Reach your goals with these essential apps

13th/Feb/2018

I wanted to take the time and go through the services I use and see how they fit into the 'Year of Betterment' mentality that I’m creating for 2018. To remind you of the three main themes of the year we have getting into shape (other than round), speaking French and achieving zen-like productivity.

Before I start reviewing I wanted to say that I have no connection to these services or companies (other than being a customer) and that this will be the last article for a little while on this subject, next time there will be a video for you to enjoy. As always, there are the TL:DR (too long, didn't read) and audio versions at the end of this article.

Goal 1 - Getting healthy

Frankly getting into shape isn't that hard, just eat better and do more however many people (myself included) need guidance and a plan to follow.

The gold standard for this would be a personal trainer but that can often be outside the means of many people to afford and it does mean coordinating your calendars and a whole host of other considerations. While I have used a personal trainer in the past and will do again no doubt, I wanted something that could coach me at any time of the day. After much searching, I settled on 'Freeletics'.

There are many apps out there that will guide you through a workout, a simple browse of the app can show you more than you could ever get a chance to try. With 'Freeletics' you are not only shown how to do the various workouts but are coached through your workout week. Day by day the artificial intelligence tells you what to do based on a number of factors like how difficult you are finding the exercises and what fitness goals you want to achieve and even what body parts are injured and need rest.

For a cost that's significantly less than the price of a personal trainer, you can have a coach that's always there and always ready to tell you what to do. Obviously, one thing it lacks is accountability, it's not going to be standing over you and pushing you to do better, so you do need to have a bit of willpower to get up and get going.

Finally, your new 'coach' will work anywhere. Previously you were locked into one of three regimes; running, gym or bodyweight. Now with one subscription, you have the power of machine learning assisting you to your fitness goals.

The service isn't perfect but they have a great community spirit and working out is always better with friends so if you want to give it a try then you can use my link and search for 'Adam Roxby'. Who knows, you may be working out near me.

Other services of note

I suppose I better say a quick work of food logging. Like almost everyone with a fitness goal, I use ‘Myfitnesspal’ (the ad-supported version), it's database of food is pretty much unsurpassable and the ability to create regularly used meals takes a lot of the busy work out of entering the food you eat. While I don't think people should get too obsessed about the calories they consume, I do think it's important to have a general idea of what you are eating considering this is going to be fuel for all your other goals and aspirations.

Goal 2 - Speaking French

When preparing for this article I had a look at how many language learning apps I had on my phone; 4 was the answer and that's after I got rid of at least one. Clearly trying to use all of them as part of my daily routine isn't going to sustainable. When people make too many lofty goals they can become overwhelmed at the sheer amount of work that's required on a regular basis.

So why have I just helped crowd fund another language learning app? The app in question is called ‘Fluent Forever’ and it's the brainchild of language teacher Gabrial Wyner. He wrote a book which I have just finished reading about how we learn languages and about a method he has created to learn languages fluently in a very short time.

His criticism with a lot of the apps out there (and indeed, on my phone) is that they may teach you some words or some grammar but what they're not good at is creating vivid memories of those words or grammar which means, over time, they are lost and forgotten. What Wyner champions is something called a spaced repetition system (SRS) which presents you something to learn and then reminds you of that things (be it a word, a quote or a phrase) after a certain amount of time. The better you remember it, the longer it will be before your SRS presents it to you again. Where Wyner's approach and implementation of SRS is a bit different (with respects to language learning) is in the creating of the initial memory, in this case, for example, the word you want to learn. I don't have a memory for the first time one of my many language learning apps on my phone showed me the work for 'Earth' in French (Terre). However, I do have lots of memories when get presented with the same word using my SRS flashcard I made. The memory of sitting at my parent's house with my laptop looking at French images of 'la Terre' and downloading native pronunciations. I also remember someone I knew from 'Les Amis de la Terre' (Friends of the Earth). All of that work and investment to create a memory of this word which my SRS will remind me of again and again until it is a permanent memory. That's the difference and that's one of the reasons why I backed Wyner and his new application; the promise to become truly fluent in a foreign language was just too alluring.

If you're interested then here is the link with the usual caveat that you may end up giving your money to a project that may never see the light of day. However, I'm optimistic though.

Other services of note

As mentioned, I have many other applications I’ve been playing with to try and improve my language learning. Quite a lot of them are free (such as ‘Duolingo’) and have quite fun ways of learning words and phrases. I also use an app (which has a subscription model) called ‘Memrise’. This uses a variety of different elements such as spelling words and native speakers talking to you. You might get on with them but I really am excited about this new system and application. Gabriel Wyner may well have found the answer.

Goal 3 - Productivity ninja

As I said two weeks ago, this is probably the most difficult aspect of the “Year of Betterment“ but perhaps one of the most important. Getting yourself into a productive state can have a transformational impact on your whole life and there are a few things that I do which I think could help.

Firstly, you're going to want a good task manager. I currently subscribe to the 'Getting Things Done' method of working made famous by David Allen. Basically, your mind is a terrible place to keep a list of things to do. After a few items of things to remember you start to struggle to recall what the first item was, then you become panicked that you have forgotten something. Allen says that there is no reason to keep trying to remember that same thing over and over again unless you like having the thought. That's why I have an external brain to keep track of all the commitments I have and things I want to achieve. By far the best app for doing this is 'OmniFocus'. If you are serious about getting things done and you have a Mac/iPhone then this really is a must.

Beyond using a solid task manager there are other things you can do. For example, lifelogging. There is a whole movement dedicated to the 'quantified self'. The idea that if you track and log everything (steps, food, sleep, caffeine, time on your computer, etc) then that information can give you insights to making improvements in your life. Perhaps you find that if you sleep a bit longer then you are more likely to have a more productive day. There are many apps that have tried to offer this sort of insight, but in many cases, I have found them lacking. Many of them just offer you a wall of information, for example, how many steps you took on a certain day or how many carbs you ate. All that is fine and well but data without insight is impotent. What does it mean to me that I took more steps on one day to the other? How can that information help me live a better life? In my opinion, there are only two apps that are still being actively developed that are getting close to providing insightful information and allows you to make goals (lose weight, walk more etc).

The first is 'Life Cycle', this is from the people who make the very popular sleep tracking app, 'Sleep Cycle'. Now, 'Life Cycle' doesn't have a goals feature at the moment but having spoken to the makers they have assured me that it's coming. That brings me on to the app I currently use daily and that's 'Gyroscope'. This is the closest I have found to an app that does everything. It gets information from many sources such as 'Fitbit', 'Strava', Foursquare', 'Twitter' and Apple's 'HealthKit'. It can even use data from a service called 'RescueTime' which looks at what apps you use on your computer and decides how productive you have been. Then it presents that information in a series of attractive slides for you to share (or brag). More than that, it lets you make goals (with more goal choices on the way) to achieve what you want and make positive changes.

One last piece of advice is about meditation. I was always a bit sniffy about doing meditation. I had that prejudice for a while. Then I had problems with anxiety and other issues and I was advised to give meditation and mindfulness a try, which I did and it really helped. Just a short amount of time a day can give you a relaxed sense of focus and help deal with many of the challenging emotions and thoughts you are likely to encounter. It's not about curing yourself of anxiety or anything like that, even the most ardent practitioner will tell you that they still get nervous, anxious, sad and frustrated, but it's about dealing with those thoughts and emotions. The app I use is called 'Headspace'. There are many apps out there to help you keep calm or to give you guided meditation. I find Andy Puddicombe's (the co-founder of Headspace) to have a very relaxing and soothing voice and the animations convey some of the key concepts in a clear and entertaining manner.

There is a free version of the app, but to get the most out of the experience there is a subscription model.

  • TL:DR (Too long, didn't read) version. To achieve what I want from this year, I rely on a number of apps and services. To get fit and healthy I get coached workouts and community support from 'Freeletics' and track the food I eat using 'Myfitnesspal'. To learn French I have tried apps like 'Duolingo', 'Rosetta Stone' and I really like 'Memrise' but I got sold on the 'Fluent Forever' method by Gabriel Wyner. He has a book and is currently seeking funding for an app to make you fluent in your language of choice. Finally, I stay productive with the task manager 'OmniFocus', keep track of my life and goals with 'Gyroscope' and remain calm and focused with guided meditations from 'Headspace'

So there you have my breakdown of the applications and services I use and will be using to actually achieve my goals for this year. I hope some of these have been helpful, please let me know if you have given them a try and let me know your suggestions as well.