You want to be more focused, efficient and in control of your day? Me too! but I'm not innately a super organized person, so it take a lot of work and effort on my part to stay organized, more productive and ultimately motivated.

I've come up with a list of cheap items that help me be more productive, do more of what matters and less of what doesn't. Hope you enjoy it!

1. Noise cancelling headsets

Since I started working from home, my office mates are two cute and noisy children. My significant other is often chattering away on Zoom calls in a nearby room. So I needed a high quality, comfortable noise cancelling headset with a long battery life (at least 10 hours) and it needed to come with Bluetooth features.

I'mfan of Creative's original Sound Blaster Jam headphones that came out in 2015 and had a decidedly retro look and feel, with good sound for the money. Now they're available in a 2.0 version that has some key upgrades, including Bluetooth 5.0, USB-C charging, improved call quality and multipoint Bluetooth pairing that allows you to pair it to two devices simultaneously. Battery life is rated at up to 22 hours.

I was able to pair the headphones with a Mac Mini and an iPhone 12 Pro and then switch audio between them. Often when pairing Bluetooth headphones with Mac and Windows PCs, one can encounter some issues, but once I got the headphones paired with both my PC and phone, they made a good pair of work-from-home headphones.

2. Chrometa time blocking

"Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure." — Cal Newport

This picture is worth a thousand words. I use Chrometa to remind me when a time block is starting or about to end. Chrometa can also send me a notification whenever I'm working on something that is not on my time block.

Chrometa time blocking
Chrometa time blocking

3. Notepad and pen

Over the years, I have searched for and tried many note taking apps. Simple ones like Word, Wordpad and Google docs. Sophisticated apps like Evernote, OneNote and even a private blog. They're all great when it comes to categorizing my notes, sharing with other people, transferring from a device to another one. But I like to take notes using the Cornell Note Taking System and all these app lack a smooth interface for sketching and drawing.

About two years ago I did a 180 and went back to pen and paper. It's easy, quick, versatile and cheap. I can write notes, draw diagrams, add colors and even use templates.

My handwriting improved with practice since I was tired of not being able to read my notes from the day before.

If a note is important, I take a photo with my phone and upload to Google Drive.

The one thing I can't do is search for a keyword. But that's a small disadvantage compared to the benefits of pen and paper.

4. Audible subscription

Whenever I'm standing in line, commuting to work, working out at an easy pace or doing anything that does not require lots of focus, I listen to audiobooks. This saves me tons of time as I find many books to be easy to listen to. Being an avid reader I'd rather sit down and enjoy reading a book, especially a hard cover book, but some days can get crazy and i's downright impossible to take time just for reading.

I was also surprised how much you can get from a book by just listening to the audio version. This does not work for all books but for far more than I expected. I particularly like non-fiction books and they are a great fit for audiobooks.

5. Yoga Mat

A Yoga mat is not just for yoga. I can do all sorts of bodyweight exercises: 100+ versions of pushups, sit-ups, burpees or take a nap if I'm really tired.

A yoga mat is light, easy to store, easy to clean and cheap: I got mine at $15

6. Amazon Workspaces

I often find myself having to test Chrometa on different operating systems and versions: Windows 10, Mac BigSur, Catalina.... In the past, I had two machines, a PC and a Mac and I ran my tests on each device. But soon it got more complicated: How to stay on my current Mac version and test on a beta version that my users will use in 3 months? If I find a bug or a regression, I still want to keep my stable environment. So I switched to dual boot machines: On the PC/Mac startup, I would choose an OS and a specific version, for example, Mac Catalina. This was a better option than two real machines but I had to restart each time I needed to test something and go through the installation of each update as a separate virtual machine. This requires tons of space (50 to 80Go) for each virtual machine and lots of maintenance. I was doing more and more DevOps and less and less product development.

Enter Amazon Workspaces!

Simply put, Amazon Worspace is a 'desktop' that is hosted by Amazon and that you can connect to through a 'VPN' kind of client:

First you go to Amazon Worspace, create a new desktop, select an operating system and a version.

Now from your real machine, launch the client and tada!: you are connected to a remote desktop and you can perform all kind of actions: testing, developing, writing documents....

Creating a desktop takes about 20 minutes, yes 20 minutes! and you only pay for your hourly usage.

There are different plans (including MS Office bundles). I just need the basic plan for $7/month

7. NordVPN

This one is a no-brainer: connect to your PC and Mac from anywhere in the world (provided a good internet connection). You can be at home, in the car (with a phone) or by the pool and still connect to your company's network and access your devices remotely. The VPN architecture makes your data secure and encrypted, even after it leaves the VPN. With a VPN, it's as if you drive from your house into an underground tunnel, into a closed parking garage, switch to a different car, and drive out. No one who was originally following you knows where you went.

There are many great options for a VPN solution: ExpressVPN, IPVAnish, CyberGhost... but I had to settle on NordVPN: It’s not often that a VPN has cheap prices coupled with an excellent set of features and yet NordVPN's offer is exactly that. It offers a huge global network of servers, unblocks hundreds of streaming platforms, and has iron-clad security and privacy features — and you can get it all for just $3.71/month.

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