Is White Noise Good for Studying and Work?

Generally Yes, but it depends…

It depends on you, the kind of white noise you are using, the task you are working on, where you work, and even the time of day. This post looks at some of the intricacies and helps you to decide whether, when, and how to use white noise for your work and studying.

Is white noise good for studying

Speech and varying-state noise (e.g., typical office noise) are distracting and can significantly impair mental performance:

Experiments have shown that cognitive abilities important for both studying and cognitive work are negatively affected by noise: This includes serial memory (remembering the order of things), reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, proof-reading, and writing.

Most of these studies have included silence as a control condition. Some experiments have also included white noise for comparison. The results for white noise were ambiguous: White noise was mostly but not always benign.

My take is, compared to silence, it didn’t affect the average (!) participant’s performance negatively, but it also didn’t boost it.

However, people respond differently to white noise. Some people and tasks thrive on it, while others are slightly negatively affected. Read on to find out who benefits. Continue reading

How to Block out Snoring Noise

In my previous post, I explored how day-time noise impairs our cognitive performance and what we can do about it. But there is another big elephant in the room – our night-time sleep. Sleep or the lack of it has a big impact on our ability to perform at our best, both physically and mentally.

Less or disrupted slow-wave sleep, for example, entails poor memory and poor wound healing.

Among the worst offenders interrupting our night-time sleep is the all too familiar sound of SNORING. Snoring can be loud – very loud indeed. A loud snorer can reach more than 90 decibels of peak sound pressure level. That is about as loud as a lawn mower.

How to block out snoring noise

Intrigued by the capabilities of some of the newer devices to block out noise and sophisticated white noise apps, I decided to run an experiment to answer this question: What is the best way to block out snoring noise?

Test equipment and candidates

  • An iPad equipped with a sound level meter (Noisee for iOS).
  • Two different white noise apps: myNoise for iOS and White Noise by Tmsoft for iOS and Android.
  • Earplugs of different sizes by Hearos, 3M, and Mack with a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 29-33 (an NRR of 33 is about as good as you can get).
  • Good-quality earbuds (a good fit is vital for sound quality and noise isolation).
  • The best earmuffs I could find, with a noise reduction rating of 31 (3M Peltor X5A).
  • DIY noise isolating earbuds and sleep headphones.
  • The best noise cancelling headphones I could find (Bose Quiet Comfort QC35).

Testing the snore blocking effectiveness

Continue reading

How to Block out Noise before It Kills Your Work and Study Performance

Noise affects you as a professional, office worker, teacher, and student. It impairs your ability to read and write effectively, remember what you have learned, and do math. Everyday noise can cause a performance loss of 50 percent or more. This is easily the difference between an A and an F. Luckily there are some smart ways to block out and mask noise so it doesn’t disrupt you.Block out noise and improve cognitive-performance

A good 18 months ago, I was sitting on my balcony watching an online lecture on my computer. My balcony is facing a small aisle, but the traffic noise from a nearby road is still very noticeable.  I was wearing decent earbuds, so the noise wasn’t bothering me – or so I thought.

Just out of curiosity, I put on a pair of earmuffs, which I had purchased earlier to block out noises that often startle me during my early-afternoon naps.

Well, they did a hell of a job with the traffic noise: I was sitting there, and all the honking, squeaking and rumbling had receded into the background. It wasn’t completely quiet, but everything was so faint. That’s very nice indeed, I thought.

Why not try continuing the lecture with my earbuds underneath the earmuffs?

The first thing I noticed was that the voice of the lecturer was now way too loud. Annoyingly loud.

I had to turn down the volume from 10 to 3 to make it comfortable again.  I also noticed that I could hear the finer nuances of the lecturer’s voice. I could even understand other students’ questions. These students weren’t equipped with microphones as this was a normal computer science lecture recorded at MIT in a big lecture hall (part of MIT’s Open Courseware program).

Wow – it was so much easier to follow the lecture and take in the whole experience. One of the great advantages of watching a recorded lecture is that you can stop it and re-listen to parts you couldn’t comprehend the first time. After putting on the earmuffs, this became almost completely unnecessary. Not only was I able to listen at a much lower volume and make out previously unheard details, I was also comprehending faster!

Bolstered by that experience, I experienced with earmuffs in other learning and reading situations as well

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How to Take the Perfect Nap for Performance, Mood and Memory

how to take the perfect nap

I have been an afternoon napper for more than 14 years. I started napping after moving to a country where most people took a siesta. For various reasons, I just couldn’t get enough sleep during the night, so it was easy to fall asleep.

Over the years, I have tried short power naps, 60-minute naps, and occasionally 90-minute mid-afternoon sleeps. In this post, I would like to share with you how to nap for better mood, alertness, concentration, improved memory, and restoration of learning capacity. We will cover how long and when to nap for maximum benefit, how to avoid after-nap grogginess (sleep inertia), and the possible risks associated with longer naps.

As a final point, I am going to share my personal napping experience and my favorite napping hacks.

The benefits of napping are numerous

For me personally, the most important benefits are improved mood and decreased sleepiness. I just feel happier and ready to tackle my afternoon after a nap.

Napping studies have found a large number and variety of benefits of napping in all kinds of workplace and operational settings.  Studies looked at drivers, commercial airliner pilots, shift workers, doctors and nurses, students, children, senior citizens…

Here is a non-exhaustive list of research-proven benefits:

  • Improved cognitive performance
    • Increased alertness and concentration
    • Decreased reaction time
    • Speed and accuracy improvement on cognitive tasks
  • Better mood
  • Less sleepiness and fatigue
  • Significantly reduced number of driving incidents such as drifting out of one’s lane in a car simulator experiment: the number of incidents caused by drivers who had taken a 15-minute coffee nap (see below for details) was 91% less than for drivers who had just taken a break. Coffee alone reduced the number of incidents by 66%.
  • In a NASA study, pilots who took naps were able to maintain their performance and reduce incidents during a demanding multi-day schedule. Pilots who weren’t allowed to nap experienced deceasing performance and a significantly larger number of incidents, including during the descent and landing.
  • Significantly Improved memory and protection of learned information from interference: a study that focused on declarative learning found a 60% increased memory retention for nappers at a final test one week after initial learning, compared to learners who hadn’t napped.
  • Nappers perform better at abstracting general concepts and making connections that weren’t directly learned but can be inferred from what was learned (relational memory).
  • A nap can restore the capacity to learn, which otherwise deteriorates considerably with time awake.
  • Performance on a creative problem solving task where subjects had to find a linking word between three seemingly unrelated words was improved by more than 40% after a 90-minute nap containing REM sleep (see below) compared to rest and naps containing only non-REM sleep.

To better understand what nap length you should aim for, here is a sleep architecture primer

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How to Create, Extract, and Manage PDF Annotations and Highlights

An efficient workflow for annotating PDFs, extracting highlights and comments, and filing them is essential for research, writing, and studying. Ideally highlights and comments should contain back-links that take you right back to the correct page in the PDF source document.Extracted-PDF-Annotations

Adobe’s Acrobat Reader DC, PDF-XChange Editor, and various other PDF readers allow you to annotate PDF files. But, you don’t want these annotations to remain “imprisoned” in your PDF. Your highlights and comments become a lot more useful if you can extract them, aggregate markups from several documents, and re-find them when you need them. Unsurprisingly, the free version of Acrobat Reader doesn’t allow the export of annotations as a word or text file.

To accomplish this in an elegant way, I recommend that you manage your PDF documents in Zotero, a free, open-source research document management system created and maintained by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media     (George Mason University). With Zotero, you can collect and organize a large variety of document types, including PDF documents and web pages with the click of a few buttons.
To extract and manage PDF annotations in Zotero, you additionally need the free add-on Zotfile from Zotfile was created by Joscha Legewie, a professor at New York University. A big thank you to Dr. Legewie for programming and maintaining this excellent cannot-live-without add-on! Continue reading

How to Improve Focus and Concentration and Enjoy a Happy Morning

Butter coffee helps improve focus and concentrationIn this post, I want to share my secret to enjoyable and productive days. The short form of the formula goes like this: prepare and drink a strong cup of butter coffee; meditate for 10 to 30 minutes; eat a protein-rich breakfast on some days and skip breakfast on other days; and finally, use timeboxing to alternate between 30-minute bursts of work and 5-to-10-minute breaks.

This formula keeps my energy levels up and helps to maintain focus and concentration throughout the day. Best of all, when I consequently apply it, I still have plenty of energy to spare in the evening.

Does this sound too good to be true? If you suffer from brain fog, low energy, or a lack of focus and concentration, or crave sugar or food to keep you going, give it a try.

Here is how I implement the different steps of my formula: Continue reading

Taking Flashcards Deluxe for a Spin: A Brief Review

Flashcards-DeluxeRecently, a reader recommended Flashcards Deluxe to me, a spaced review software for iOS and Android. He was looking for an app that could also be used on a Kindle Fire and settled on this program. Being myself an avid user of flashcard software, I decided to get the version for Android and take it for a spin. I tested it over a period of three weeks and reviewed it using a specific set of criteria. I decided to use Flashcards Deluxe for two specific purposes:

  1. Studying Chinese characters and vocabulary. I want to add and review characters and vocabulary on the fly, alternating between an Android mobile and a PC or Mac.
  2. Creating summary questions and answers while reading a non-fiction book to remember the important information.

In this post, you will read more about use case 1 since it calls for the creation of more complex flashcards, that is, three-sided flashcards containing English text, Chinese characters, images for some obscure characters and components, and sound. Everything stated should, however, be transferable.

Here are a summary and recommendations based on my experience with Flashcards Deluxe

  • I have found Flashcards Deluxe (FCD) to be a capable spaced review/repetition program. Reviewing flashcards is fun with this app. The review interface is straight-forward and intuitive: just swipe to the left (I know the card), down (I don’t know the card), or up (I know it well) to communicate with the program. Creating and editing cards is not quite as intuitive, but also works well after some getting used to the user interface. Three- and more-sided flash cards are also supported and worked well for my use cases.
  • Consider this app a strong contender if you are looking to primarily create and learn with flashcards on Android or/and iOS (e.g., an iPhone or iPad). It also supports downloading decks from the popular sites (formerly Flashcard Exchange) and Quizlet.
  • FCD is not available for Windows/Mac, so review and synchronization with a PC/Mac companion are not possible. Users can, however, establish a workflow to create and edit cards on a PC/Mac via Excel/a text editor and cloud services. Import and export are facilitated via an Internet connection and a cloud service, such as Dropbox or the developer’s website.
  • I used Flashcards Deluxe and Excel to create flashcards and Dropbox to exchange the information. This setup allowed me to efficiently create and edit cards on both an Android phone and a PC. (See the workflow below.)

Continue reading

Updated Version for Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest

Remember-Everything-Version-AlertI’ve spent quite some time during the past few months updating Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest. The new version is 1.1 and available on Amazon.

  • All illustrations, maps, screenshots, and tables have been redone with a higher resolution and color adjustments to allow for better viewing on the new Kindles and tablets. The book should, however, continue to work well on older Kindles and in the reading apps. New legends and call-outs have been added to make it as easy as possible to find stuff.
  • The illustrations and step-by-step guidelines for knowledge and information management have been updated to match the latest versions of the software tools. While the software and website changes haven’t been huge, I wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow the guidelines.
  • The formatting of the book has been loosened up. The book now also allows for a free choice of fonts on Kindles that support this.
  • The notes and bibliography sections have been expanded.
  • The section on the Phonetic Number System has been updated.
  • Various smaller improvements and corrections have been made throughout the book.

If you have already bought the book and would like to get hold of this updated version (1.1), please contact Amazon’s customer service and have them update the book in your library. I have done this successfully for several books (including this one) where I wanted to read an updated version. I usually use their chat function and they just walk me through the steps. You should not have to repurchase the book! In fact, if you delete and then repurchase the book, you will likely get the version you already had (Amazon keeps track of this).

How do you know whether you already have version 1.1? If your book doesn’t contain the line “Kindle Version 1.1” in the copyright section, you have version 1.0.

Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest Version-ImageFirst-time buyers of the book will of course automatically get the newest version (i.e., version 1.1) delivered to their Kindle and library.

Thank you very much for your feedback, your good wishes, and for supporting Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest.

Have a wonderful day!


Managing Kindle Highlights and Notes in Zotero, Evernote, and OneNote

Zotero-Kindle-highlights-Evernote-OneNoteAmazon’s Kindle allows you to highlight passages in books and take notes. Do you want to export and organize these highlights and notes, so that you can archive, review, search, and share them? Then this post is for you.

Let me put forward some suggestions on how you can save and manage a Kindle book’s annotations together with its bibliographic information in your Zotero library. We are also going to look at saving Kindle annotations in Evernote and OneNote and linking these notes to a Zotero library.  The exported annotations will allow us to jump directly to the corresponding locations in the book. For more info on Zotero, please check this post.

In the following, I use Spark!: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain, by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman to illustrate the procedure.

Let’s get started by saving the book’s bibliographic information to Zotero

  1. Find the book’s sales page on Amazon.
  2. Open your Zotero library, open the collection (here Brain Improvement) in which you want to save the book’s information and Kindle annotations, and click the book symbol:

Zotero-Amazon-Kindle-save-bibliographic-entry-1This will save the book’s bibliographic entry as an item in your Zotero library.

Next, we are going to retrieve the highlights and notes for the book

Continue reading

Syncing Zotero with Dropbox and Between Several Computers

Zotero-Dropbox-Sync-Remember-Everything-OrgIn this post I want to shed some light on how you can sync your Zotero library between different computers, and between your computer and Dropbox, a popular cloud storage service. Due to the nature of the matter, what follows is somewhat technical, but don’t let that deter you. Once setup, the synchronization works automatically in the background, without any further effort.

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero, a popular free research tool by the Roy Rosenberg Center for History and New Media of George Mason University. As a brief recap: Zotero allows you to organize all your research sources and create a complete digital library with the click of a few buttons. To learn more about this fantastic tool and why every knowledge worker should consider using it, please check this post.

Recommended approach for syncing Zotero between different computers.

Zotero allows you to synchronize everything via its own cloud storage service, Zotero Storage. “Everything” includes:

  1. the Zotero data (i.e., the database with all bibliographic information, tags, and notes)
  2. the Zotero files (i.e. attachments, such as PDF documents, videos, books, and webpage snapshots)

The basic plan (upto 300 MB) is free. 2GB will cost you $1.67 per month ($20 per year), and 6 GB set you back $5 per month ($60 per year). IMO, Zotero Storage should be your first consideration as it is very easy to setup and manage, it is affordable, and your payments support the up-keeping of the infrastructure.

There are, however, some good reasons why you might want to employ a different method to sync your Zotero files:

  1. You have a very large number of attachments or some very large attachments.
  2. You have already subscribed to a service like the popular Dropbox, and would rather avoid paying for an additional cloud storage service.
  3. You have a very slow or expensive internet connection, but have your computers connected via a local area network.
  4. You are looking for a solution to create a local backup for your files (and database).

(The database is usually below the free storage limit and should always be synchronized via Zotero’s cloud service.)

Here then are some alternative solutions you can employ: Continue reading