Things I Recommend You Buy and Use, Sam Edition

Sam Bowman began a trend in the blogosphere of recommending products, which was followed up by Rob Wiblin, Alexey Guzey and several others. While this concept might sound tacky, I have found these posts to be surprisingly useful. This is for a few reasons. First, when I get recommendations from someone I trust, I know to what extent they have a similar personality and set of preferences to me. I have very niche taste in certain areas. Second, reading reviews of a product only tells you about things you’re considering buying, not those that you haven’t thought to buy.

A recurring theme of these posts is that you should spend more time optimising things you do every day, such as brushing your teeth. You should also lower the barrier to productive and healthy habits, for instance by keeping a set of weights next to your desk. 

I am reminded of a blog post I find myself coming back to: Buy Things, Not Experiences. It argues that the common wisdom that you should spend money on experiences, not physical objects, is exactly backwards. Many people today (particularly young people) are seriously undervaluing having a nice apartment, comfortable furniture, or high-quality kitchen tools, even while splurging on nights out with friends or frequent travel. Due to Baumol’s disease, the cost of physical items in recent decades has fallen precipitously, while the cost of services has risen. Thus, the focus on spending money on experiences rather than things is a new form of conspicuous consumption. (Note: I’m not talking about people who can’t afford nice physical items. I am merely suggesting that, selfishly, some people should consider substituting their consumption away from services and toward objects.)

Without further ado, here are my project recommendations:

Physical objects

Second monitor (£100+)

Having a second monitor is a game-changer if you have a laptop, and they are relatively inexpensive. They are particularly useful for any circumstance in which you want to display your writing on one screen and your research on another. Plus, having a second monitor often nullifies the need to buy a TV. 

Stationary bike (£130)

When something gets easier, I almost always do it more, and when something gets harder, I almost always do it less. Cheap home exercise equipment seems clearly worth it even if you go to the gym instead most of the time.

Adjustable height desk (£200)

An adjustable height desk is preferable for many activities, even if you don’t care about the (alleged) health benefit – for example, I’m often so high-energy that I can’t work sitting down. I also find not being able to fully tuck my chair under my desk to be inordinately annoying. I am seriously tempted to get a treadmill desk, but I have downstairs neighbours and I’m scared of getting a noise complaint. I use this standing desk, which is good, but in retrospect the fact that the height is electrically adjustable is excessive. 

Various floss products (£4)

You almost certainly don’t floss enough, and feel bad about that fact. This is one of the best illustrations of the power of trivial inconveniences. Even if traditional wire floss is the most effective, if you are too lazy to floss, its effectiveness is irrelevant. Floss ‘harps’ are widely available and I have also seen people recommend a water flosser. I recommend experimenting with a few of these until you find one that causes you to floss at the appropriate level.  

Stannous fluoride toothpaste (£3)

I have several times heard the claim that there is a different type of toothpaste which is maybe 50% more effective than regular toothpaste – namely, toothpaste that uses stannous fluoride instead of sodium fluoride. I honestly have no idea how to evaluate these claims but it seems worth trying. Note that, after you brush with this toothpaste, you shouldn’t eat, drink, or wash out your mouth. (H/t Rob Wiblin.)

Nutritional yeast

I’ve been a vegan for over three years now. I don’t think restricting your diet is too difficult (religious people have been doing it for millennia), but it can take time to get used to food not being as flavourful. Spices, MSG, and nutritional yeast help this significantly. Nutritional yeast acts as a decent substitute for ‘flaky’ types of cheese like parmesan.

Universal travel plug (£30)

If you are travelling to a country that has a different type of plug, there is no reason not to have one of these. 

Portable charger (£18)

Portable chargers are now widely available and I have no particular opinion on which type is best. In today’s day and age, it is optional to ever have your phone die. 

Screen cleaner (£7)

It is staggering to me how many people have never cleaned the screens of any of their digital devices. This is especially disgusting considering how many people use their phones in the bathroom. I bought the first result off Amazon and it works fine.

Air filter (£50)

Depending on the air quality of wherever you live, you may not need an air filter, though it is still advisable if you have a chimney. Also, if you have an allergy to any kind of dust, hair, or pollen, you may be making yourself needlessly miserable by breathing in impure air. My main problem with air purifiers has been getting replacement filters; I have two purifiers at my parents’ house whose filters have never been replaced, and finding the right replacement filter is almost impossible on Amazon. I have no idea how to find the right type of air filter or which type works best. 

Dumbbell weights (£55)

I keep two of these weights near my bed and desk to lift when I have a spare moment or can’t be bothered going to the gym. A kettlebell would probably work just as well and maybe be more versatile. Anything near my desk will become a tool for procrastination, no matter how unpleasant. 

Chopsticks (£8)

Many types of food demand to be eaten with chopsticks, they are fun to use, and eating with them at home prevents you from embarrassed yourself in front of your friends at a restaurant. Any type will do but I have these nifty fibreglass ones.

Bluetooth speaker (£24)

There is pretty much no reason not to have a Bluetooth speaker: it is louder and sounds better than your phone or computer and greatly improves the film viewing experience. I use this simple small one from Anker but if I were doing it again I would buy the bigger model.

A physical watch (£20+)

Many of my friends get sucked into their phones after using them to check the time, and this used to happen to me too. I wear a watch from Daniel Wellington which has been serving me well for more than three and a half years.  

Kindle (£85)

Even if have a very strong preference for reading paper books, I would recommend getting a Kindle for travelling or for books you can’t find cheaply in a physical format. The highlighting feature is one of the most useful of the device and looking back on my highlights after I finish a book and writing up what I thought about them has significantly improved my retention.

Electric toothbrush

This is one of the biggest no-brainers for life improvement. I use a cheap £8 electric toothbrush from Boots and it works fine.

Software

Vanguard index fund

This is more important than everything else on this list combined. It is not widely appreciated that passively-managed index funds, which track market averages in stocks and bonds, outperform human-managed funds (net of fees). Putting your money in an index fund and not thinking about it for thirty years is close to an optimal investment strategy for many people. One of my economics professors is fond of saying that he can raise the average person’s post-retirement earnings by 30% in fifteen minutes, by telling them about exactly this. I have no particular attachment to Vanguard as a company, but I have been told they have lower fees than other comparable companies like BlackRock.  

Audible (£8)

While it technically costs £8/month, Audible tries so hard to prevent you from cancelling your subscription that you get hefty discounts. For your money, you get a book a month, and access to a library of audio lectures and shows. If you find listening to books being narrated even remotely pleasant, Audible is a no-brainer. The types of books that work best in the audio format are memoirs and detailed but not highly technical non-fiction. Audible is lightyears ahead of the competition, though you may want to check out LibriVox for free audio versions of public-domain books. 

Brilliant

Brilliant has been one of my best purchases; I use it every day to learn more about statistics, linear algebra, and other topics in maths.

Freedom (£3/month)

Freedom blocks distracting websites and apps, either on a schedule or on an ad hoc basis. You can group the distractions into categories – for example, at various times I have Twitter, email, WhatsApp or YouTube blocked. I bought a lifetime membership for £60. I’m guessing Freedom has increased my total productivity by more than 20%.

UnDistracted (free)

This free extension to Google Chrome can block distracting sites, but, more importantly, removes certain distracting features including the home page, recommended videos (on YouTube), and infinite scrolling. Twitter lost 100% of its appeal for me as soon as I blocked the feed using UnDistracted (you can still search for individual users and view their tweets). 

Waking Up (£100/year, or free)

I have found great value in this meditation app from Sam Harris. It contains lessons on the theory of meditation and on a wide range of practices, which seems to be lacking from the other major competitors. If you email the support team, they will give you a free account, no questions asked. 

Black and white phone (free)

An underrated reason why phones are so addictive is that the colour palette is chosen to be maximally compelling. I heard someone on a podcast say that his baby daughter gravitates toward phones even though she has never used one before – even without the social context, our brain wants to play with and understand such a bright and colourful object. My phone use immediately dropped about 30% after switching to a black-and-white phone, and did not recover. You can see how to turn your phone greyscale here.

Typing lessons (free)

If you cannot comfortably type at 100wpm, I would recommend using a site like 10fastfingers or keybr to improve. My mum sent me to in-person typing lessons when I was a kid, for which I’m sort of grateful, but it was needlessly awkward considering that you can get the same benefit from websites.   

Video speed controller (free)

This free extension lets you change the speed of any video in small increments. It works with an impressive variety of video formats – for example, I use it to speed up my college lectures faster than the system will allow the videos to be played. Note that if you are bothered by the speed annoyingly being displayed in the top left of the viewing window, you can turn it off in the settings.

OneTab (free)

When you press this extension, all of your tabs will snooze and collapse into a master tab list. Owing to this, I have around 300 tabs open at any time, which can be easily searched and navigated. It is also helpful for speeding up your computer; having many open tabs has been a big drain on memory for me.  

Pocket (free)

After you save articles to Pocket, you can read them in a viewer which is pared down only to text and images without ads. It also bypasses some paywalls. The pocket viewer has sufficiently many issues that I just use it to track what articles I’ve read. But even in this role, it is extremely useful; if you want to start a blog or send musings to your friends, it is helpful to have a reminder of what you have read.  

AdBlock (free)

Nowadays, most major newspaper websites are smart enough to know you have an adblocker and make you disable it before proceeding. And web design now has so much unpleasantness which has nothing to do with advertising. Given this, I don’t get much value from the adblocks I’ve tried, though I do find great value in Adblock for YouTube.

Spectacle 

There may be a way to set shortcuts on a Mac without the use of a third-party app, but I don’t know it. The latest versions of MacOS have a clumsy split-screen feature, but it is vastly inferior to having shortcuts which are assigned to fill the left side of your screen with a window, the right side, and to full-screen it. 

Bitwarden (free)

Bitwarden is an open-source password manager. A major source of needless misery is people setting weak passwords, or setting the same passwords across multiple websites. You should check Have I Been Pwned to see if your email or password has appeared in any data breaches (answer: probably yes). Wiblin strongly recommends buying a universal two-factor authentication key, but that is getting into the territory of security measures that actually inconvenience you. Password managers make your life easier. iOS and Google Chrome also now have built-in password managers in which strong passwords that you never have to remember or even see are suggested.

Data backup (£1/month)

I have my files backed up to iCloud drive. My Google Drive desktop app was retired in January, and I haven’t been bothered to switch to their newer app. I also use Google Photos to back up my photos.

Anki (free)

Anki is probably the most famous example of a spaced repetition system. This is based on the idea, which goes back to psychologist Ebbinghaus, that memory decays exponentially, and that, every time you are reminded of something, the exponential restarts and decays more slowly. This, and related ideas, implies that the optimal studying strategy is to study information progressively less frequently after you learn it: for example, revising something after a day, a week, a month, then a year. Anki does this for you and adapts how long the cards are spaced out based on how difficult you found the cards to recall. Spaced repetition is one of the few educational interventions we can be sure actually works. For more on this topic, I recommend the work of Andy Matuschak

VPN

You should note that the benefits of VPNs have been greatly overstated. However, there are still many reasons to use one, and you should certainly get one if you are doing anything sketchy on the internet, e.g. pirating films. VPNs also allow you to view websites as if you are viewing them from a different country, which increases streaming options a lot. I’ve been using NordVPN and it’s working exceedingly smoothly so far.

[A side note: All my links are to smile.amazon.co.uk, which donates 0.5% of the value of your order to charity, at zero cost for you. As far as I can tell there is no catch, and they do this for marketing purposes. I recommend setting your supporting charity to the Against Malaria Foundation.] 

3 thoughts on “Things I Recommend You Buy and Use, Sam Edition”

  1. Thanks for the recommendations!

    While I’ve been happy with my productivity as of late, I still struggle with spending time too much time on my phone. Per your recommendation, I just switched my phone to grayscale and the effect is immediate: my phone is sooo boring to look at now. This feels like it could be a really positive change.

    “A recurring theme of these posts is that you should spend more time optimising things you do every day, such as brushing your teeth. You should also lower the barrier to productive and healthy habits, for instance by keeping a set of weights next to your desk.”

    I’ve had this exact same realization. The things we do everyday are exactly the things that can provide large value due to compounding value over time. So why are we so mediocre at everyday tasks?

    My theory is that it’s because human beings are natural *satificers*, not *maximizers*. Humans are very responsive to negative feedback, but not very responsive to counterfactual positive feedback. It makes sense from a design standpoint: we only have finite resources/attention, so it makes sense to focus on things we know can be improved. But in general, people don’t experiment enough with their daily routine to see what works for them.

    To get concrete: learning how to touch type (at the age of twenty-one–a fairly late age) is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s the first recommendation I would make to anyone who has to type for a living (which is most knowledge workers). And I wouldn’t have taught myself if I weren’t in an active self-improvement mindset: “What daily skills can I improve at that would make the biggest difference?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I keep hearing people recommending index funds, then I look into it and become scared of how to deal with the tax administration. Did you have anything specific to do?

    Like

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