OPINION: Everyone needs some way to stay on track. Whether you're trying to stick to new year's resolutions or preparing for a new school year, here's some tech to help out.
Ever find yourself using someone else's computer? Whether you're at an internet cafe or staying with Auntie Lorraine, there's nothing quite like having your own apps and settings with you. That's where portable apps come in. It's straightforward to set up: all you need is a USB flash drive, which will set you back less than $20 for four to eight gigabytes of storage. That's enough capacity to not only hold a stack of photos and documents, but also your favourite programs.
Portable apps aren't quite the same as regular software programs, they need to be designed to run off a USB stick and they also need a tool to manage them. You can get both the specially designed versions of software and the management tool from portableapps.com.
Essentially, you install the portableapps tool on to your USB flash drive, and then launch it. It will help you to find and install web browsers, chat software, email clients, and much more. For example, on my USB stick, I have portableapps. When I am at a friend's house, I can plug in my USB flash drive, run portable apps and then use it to launch Chrome, Skype, Dropbox and more, with all my favourites, settings and files intact. I like the security of not having to ever log in on someone else's computer.
GET MOTIVATED WITH GAMES
In the last couple of weeks, two apps have come to my attention that help you achieve your goals. One is a web app called HabitRPG (free), and one is an app for iPhone called Epic Win ($4.29). Both of these programs let you enter in habits or tasks you want to complete (whether one-off events or daily activities) and as you tick them off you get points, skills and gear in a roleplaying game. You essentially level up your character by fulfilling chores. I've been trying out HabitRPG with points for good habits such as drinking a glass of water and walking to work, and scoring for each time I complete my daily goal of reading a short story and going for a run. I think it could be useful for household chores, study and keeping those new year's resolutions.
If you're not into roleplaying games, you can get the same kind of visual motivation with Chains at, which lets you plug in regular tasks and get the satisfaction of seeing the chain of success grow. It works on Jerry Seinfeld's productivity "secret", which is "don't break the chain" - keep doing what you're doing.
Last year, I started learning Japanese by podcast. This year, I'm thinking about taking some classes in modern European history. Taking a course at university, or any kind of further study, has never been easier. Initiatives such as Open Courseware mean that centres of learning and higher education worldwide are opening their doors, putting their course materials online and allowing everyone the opportunity to participate. If you want to find a course, a good spot to start is ocwconsortium.org, although many universities, in the US at least, put their open courseware courses at their site prefixed by ocw, such as ocw.mit.edu.
Whitireia and other New Zealand universities also offer online options for many of their courses. It really depends on how much commitment you want as to whether enrolling for a course or just browsing the course materials is more your style.
And if you like your learning really casual, but fun, you can try something like the Crash Course series on YouTube - there's a series on history and a series on biology, at present, and both are entertaining. YouTube is not all lighthearted and whimsical, though, it has a lot of serious educational material uploaded: just take a look at youtube.com/education for lectures from the likes of Open University, videos on how to use prepositions, and more.
Zara Baxter edits New Zealand PC World and has reviewed gadgets for 15 years.