? Would your time have been better spent working on this task or that one? Do you even remember what things you worked on?

How Planning Ahead Helps You Be Productive

If you don’t plan ahead, you will have a hard time being as productive as you should be. There are a bunch of benefits to planning ahead. They include:

  • You will likely come up with a better plan than if you are improvising in the middle of your work session.
  • You will be able to produce instead of constantly stopping to figure out what to do next. Just follow the plan.
  • It anchors you when people interrupt you. When you have a plan you are trying to meet, it is harder to get pulled into other people’s issues.
  • You have a basis for applying the Pareto Principle. You can look at the day’s plan to see how much time you put into each task.
    The plan helps you to keep working on the most important things instead of the most urgent or most fun.

Planning tomorrow’s work tonight lets you jump right into it in the morning. It also gives your subconscious time to work out some of the details and issues while you sleep.

I am lazy, but sometimes do plan ahead. When I do, I get better results than when I just wing it, or scramble together a plan in the middle of everything else. Give planning ahead (including planning the night before) a try. See if it helps you get more productive.

Share Your Thoughts on these Productivity Power-Ups

What do you think about using the Pareto Principle and Planning Ahead to be more productive? If you have experience with either of these approaches, we want to hear about it. Please leave a comment so others can benefit from your experience.

References

Here are links to some resources related to the Pareto Principle and Planning Ahead:

More Ways to Eliminate Distractions

After my last post I realized that I failed to cover two more ways to eliminate distractions. The first is something that I have experience with. The other I have not tried, but many successful people seem to do it regularly.

So check out two more ways to eliminate distractions. We’ll move on to other types of tips in the next post.

Clean Your Workspace

When I first read about this tip, it sounded crazy to me. Clean my workspace? I don’t have time for that. Why waste time cleaning my desk when I could be writing instead! I can reach the keyboard, see the monitor, and find my notes when I need them.

clean your workspace to eliminate distractions
Cleaning your workspace can reduce future distractions from within your own head.

What does the cleanliness of my workspace have to do with writing?

It turns out that cleaning your workspace can make you much more productive.

How? It is a way to eliminate distractions.

When my subconscious doesn’t want to work, it is very good at finding excuses to avoid working. The endless temptation of social media is one good way to avoid work. But even if I have my social media shut down, there are lots of things close at hand to draw my attention.

“Oh yeah” That receipt over there on the corner of the desk. I’ve gotta file that thing before I forget.”

“That dirty plate from my afternoon snack. I should wash that right now. Can’t take a chance on getting bugs!”

“I really do need to get back to work on that Raspberry Pi project over there. It has been sitting half-finished for weeks!”

You get the picture. The more stuff that clutters up your workspace, the easier it is to distract yourself with it.

The solution is simple: clean your workspace.

Before you sit down to start working, make sure that your workspace is clean. If you clean up before you start every work session, this should only take a few moments.

How clean does your workspace need to be? To a certain extent, this depends on you. I am pretty weak when it comes to workspace distractions. It is best if I don’t have anything interesting in front of me other than what I am supposed to be working on.

You may be stronger or less easy to distract than me. So you might not need to do as thorough a cleanup job. The key is to remove anything that might distract you from your field of view.

Try this tip out for a few days and see what you think.

Eliminate Internal Distractions by Journal Writing

Sometimes the distractions that make it hardest to get productive are in your own head. If you have lots on your mind, or are beating yourself up inside, chances are you won’t get any work done. Journal writing might be the solution here.

journal writing by girl
Journal writing can help you get distractions out of your head.

NOTE: This is not a technique I use myself. I am giving you my interpretation of the things I read and heard about this over the years.

A few moments of journal writing can clear your head. Somehow the act of getting stuff down on paper does the trick. This is true whether you make use of what you wrote, or you ignore it, tear it out of a physical journal, or burn it all.

NOTE: Check out this post for another way getting stuff out of your head and onto paper can make a huge difference.

Conclusion

There we go. Two more tips to help you eliminate distractions and get producing.

Do you have any experience with cleaning your workspace to increase your productivity? Do you use Journal Writing to clear your head? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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