Beeminder.com

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I have a number of goals I find hard to reach because I struggle with self-discipline. Losing weight, for instance. Great tools like the previously-reviewed Hacker’s Diet have helped me lose weight in the past, but, like most people, eventually I just put it back on again, with interest.

The reason why people have self-discipline issues is that different parts of our brain run us at different times. The person I am as I’m walking past the refrigerator at 10:00 at night is a different person who swore off late-night snacks at 10:00 in the morning. The ancient Greeks had a fancy word for when we do things we know we shouldn’t do, or fail to do things we know we should do: akrasia. Beeminder is an anti-akrasia tool.

For any goal with quantifiable steps, like losing a certain amount of weight per week, or doing something every day, or keeping something to a set minimum, etc., Beeminder allows you to set and track a commitment contract. It then displays a pretty graph of your progress (the Hacker’s Diet-style weight graph is a particularly nice example – here’s the chart of my weight loss in Q4 of last year.
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If you fail to keep on track with your goal, you can reset it. But here’s the akrasia-defeating catch: resetting the goal requires you to pledge money, and each time you need to reset it, the amount you must pledge increases exponentially. This exploits a neat psychological trick called self-binding, which you can read more about here.

The bottom line is that Beeminder is a great tool for fooling yourself into doing what you really want to do.

-- Glenn Davis  



FitBit

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I’ve been wearing a Fitbit since late 2009 and overall I highly recommend it.

The Fitbit is expensive for a pedometer ($99), but in return you get wireless syncing of your steps to your computer and to fitbit.com. Plus you can add friends as “Fitbit buddies” to compare how many steps everyone took each week. I’m currently in a year-long competition with my brother-in-law to see who can take more steps. Inspired by the Fitbit, I will often do 1:1 meetings as a “walk and talk” around the block instead of sitting in a room. I take the stairs at work instead of the elevator. I park my car a couple hundred yards from work instead of close to the building. So far since later 2009, I’ve taken 7,715,383 steps. That’s 3000+ miles towards better health!

What’s not so good? The Fitbit costs a bit much, although I think it’s worth it. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive, try the Omron HJ-720ITC . It’s only $30 and it’s just as accurate, but you have to sync the pedometer to your computer with a cable. The Omron also doesn’t have social features.

The other (mild) issues I have with the Fitbit are that:

  • Water can short it out. Don’t go swimming with it on, and attach it somewhere that won’t get 100% drenched in sweat.
  • There’s no software for Linux (Mac and Windows, yes).
  • After six months to a year, the clip isn’t as strong. This hasn’t been a huge problem for me, as I tend to be quite hard on my Fitbits and short them out or lose them once a year or so.

Overall, I think wearing a pedometer (Fitbit or otherwise) is one of the easiest/best things you can do for your health. This tool is highly recommended.

– Matt Cutts

I use a Fitbit, too. The wireless syncing means that you don’t need to think about it. The hardest part for me is to remember to move the device if I change my pants. The simplicity of the website, and of the user interface on the object, entice you to use it, and to pay attention to the results. It is a small thing that works well and a habit that is very sustainable over the years.

– KK

 

FitBit
$135

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by FitBit



Strava

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Strava is a web service that lets you get the most out of your bicycle or running-based GPS device. Out on your bicycle ride (in my case), your GPS records and plots your ride. Afterwards, you can upload the data to the web service Strava which pulls out common segments: these can be significant climbs, popular sprint sections, etc. Your speed on these segments can then be compared against your older rides, as well as other riders (can be against everybody or just your friends/club, whatever). If you achieve a personal record, your ride is awarded certain medals and tokens.

Over the last year, I’ve watched my overall average speed and cycling fitness increase as I specifically go after the “Queen of the Mountain” medal, or overall leader, for my usual segments. I’ve once even borrowed a special race bike to even get one of them, as the increased aerodynamics helped cut through the windy bits. As I find new segments, my competitive nature starts figuring out what to try different next time to get even faster. It’s… rather addictive.

-- Natira Harris  

Strava
Free to $6/month
Available from Strava

Sample Excerpts:

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ProActive Disc

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The best lumbar support I’ve found is Fitterfirst’s ProActive Disc. The primary purpose of this inflatable disc is to give a “Swiss Ball” experience to ordinary chairs. It also works very well as a highly-portable lumbar support for flying and driving. The device was designed by this specialty shop. It’s made by Cascade Designs and has the same wonderful oversized valve used on the Therm-a-Rest mattress pads.

The way to use the disc is to fully inflate it, position the pad where you want it, and crack the valve until it’s deflated to the desired level. It’s pricey but should last forever if treated well. If you do happen to mistreat the pad, you can use the Cascade Designs repair kits to fix it. I also use it when going to events at a stadium for cushioning and to boost my height a bit (yes — I was that guy sitting in front of you). One option that’s a bit less expensive is the Ledraplastic Overball: a little ball marketed as a play toy about 20 years ago.

The balls inflate to a diameter of 7 to 9 inches; they’re springy and remarkably strong. Some Pilates instructors started using them as a substitute for Joe’s Magic Circle. The Pilates Mini Ball workout is a classic (here’s a sample). Colleen Craig’s “Strength Training on the Ball” uses a mini ball in tandem with a Swiss Ball for multi-directional destabilization — a fantastic strength/balance program in a book.

After getting noticed, many different manufacturers are making their own balls now: the FitBall Mini, the Fitterfirst Mini Ball, the Franklin Air Ball, and even Leslee Bender’s Bender Ball (promoted on infomercials). All of these little balls are are well-made; they are interchangeable. If you hurt after a flight, lying on the floor with an Overball (or one of its imitators) in the small of your back is tremendously relaxing.

-- Phil Earnhardt  

Fitter First ProActive Disc
$40

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fitter First



Take a Nap! Change Your Life

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Napping is a evolutionarily habit that still works wonders today. I can get by with several hours less sleep per night by adding a 20-minute nap in the afternoon. But I work at home where napping is easily done. The point of this book is to persuade you that the benefits of napping, scientifically derived, are so great you should do everything you can to make napping a habit whatever your schedule. As this concise guide makes clear the benefits to nappers are significant: smarter, more productive, healthier. For those who have tried napping without success, this book offers several different methods to try. It is hard to imagine the siesta returning in full force in the workplace, but it should be resurrected in some fashion. Start here. This is the best practical book on naps yet.

-- KK  

Take a Nap! Change Your Life
Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D.
2006, 141 pages
$11

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

It’s free, it’s nontoxic and it has no dangerous side effects. Hard to believe, with these powerful selling points, that people have to be convinced to nap. But alas, for way too long, napping has been given a bad rap.

*
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*

I’m often asked if a nap during the day will interfere with nocturnal sleep. The answer is a definite no. Unfortunately, many information sources on sleep hygiene encourage people to avoid napping if they’re having trouble sleeping at night. Not only is there not a shred of evidence to support this advice, but much of the data coming out of sleep research demonstrates quite the opposite. In studies across all age ranges, nocturnal sleep duration has been proven to be unaffected by midday napping. As a matter of fact, studies indicate that in a number of cases napping actually improves the ability to sleep at night.

*
As a rule of thumb, you can count on naps earlier in the day to be richer in REM, while late afternoon naps tend to be higher in SWS. If you take particular interest in your dreams, waking up during or right after a heavy REM episode will allow you the greatest recall of your dream imagery. If you feel like one of “the walking tired,” a heavy SWS does will take care of that.

*

It bears repeating: There’s no such thing as a bad nap. Any time you spend in midday sleep will reduce the effects of fatigue and bestow benefits. But our nap needs differ across populations and will change over the course of our lives. A mother’s requirement is not the same as that of her three-year-old toddler. The sleep profile of a middle-aged football coach had little in common with that of a teenage beauty contestant.

*

“Who’s got time to nap?” is a common complaint among non-nappers. The short answer is: just about everyone. if you spend 20 minutes or more at Starbucks getting an afternoon mocha latte, couldn’t you just stay where you are and take a nap instead? So, before you conclude that napping doesn’t fit into your busy life, take out your day planner and examine your schedule. By carefully reviewing the activities of your day and the time it takes to do them, you can assess which time expenditures are unnecessary and where a nap can be substituted. How long is your lunch? A paralegal with an hour lunch break reports that she can eat in half an hour and keep the second half for her nap. Or do what I do and pencil in 20 to 40 minutes as soon as your get home for a transition nap between work and leisure.

Once you’ve carved out these precious minutes, you need to make this nap time a regular feature of your day. Just as we’ve developed a detailed trail of cues for our minds and bodies to recognize that it’s time for nighttime sleep, we need to fashion a similar set of cues that will indicate that it’s nap time. Consistent scheduling allows the body to associate that hour with the nap and all other concerns to more easily fade away.

*

“If I nap I’m being lazy.”

Some of the most hardworking figures in history–national leaders, scientists, CEOs, movie stars–have used napping as a tool to get more out of each day. As demonstrated by the latest brain imaging technology, your mind is still at work even if your body is at rest.

Replace with: “Napping makes me more productive.”

“I’m too busy to nap.”

Just look around your office at 3 p.m. More than likely, instead of a hive of industrious activity, you’ll see a bunch of bleary-eyed workers checking and rechecking their e-mail. As the great napper Winston Churchill said, “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one… well, at least one and half.” The latest scientific research has proven him correct.

Replace with: “I’m so busy, I need to nap.”

“I haven’t done enough to deserve a nap.”

Do you deserve to eat? To breathe? No natural function–including napping!–should be regarded as a privilege. Stop cheating yourself.

Replace with: “I’m exercising my inalienable right to nap.”

“I can’t get anything out of a 20-minute nap, so why bother?”

You can reap benefits in as little as five minutes. Naps under 20 minutes can increase alertness, improve physical dexterity, boost stamina and lower stress. Post-lunch naps of 15 minutes have been shown in university studies to increase alertness and performance.

Replace with: “In less than 20 minutes, I will restore my alertness for the rest of the day.”




Zeo Personal Sleep Coach

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You know nothing about nearly a third of your life. Sure, you think you have some sense of how you sleep, but you really don’t. We’re notoriously inaccurate in estimating how long it takes us to fall asleep, how long we’re awake in the middle of the night, how long we dream and how much deep sleep we get. And the total hours you sleep are only one factor of many in determining the quality of that sleep and the restorative effect it will have on you. Even worse, if you want to improve the quality of your sleep, all you’ve got to go on is general advice, while the one thing we know about sleep is that we’re all different.

What you need is data. That’s what Zeo provides. It’s a clock-radio-sized device that sits on your bedside table, with a comfortable wireless headband that you wear while you sleep. The headband measures electrical signals from your brain and can distinguish between four states: awake, light sleep, REM sleep and deep sleep. The base station records all this, and displays all the data in easy to understand charts, as well as recording it on a SD card that you can plug into a computer to upload to a very good website for tracking and analysis. (It’s also a great alarm clock, which can wake you at the time when you’re most ready to wake, which may be some minutes before the set time)

I was given a Zeo when it first came out last year, and I’m hooked. I knew I was a poor sleeper who is plagued by too-vivid dreams, but here’s what I found out with Zeo: 1) I get very little deep sleep (often less than 10%), which is the most restorative type. My wife, meanwhile, usually gets more than 25% deep sleep over the same period. 2) When I think I’m tossing and turning all night, I’m usually not. The wake periods are typically short, and I am actually asleep between them. 3) There are simple things I can do to improve my sleep, even if I’m not sleeping any more hours.

To that last point, Zeo is all about running experiments on yourself. Take a couple weeks of baseline data to measure day-of-week cyclicality, and then start changing things. For me, the difference between one glass of wine and two a night is an average of five points of “ZQ” score (I average around 80). Cutting off screens (email, web, even reading on the iPad) a half-hour before bed and turning to a paper book also adds about five points. I’d hoped that exercise would add to my score, but it didn’t. Three milligrams of melatonin before bed has a small but positive impact, which may well just be the placebo effect. 11:30 is better for me than 12:00, but 11:00 is no better than 11:30. And so on.

If you’d like better sleep and want to be smart about how you go about it, Zeo is the perfect tool. And even if you don’t have one, subscribe to the Zeo blog, which is full of smart data- and science-driven advice and discussion about sleep quality and how to improve it.

[Wired's Chris Anderson graciously wrote a review of the Zeo that several commenters mentioned, replacing the previously reviewed and now unrecommended WakeMate. --OH]

Zeo Personal Sleep Coach
$370

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Zeo

Sample Excerpts:

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A Zeo user’s graph tracks his experiment with polyphasic sleep patterns




This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Wakemate

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[Update: This tool has been unrecommended given several negative responses from commenters who have had difficulty getting the product to work on both Android and iOS, and have had little or no response from the manufacturer. Several readers have commented about alternatives and a review is forthcoming.--OH]

The WakeMate is a wristband that tracks movements in your sleep and when paired with an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry app serves as an intelligent alarm that wakes you at an optimum time in your sleep cycle based on actigraphy, a method of monitoring sleep through tracking movement.

To use the device you wear the wristband, sync it via Bluetooth on your iPhone, Android, or Blackberry phone, open the WakeMate app, and set the alarm to a certain time which provides you with a 20-minute waking window. For example, I set my alarm within the WakeMate app to 6:42 AM, and that means it will wake me between 6:22 AM and 6:42 AM.

The band uses your phone as the alarm that goes off at the predicted optimum time based on movements in your sleep, in effect waking you when you aren’t about to dive into deep sleep but instead are coming out of it.

In addition to waking you at optimum times, the application also provides useful analytics detailing how long you slept, how long it took you to sleep, and how many times you awoke, and uses this information to produce a sleep score on a scale from 1-100 (I average about a 71, and this goes up and down based on the hours of sleep I got).

I bought WakeMate after reading about actigraphy and sleep tracking. I’ve used it since February 8. So far, with few exceptions, I’ve noticed that I wake up feeling more refreshed than I did before using it. Most importantly I like how easy and comfortable it is to use. For example, although this might be obvious, if I sleep any less than 5 hours, my sleep score significantly decreases. And if I sleep over 6 it keeps going up until I get about 10 hours of sleep. Outside of using it as an alarm, the ability to quantify the quality and quantity of sleep has more than likely contributed to the quality of my rest.

-- Robert Dawson  

Wakemate
$60 for the wristband
iPhone/Android/Blackberry/Web app included

Available from and manufactured by Wakemate



WiThings Blood Pressure Monitor

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I’ve been using the Withings (same manufacturer as the previously reviewed Withings Wi-Fi Scale) Blood Pressure Monitor for several weeks now and find it better than other monitors I’ve been using for years.

There are three aspects of the monitor that I prefer over other monitors. The cuff is amazingly easy to put on your arm. It has a stiff plastic or metal curved piece that holds the cuff in place on your arm while you wrap the arm band around your arm. It’s the first cuff I’ve used that is easily placed single-handed and shipped with a cuff large enough for my arm without needing to purchase a larger cuff.

The air inflation and sensors are in a small tube on the cuff itself and are battery powered, forms a nice handle to aid positioning on your arm. No tubing to manage and worry about the cat puncturing. No outlet connections needed.

The iOS software is easier to use than other monitors. Plug-in the monitor, the app auto-launches and press start. Offers options to run repeated readings and then average them together. Keeps track of all your readings and provides charts without having to do data entry. Data can be exported to many formats.

The monitor has two downsides. The first is cost. At $129 it’s double many of the common upper-arm monitors. However, it’s worth it to me because it’s so much easier for me to use that I’m better about taking my daily measurements. The second problem is that it is iOS only. The monitor will only plug into an iOS device to work. This isn’t a wi-fi device like the Withings scale. The single cable on the device is an iPod connector cable. Works with iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.

The software currently does not work with the cuff plugged in on a device running the beta iOS 5 firmware from Apple. I’m running it with an old iPod Touch for readings. The software works on iOS 5 without the cuff so I can still see my results on my other iOS devices.

-- Kevin van Haaren  

WiThings Blood Pressure Monitor
$116

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by WiThings



Marvy Rubber Shaving Mug and Horsehair Brush

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The Marvy Rubber Shaving Mug is large and deep, ideal for the sort of vigorous brushwork required to create a creamy lather from shaving soap with a shaving brush. In my search for the perfect lather I have also found that the Vie-Long Gonzalo 04102 shaving brush, a combination of white horsehair and boar bristle, is an ideal brush for creating a good lather from shaving soap. The Gonzalo has a resilient knot with a good loft and excellent capacity, and it also has a brass ring around the handle just under the knot.

However, when you are brushing vigorously, it’s easy to strike the side of your shaving mug with the ring, and the sound when using a porcelain mug is unsettling. With the Marvy hard rubber mug, unbreakable and a good idea in the bathroom where hard surfaces abound, the sound is muted and the worry is absent.

The Marvy mug is designed for the specific purpose as a shaving tool, and the bottom is ridged to hold the soap puck securely. The steep sides make it easy to work the developing lather back into the brush. The Marvy is a truly skookum tool for a specific purpose, as is the Vie-Long Gonzalo, which sells at an extremely reasonable price: $18 in the US, €8.55 in the EU.

-- Michael Ham  

Vie-Longo Gonzalo Shaving Brush
$18

Available from BullGoose Shaving Supplies

Marvy Rubber Shaving Mug
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Marvy



Andis Improved Master Professional Clipper

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I’ve kept my hair short for 15 years. My hairline has “matured” to the point where frequent trips to the barbershop are required to keep things in check. I’ve had the same barber for 10 years but a recent house move has turned a 20 minute haircut into a Saturday afternoon excursion. I bought the hair clippers along with a pack of 7 combs. Within minutes of using them I wished I’d made the purchase a long time ago.

It’s easy to cut your own hair. It’s a very similar skill to using a power tool such as a jigsaw. The hardest part is overcoming the fear that you’ll mow a nice bald strip across your head within a seconds of switching it on.

The combs prevent you from cutting hair shorter than their size. The 7 comb pack contains the following: 1/16″ size 0, 1/8″ size1, 1/4″ size 2, 3/8″ size 3, 1/2″ size 4, 3/4″ size 6, 1″ size 8.

The bare clippers can be adjusted between size #000 (1/100″) to size #1 (1/8″). This amount of adjustment can also be applied when the combs are attached. I used all of the combs to gradually get a feel for the clippers. If you just want a #2 all over, it’s as easy as attaching the #2 comb and running the clippers over your head until you have an even cut. It’s a little more work to achieve a fade but I was able to get a decent fade from a #0 (side burns and neck) to #1 (back and sides) to #4 (on top).

I’ve read complaints of them being too heavy and becoming too hot. My experience is that the aluminum construction makes the clippers feel solid without feeling heavy. They do gradually warm up during use but never become hot.

I’m going to miss my old barber but it’s a great to be able to cut your own hair whenever you want and save money too.

-- Mike Lamb  

[Note: This replaces the previously reviewed but unrecommended Remington Shortcut. --OH]

Andis Improved Master Professional Clippers
$89

Available from Amazon

Andis 7 Comb Pack
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Andis