Productivity is important, as we all know. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you want to live to the fullest, you'd best make the most of them.
However, we all apparently have some odd ideas, as a survey sponsored by software vendor Workfront and conducted by Harris Poll showed last summer. In particular, 81 percent of the respondents thought they were by far more productive on the job than their co-workers, managers, leaders, and direct reports. And when every person thinks he or she is the best, almost everyone is wrong.
In other words, we could all use some help being productive--which means getting the most for your time, money, and other resources. And so, here's what seems to have become my annual productivity gift guide. Vendors sent samples to review, and, as was true last year, not all made the cut. In fact, there were so many this time around that some items will appear in a home office makeover roundup that will come out next month.
Here is this year's crop of productivity booster gifts.
Meals in a Hurry When the Pressure's On
Getting more out of being at home is just as important as charging up your work performance. Start with the kitchen and the task of getting meals together. The All-Clad PC8-Precision Stovetop Pressure Cooker ($299) is controlled electronically, a new take on the old idea of a pressure cooker, which can cut the cooking time of many dishes in half. You get the ingredients ready (which can include browning in this stovetop cooker), add the recommended amount of liquid, put on the top, and set the digital timer. It will tell you when the cooker is up to pressure so you can lower the heat, when to turn off the heat and release the pressure, and then when to open the top and server dinner. It's well put together, as you might expect from All-Clad, and works terrifically: We got a pot roast done in about an hour. One downside is that the instructions aren't always all that clear. (One of the images for the English instructions showed some of the French labeling.) But it's easy enough to figure out. It also comes apart easily for cleaning.
Conveniently Cook Like Top Restaurants
A growing home kitchen technology is immersion cooking, also known as sous vide, where food goes into a plastic bag and cooks under controlled temperatures. Restaurants have been using it for years. Basically, it's sophisticated boil-in-a-bag. You set a specific temperature in the water, and over time the food comes up to temperature and stays there. So, if you don't get to your soft-boiled eggs for another 10 minutes--or an hour or two--they're still fine. Food won't brown, so if you want a steak (yes, many restaurants cook them this way), you get edge-to-edge identical color. Then you take it out, brown the outside, and you're set.
You will need a pot at least 4.5 inches deep. The Anova Precision Cooker has wireless control or directly on the device ($129 for the Bluetooth version, $199 for Wi-Fi). A clamp holds the heater/circulator unit in place, and you use ziplock bags, separately available, clipped to the side of the pot, to hold the food. This was another device where the manual seemed a little off. For example, to set the timer, the manual said to hold the main button for eight seconds and then press the timer. Only, holding the main button for three seconds reset the units from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Simply pressing the timer button did the trick. So, plan on a little experimentation, but nothing too annoying.
Or you can go more upscale with a SousVide Supreme. The units are self-contained with a closed top, so no chance of splashing hot water or coming in contact with the heater. A rack lets you load multiple pouches (presumably of the same food or different dishes that need the same temperature). There are special pouches that you vacuum seal so there's no chance of water leaking in. The larger unit is currently sold out (as of the middle of December), but you can get the smaller version--which will still do 12 four-ounce portions--along with the vacuum sealer as a package ($419).
Omega is a big name in juicers, and if you want to turn fresh produce into its drinkable form, try the company's Twin Gear model ($499) that uses dual augers to chew up food, meaning slower speeds and less resulting heat to burn off nutrients. It's good for fruit or vegetables. You can even make your own almond or soy milk--get what you want without the additives that can find their way into some commercial products. Some experienced users suggest cutting hard produce such as beets or carrots into smaller thin pieces so they go through the machine more easily. My suggestion is to realize the manual doesn't show how to set up the pulp and juice receptacle correctly under the juicer. (Hint: Juice receptacle goes next to the machine, with the larger pulp container next, further away from the machine.) Another suggestion: Beet, carrot, and apple make a great combo.
2. Personal Business
Steam Away Wrinkles
Ever take out a suit, jacket, or some other good piece of clothing to find it wrinkled? Forget hanging it up in the bathroom and running a hot shower. (I tried that over a couple of years when traveling and was never impressed with the results.) Instead, use a Rowenta X-Cel Steam Handheld Steamer ($70). In about a minute, the steam is coming out. You move the device across the clothing and gently ease out the wrinkles.
Take Notes in the Shower
A basic productivity and creativity tenet is that you'll sometimes get your best ideas in the shower. Next time, make sure you have AquaNotes ($7 for one pad) on the wall. Waterproof paper and pencil, like scuba divers sometimes use, make sure you don't have to remember that eureka moment. Sadly, the suction cups don't hold all that well, so best to find a ledge or spot to leave the paper and pencil.
Fix, Don't Replace
A final suggestion for home is two different products that perform the same function. Bondic ($22 for a starter kit) and Sugru (starter kit is $15) are each a system for repairing things, like wood putty for the rest of the world. Bondic uses a UV light to cure (the kit includes one), so it stays liquid until you're ready. Once it sets, you can sand it. Sugru, on the other hand, is like putty and sets in 30 minutes after exposure to air. What you get is flexible silicone that can stick items together, repair things glue usually won't touch, such as frayed cable ends, and manage temperatures between -58 degrees and 356 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the websites to get ideas of how to use either.
3. Mobile Phone and Tablet
There are some great items for improving life with phone. Leef has smart memory add-ons for smartphones. For example, the Bridge/iBridge for Android/iOS ($30 to $70 for Android and $60 to $400 for iOS, depending on amount of memory) is a USB flash drive that works with your phone. You can add storage or move files between your phone and another device, like a computer. The Access/iAccess microSD card reader ($13 for Android and $50 for iOS) is another way to expand memory or transfer material.
External Power Boost
What's even worse than running out of memory? Running out of power, because then you're even out of workarounds. About a year ago, I purchased a Lenovo 5000mAh Portable Power for Tablets or Smartphones ($13.32 is the web price as of mid-December). It's thin, cased in metal, about the height and width of a cell phone, and recharges your handset really fast. Having a power backup that effective is great.
If you've ever needed to share video or images sitting on a smartphone or tablet, you'll appreciate the RIF6 Cube Projector ($299). It's a two-inch cube--really small--that can throw a 120-inch, 854x480 image and has a built-in speaker. The LED lighting lasts more than 20,000 hours, according to the specs, and you can connect to an iOS or Android device though micro USB, HDMI, or MHL connections.
Find Your Phone or Use Your Phone to Find Something Else
Your phone can also be of help if you keep losing something like your keys--or the phone, by forgetting to grab it as you leave someplace. For each there's a solution. Tile ($25 for one; price per unit drops as you order more) is a fob that you attach to something like your keys that you're likely to misplace. Download the app, pair the fob to Bluetooth on your phone, and then if you can't find your keys (or wallet or bag or what have you), use the app to have the fob play a loud tone. Can't find your phone? Press the right spot on the Tile fob to get your phone to ring.
Ditto ($40) is another Bluetooth alerting device. Pair it with your phone and if you walk out of range for a predetermined amount of time, it starts to vibrate. You can wear it on a strap or clip it to your clothing. You can also create a list of people whose communications are a priority. Ditto lets you work away, keeping your phone on mute, and then gives you a nudge when there's a call or text from someone on the list. To keep from running out of power, I loosened the clip part that covers the battery well.
Learn a Language on the Go
While you're on the move, instead of playing the latest game craze, whatever it is, you could instead do something productive like learning a language. For example, Babbel.com (anywhere from $7 to $13 a month, depending on how long a subscription you get) has language lessons you can use from a browser or the downloadable app. You can start by learning hello, how are you, what is your name, thanks, and other basic elements of polite chitchat, and then move on from there. Learn on the go, and get something valuable instead of killing time.
Smart Key Carrier
Carry your keys in your pocket? Tired of getting stabbed by them? KeySmart (starting at $20) is an adjustable metal sheath that can hold multiple keys that you can flip out, like the parts of a Swiss Army knife, to open or run what you need. There's a loop/bottle opener combo to which you can attach a car fob. Get a higher capacity carrier (longer screws at each end) to add a USB drive or even more keys.
Combo Passport Holder and Wallet
Traveling internationally? Carrying a wallet and a passport is annoying. Now you've occupied two pockets. But the Eyerusalem Passport Wallet ($35) lets you carry that passport, some credit cards, and cash in the same holder. This and other leather products are made by women in Ethiopia, who, the company claims, are then able to start making positive changes in their lives.
Portable AC/USB Power Source
Although a bit too heavy to persuade me to bring it onto an airplane (I try only to handle carry-ons), the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet ($90 to $150 on sale, depending on the capacity you want) is smart if you're traveling in a car or working remotely in less than optimum circumstances. It's basically a large rechargeable battery with circuitry that lets you provide power through two USB ports or to switch to AC power through a three-pronged plug. Ever find yourself working in a car or rest stop and running out of power on a laptop with no welcoming outlet? Now you've got one.
Great Travel Pillows
When traveling for business, there are plenty of times you need to catch rest wherever and whenever you can. A travel pillow is great to have, but many, while comfortable, are large and you may not want to snap them around the handle of wheeled luggage while heading from one gate to another. Both the Travelrest ($40) and Evolution ($35) pillows are made of memory foam--quite comfortable, with the Travelrest feeling a little softer. The Evolution comes with foam earplugs and a pocket to stash a phone. Each compresses down into a sack to about a quarter of its inflated size, or small enough to stuff into some luggage to pull out later when you need it.