Start Small – Little Lessons Learnt

If I want to make exercising a habit I should start with doing one push up a day because no matter how late I am, I always have time for one push up.

This works. I mentioned it in passing in a conversation with a friend. A couple months later I find out he actually did it. He was at 40 push ups a day.

Too often I get bogged down in trying to find the perfect system for or getting the right tools to do some grand task. These can be organization workflows or productivity iPhone apps. I think big because I don’t want to half-ass it. No one wants to be mediocre.

The ironic thing is, in aiming so high, I completely miss the target. I’ve learnt that I am a person who finds comfort in a system. This can be to my detriment though, as I come to rely on a system to get started.

Too often the energy in pursuit of systems is wasted, as the system is never completed or I change my mind and want to pursue a different goal. Just getting started would have shown me that much faster.

Having learnt this I now try to start with small actions immediately and do the “preparation” as I go. Starting small but immediately has several benefits:

  • provides a fast feedback loop
  • motivates as progress is made
  • makes it easier to pick up & stay disciplined
  • eases letting go of misplaced goals (no sunk cost fallacy)
  • small steps compound to substantial progress

Ortlieb Panniers – Cool Tool

Ortlieb have made what may be the perfect bags for cycling.

An Ortlieb classic pannier attached to a bike An Ortlieb classic pannier attached to a bike

A pannier is a bag that hooks onto the rack of your bicycle so you can ride backpack-free (or just take more stuff).

What’s special about Ortlieb panniers is that they are nigh indestructible and have a clever latch mechanism. The latches hook around the top bar on the rack of your bike but release on lifting the pannier. Check out this YouTube review for more details.

The latch mechanism on an Ortlieb pannier The latch mechanism on an Ortlieb pannier

The panniers are made from tough canvas and are completely waterproof (if closed right).

I took two on my trip to the UK last year, when I cycled form Edinburgh to London. Now I use them everyday going to work. Besides that I take them shopping, as they are a great way to transport heavy items for someone who doesn’t have a car.

You know how you can usually tell how serious a hiker or cyclist is by their gear. Well in Germany all serious cyclists use Ortlieb panniers. You can just count them going by or in the bicycle coach on trains.

Where to buy

Depending on where you are, you can get the panniers at the local sports or big outdoors store. It may be easiest to get them online, but only if you know what you want. Ortlieb has tonnes of options and your choice will vary depending on your use case. This is the one I have.

Multipurpose Headband – Cool Tool

The Buff made headbands cool again. It is a closed loop of stretch-fabric that can be worn in many ways. After the success of the original Buff, many other companies made similar products to get in on some of the action.

Originally I got a real Buff for wearing under my bike helmet while cycling. It makes wearing a helmet a lot more comfortable. As the winter months approached last year, I got a generic multipurpose headbandM, because it was thicker and bigger.

I still prefer the Buff, as it is lighter and a lot more comfortable. However, when the temperatures outside are nearing 0 °C, that becomes a lot less important. At that point I just want to ward off the stinging cold.

There are some fancy scarves for cycling that cover your nose and mouth without causing your glasses to fog up. At least that’s what they claim to do. They don’t work.

You’re better off just using a buff. It’s more versatile and far less finicky. You can easily switch between it covering up to your nose or just to your chin. This means I cycle with two buffs in the winter, one to cover my head and ears and another to cover my nose, mouth, and neck.

Cycling is the main time I use the Buff or it’s equivalent. However, it’s also proven useful just taking on walks in case it gets windy. They’re small and won’t take much room but will still shield your neck and/or ears from the wind.

Where to buy:
You should be able to pick them up at a sports or outdoors store near you. It may just be easier on Amazon though. Be sure to check the sizes, as it’s not always clear which one is which (bought the wrong on first). My Buff is 25cm long and the other two headbands are twice that size.

Silicone Pastry Brush – Cool Tool

This is an interesting tool. It is a plastic silicone brush that can withstand temperatures of up to 260 C° (500°F)

I’m including it as a cool tool simply because it’s great at one thing: lining a frying pan with oil. There are lots of other uses I’m sure, but this is what puts it on my list.

Even then, I only ever use it for one thing: making pancakes. It makes a huge difference. You don’t want your pancakes to get all soggy with oil. So I use as little oil as possible and spread it around evenly using the brush.

This is a actually a tip I got from my sister, who’s great pancake receipt is the one I use.

Those who know me know I like my pancakes. This brush has a narrow use case for me but plays an important role in making one of my favorite breakfasts that bit better.

Where to buy
You can pick this up at most stores that sell any kitchen utensils. Or you can always just find it online. It’s also called a basting brush.

Sleep Mask – Cool Tool

If you’ve ever been on a long distance flight you’ve probably been given a sleep mask by the airline.

This is all sleep masks ever were to me. A pathetic piece of fabric held in front of my eyes by some poor elastic straps. They don’t really keep out the light, feel weird on the face, and the straps cut into your ears.

Despite all this, I still kept a sleep mask I had from a flight and reused it many times. That is, until it broke.

At first I was bummed, thinking I had to wait for my next flight to pick one up again, before it dawned on me that I could just buy another one.

In looking for what to buy I realised I’d never really had a sleep mask in the first place. Believe me, getting a proper one was nothing short of revolutionary. Well, for that one use case. All because it was now comfortable and actually kept the light out.

A non-airline sleep mask A non-airline sleep mask

It also made me re-evaluate the value of airline lagniappes. But airlines making a profit of about 8$ a seat explains why they give you the sleep mask for 10 cent rather that 10$.

The sleep mask is also something I always have in my bag. It’s amazing for getting that nap in while travelling, especially when accompanied by some noise cancelling headphones.

I got it for long airplane flights, but have used it in everything from cars to buses to trains. If I packed late the night before and had to get up early, I’m glad to be able to get an hours nap in at any time of day.

A great use case I didn’t foresee, is wearing them for “everynight sleeping”. As in when I’m lying down and not sitting in some moving vehicle. I don’t do this regularly, but if I’m camping or staying at a friend’s place I’ll usually wear them.

In my experience, few people have dimming curtains or blinds in the living room. If you’re staying over and sleeping there, the mask can help you sleep in. There’s nothing worse than that tired twisting and turning in the morning as you are involuntarily awoken by sunlight.

Where to buy:
This is easiest to find on Amazon (here are mine – now sold out). I got ones with velcro and a single strap, so I don’t have to pull them over my head. Since they are always in my bag, I didn’t get the huge ones. Definitely go for the bowl design and foam-like material. The flat synthetic ones are useless. Besides that just do the usual: read some reviews and find the one that works for you.

Zipper Storage Bags – Cool Tool

Commonly known as Ziploc bags, the plastic zipper storage bags are incredibly useful for storing things, especially while travelling.

They come in different sizes, but I’ve only ever really needed the standard 1 liter size. Their main selling point is how they can be easily sealed and reopened using the zipper-like slider at the top. They do a great job of keeping thing inside, but are not perfectly waterproof.

I always have some airplane permitted toiletries (100 ml or less) and an extra toothbrush in one of these bags ready for any trip. This makes packing that one step easier. I don’t even take a separate toiletries bag anymore since I need to show them at airport security anyway.

Besides that, the bags have proven especially useful for hiking and camping. I always take a couple extra and seldom come home not having made use of them.

If there’s a danger of anything leaking, it’s always a good idea to put it into a zipper bag.

Here our zipper bag saved my backpack from a jam explosion while traveling in New Zealand. Here our zipper bag saved my backpack from a jam explosion while traveling in New Zealand.

They’re not just great for liquids though, also sandwiches and cookies are better kept in them. The bag catches the cookie crumbs and doesn’t take as much room as a Tupperware box would for sandwiches, especially once you’ve eaten the content.

But there’s not really a limit to what you can put in them. The zipper bags can also help organise your smaller items. This is especially useful if your suitcase or backpack doesn’t have great compartments. I regularly put charger cables and SD cards in them. If there are cards or cash in my wallet I don’t need, I will also put them in a zipper bag first before putting them into my main travelling bag.

Where to buy:
You can get zipper storage bags at most local grocery stores. Here in Germany some discount stores won’t have them, but most others do.

Oil Pourer – Cool Tool

If you do any cooking at all and don’t have one of these, you need to get one.

This is a simple and very cheap solution to a frustrating and messy problem in the kitchen: pouring oil.

I still remember the feeling all too well of reaching for the greasy plastic bottle every time I needed some oil. It would never stay just in the bottle and collect on the lid and sides. As the bottle got emptier it became more and more slippery.

Then… I upgraded to a glass bottle. This helped a lot on the slippery side, but not so much on the greasy side – especially when it came to the lid.

Then… I discovered these oil pourers. They replace the lid and let you pour oil with greater control and without the mess. A little top on the spout just lifts up when you pour and then closes again. The small tube reaching into the bottle limits the airflow back into it, slowing the pouring speed.

I’ve had some for a year now and I cannot recommend them more highly. Just one of those things that solves a common problem so well. I actually have designated glass bottles with pourers for two different oils and a vinegar now.

Note: you will need to have a glass bottle for them to work properly.

Where to buy:
I’m sure you’ll be able to find them at a local store, perhaps even a larger grocery store. You can always order them online from Amazon (DE, UK, US), or your preferred online retailer.

Cool Tool: Offline Maps App

In April 2015 I cycled from Edinburgh to London. That’s a story for another day, but on a trip like that you’re going to need a good map. This is where I started looking into offline maps.

I didn’t want to carry a kilo of maps with me, which is probably what it would have weighed considering the detail required for cycling and the distance travelled. After a quick search on the web I found Galileo Offline Maps.

The app was perfect for my trip and saved my bacon more than once. I was able to import my route, which I had pieced together from Google maps and the great website GPS Cycle and Walking Routes. Tip: you can convert map file types here.

I now make it a habit to download the the area I’m traveling to before any trip.

Why not Google maps?
Despite living in this internet age there are always times when we don’t have a connection or the data plan for Internet everywhere. Besides that, Google Maps isn’t really a maps app. Let me explain.

Google maps is a service. It helps you find and get to places, navigating you there in a truly remarkable fashion. Google knows what people use its maps app for and optimises it for that purpose, even anticipating next moves.

That’s not what I’m looking for in my offline maps app. Partly because, by the nature of the use case, I am offline[1], but also because of it’s implications on UI design.

It is almost impossible to scout the area around you in Google maps. Even something as simple as moving the map to show where you are currently located is a huge pain. Google’s focus on search and directions are warranted, but frustratingly limiting when it comes to just exploring.

How does it work?
Well, there’s a little known and undervalued digital map service called OpenStreetMap. Basically, it’s Wikipedia for maps. Like in Wikipedia, the content is made by everyone around the world. This crowdsourcing leads, perhaps surprisingly, to some of the best map data period.

And as the name suggests, OpenSteetMap is open. Meaning the data is free for anyone to use and make use of – like in an offline maps app.

Take a look at the area around you. I bet every dirt road, hiking trail, and secret shortcut are included in the OpenSteetMap data. Besides that, there are tons of destinations included. The usual tourist stuff, but also cafés, bars, restaurants, and shopping malls. This was great while cycling.

In both roads and destinations I found the OpenStreetMap data to be better than Apple or Google’s. Here’s a comparison from a recent trip in Premantura in Croatia. These screenshots aren’t perfectly matched up, but you get the idea.

Premantura, Croatia. From left to right: Gallileo Offline Maps, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. Premantura, Croatia. From left to right: Gallileo Offline Maps, Google Maps, and Apple Maps.

By the way: if you’re interested in meticulous map comparisons and the choices made in the map design by Google and Apple take a look at this great analysis by Justin O’Beirne.

Where to Buy
You can get it on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
(Be warned, I’ve read it still needs work on Android.)

1: Before you go telling me about the ability to download an area of Google maps, I know that’s now possible. It’s a great feature.


Cool Tool: Compression Undershirt

I wear an undershirt 365 days a year. Not only for keeping me warm during the winter months but also for keeping me cool in summer. An undershirt will prevent your shirt from sticking to you when you sweat. This allows air to get under it, cooling you down (trust me – try it and you’ll be amazed).

But why a compression undershirt? Firstly the obvious reasons: comfort, flexibility, and dealing with sweat. You can wear one for several days no problem.

Secondly because of how it makes me feel. In German we have a saying “Kleider machen Leute” (clothes make people). This is definitely true for myself. A tight but flexible undershirt makes me feel great and ready for action at all times.

Not everyone is made by their clothes though. Some people can work in shorts and flip flops …or turtlenecks… or hoodies. Not me. I always wear a collared shirt to work. Not because I have to but because it helps put me in the right mindset for work. Try it, maybe it’ll work for you.

Where to buy:

I got mine at the German discount stores Aldi and Lidl who stock them about twice a year. You should be able to find them year round at your local sports store or online. The first ones I got were specifically for cycling. That helps narrow the search, but isn’t a must.

In German they’re called “Funktionsunterhemd”. It was actually surprisingly difficult to find the equivalent in English. But as far as I gather, a compression undershirt is what I’m talking about. For a picture, check here. Mine are sleeveless and synthetic (polyamide, polyester, and elastane).

Cool Tools – a respectable listicle:

The internet is full of clickbaiting listicles. There are “12 incredible ways to X” and you better go check it out because “you won’t believe number 7”. These phrases litter the titles of all to many articles in our advertising driven web.

Listicles are great at generating traffic but seldom contain any meaningful content. That’s not the lists fault though. There are great ways to use lists and many cases they can add structure to the information being shared.

That’s why I’m creating what I call the respectable listicle. Starting with the topic of cool tools I will be writing posts as a part of a growing list.

Here’s the first one now. Also accessible through the lists menu item.

We all have toolkits. Not necessarily the classic handyman’s collection – but everyday tools that have proven useful over time. Items we cannot go without, products that are a joy to use, and simple solutions to frustrating problems.

These tools carry with them an urge to be shared.

Here are some of mine:

_Note: I am experimenting with this blog format to create basically a list that I can keep adding to. Credit for the name goes to Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly. It is a site of tool recommendation created by its readers. There’s also a book and a podcast