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I’m a big fan of frugality and being a minimal little wisp, but only insofar as it lets you load up on the rare things that fill life with joy. My position is that consumer capitalism is awesome—you just have to make it your bitch, instead of the other way around.
So here’s a list of the rare tools, practices, products, and services that I use and love. I’m always on the lookout for more of these, but the bar is set high. Note that it’s impossible to give universally good recommendations (caveats). But it should be a decent starting point.
Some of these companies offer commissions for referrals. I’ve added the relevant links where available, if you want to support the blog at no additional cost to you. I don’t think this has affected my judgment, but you should take it into account anyway.
Finally, I’ve noted some areas where I’d especially like to hear recommendations, and the comments will remain permanently open. Deep Dish readers introduced me to some of my favourite things, so please chime in and tell everyone what’s good!
Transferwise for money transfers
I use the free Borderless Account to pay/get paid in any of 40+ different currencies, as well as send money between countries (I’m in Mexico at the time of writing, paying my rent in pesos). This eliminates a bunch of fees, and means I get the actual mid-market exchange rate, instead of getting ripped off by brokers.
I’m also in the process of signing up for their debit card, which will give me free overseas ATM withdrawals up to a point, and pay with any of my currency balances.
Excel/Google Sheets for tracking expenses
I’ll polish up and publicly release my expense spreadsheet at some point. I strongly recommend DIY tracking over screen-scraping apps, because doing it manually forces you to eyeball your spending habits. But it’s also a time suck: it’s more of a useful exercise to do for a month or two, before switching to an automated solution.
Excel/Google Sheets for net worth
Net worth is one of the few non-bullshit financial metrics, and lots of people seem to like my home-baked spreadsheet. You can get a free copy by joining my mailing list (if you only want the sheet, just unsubscribe afterwards).
Passive index funds for investing
I’ve explained why trying to beat the stock market by picking stocks is futile here, here, and here, culminating in this big-ass defense of the efficient-market hypothesis. The ‘conservative’ half of my portfolio is in boring index funds, and will be for the next several decades.
Vanguard for low-cost index funds
Vanguard is a non-profit with monstrous economies of scale, which means its fees start from 0.05 per cent (~20 times cheaper than your typical active fund). While it offers every flavour of diversified index fund and ETF under the sun, I like the mutual funds which let you set up a dripfeed to steadily invest into the entire S&P 500 (e.g. VFIAX) or the entire world (e.g. VTWAX).
If Vanguard doesn’t have a branch in your country, you’ll have to use an international broker or invest through a middleman. For New Zealanders: I use Superlife to channel my KiwiSaver funds into Vanguard.
Asymmetric edges for speculative investing
I’ve outlined the barbell strategy I use to get exposure to non-linear returns here, and my strategies for ‘black swan hunting’ are included in Part IV of my upcoming book. I recommend most people don’t do this, including myself, but it would be hypocritical not to at least mention it.
Bogleheads sheet for tracking portfolio returns
…one more spreadsheet, this time from the Jack Bogle acolytes. I use this to calculate my internal rate of return (IRR), comparable portfolio return, returns for the year to date, 3 years, 5 years, etc. If you’re an active investor, and you want to keep yourself honest about whether you’re actually beating the relevant benchmarks, it’s crucial to keep a proper record of performance.
Exercise and Fitness
Calisthenics + weights for resistance training
Resistance training is massively underrated compared to other types of exercise: it improves metabolic health, insulin sensitivity, strengthens bones, allows for a more flexible diet, and generally acts as a force multiplier in every domain (more).
I’ve been practicing calisthenics for several years, and love it. It costs next to nothing, gives a maximum of results with a minimum of time and effort, is challenging and rewarding, and about as minimalist as it gets.
The only shortcoming is that it’s not great for the lower body. There’s no substitute for heavy barbell squats and deadlifts, so I throw them in whenever I get the chance.
Constant movement for ‘cardio’
I loathe cardio, and do as little as possible—just enough that my resting heart rate and VO2 max don’t stray too far from my target range. If you feel the same way, good news! By pairing short, sharp resistance training with tons of natural movement throughout the day—walking or cycling everywhere, taking the stairs, lots of stretching and fiddling, active hobbies—you can skip it altogether.
If this isn’t possible, the most effective types of deliberate cardio seem to be swimming and spinning (stationary bike). There’s no need for intense interval training, unless you enjoy it—I maintain a relatively sedate 130 bpm while I watch TV or listen to a podcast or whatever.
(Doing whatever you happen to enjoy is far and away the most important factor for compliance, and overrides all of the above.)
Gymnastic rings for calisthenics
As a general rule, you want wood over plastic, thick over thin (1.1″ are for competition or people with really small hands), and heavy-duty straps with plenty of redundancy, since you’re gonna be dangling from them head-first over the ground. The Titan rings I use aren’t in stock right now, but these ones look good.
Resistance band for stretching, rehab, high-rep work
I have a mid-strength green band. If you want to push the boat out, you could get two colours.
Fitbit Charge 3 for sleep and heart rate tracking
I am a gigantic, unrepentant Fitbit wanker. I love this thing so freakin’ much. It tracks my sleep, my heart rate, my VO2 max, my pace. It has GPS mapping. It’s waterproof. The battery lasts a full week.
I sleep with it, eat with it, uh..do other things with it. What gets measured gets managed, people!
Plantronics Backbeat Fit for training
They’re sweatproof, have eight hours of battery life, and never fall out, even when I’m upside down. Amazon reviews are divided because of reliability issues—I had a problem with my first pair, and they replaced the whole headset.
These are good for sports but I’m also thinking of buying noise-cancelling earphones for planes, working in cafes, etc. If anyone has recommendations, let me know.
16-8 fasts for caloric restriction
Every successful diet works insofar as it manages the balance of calories coming in vs calories going out. Everything else is personal preference, i.e. whatever makes it possible to keep it up for literally the rest of your life. This is why super restrictive diets like keto are bonkers for the vast majority of people.
Personally, my preferred method of caloric restriction is daily intermittent fasting which limits my food intake to an eight-hour window (there are more important reasons than body composition, as detailed in the Health section).
Plant-based diet for reducing suffering
There is no evidence that a vegetarian diet is superior to an omnivorous diet. But I strongly recommend a plant-based diet for ethical reasons, which I will lay out in an effortpost some time when I’m feeling too happy and want to make everyone mad at me.
SMASH fish and oysters for living forever
There is some evidence that mostly eating plants but occasionally eating certain types of seafood is better than any other diet, and supplementation doesn’t seem to give the same effects.
For this reason, I try to remember to occasionally eat the SMASH fish: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring. Raw, steamed or baked to preserve the good oil; never fried.
There’s a strong case that even vegans should eat oysters, since they don’t have a nervous system, farming them is good for the environment, and they’re highly nutritious.
80/20 diet for mental bandwidth
I am the kind of weirdo who is perfectly happy to eat variations on the same meals hundreds of times in a row. This minimises prep time, grocery shopping, and decision fatigue, while maximising taste and nutrition.
I love eating out and cooking, but I don’t want to do it all the time—following this template also gives me that much more appreciation for the 20 per cent of meals that are non-standard.
Cronometer for nutrient tracking
I have a pretty good intuitive sense of how to eat, which comes from spending a lot of time tracking calories and nutrients in the past.
This is an eye-opening and useful exercise, but you sure wouldn’t want to do it forever. These days, I just plug my meal plans into Cronometer as a kind of sanity check once in a while to make sure I’m covering all the bases.
Kirkland protein bars
OK, this one is probably just personal preference. But I frickin’ love the house-brand Costco protein bars, and they’re only a buck each when you buy the big packs.
Health and Supplements
Broad-spectrum sunscreen for anti-aging
Other than ‘don’t smoke’ and ‘have good genetics’, this is pretty much the whole secret to preventing wrinkles and aging skin. Make sure it’s a broad-spectrum cream (protects against UVA and UVB rays), at least SPF 30, and water resistant. Wear it religiously every day, even when it’s cloudy or winter.
Women are reading this like ‘…duh?’ but no-one tells menfolk these things! I only found out a couple of years ago, by which time I’d already done a bunch of damage. Whoops.
I’m happy with this Cetaphil moisturiser/sunblock but it’s a bit heavy, so I’m open to other recommendations.
Sunlight for Vitamin D
Vitamin D is super important for hormonal health and fighting illness, and half the frickin’ world is deficient. Natural sun exposure has been massively curtailed by a combination of indoor work, skin cancer fears, and people living at different latitudes than their ancestors did.
How to reconcile this with the advice about aging? I only sunblock my face on a day-to-day basis, and try to wear as few clothes as social norms will allow. The best time to get the ‘D is when the sun is directly overhead: here’s a timing guide to make sure you’re getting enough without burning.
The paler you are, less time you need, and the darker, the more. If you’re dark-skinned and live in gloomy latitudes, you should definitely consider oral supplementation. (If you know a good brand, drop it in the comments.)
Retinoids for rejuvenating damaged skin
As far as I can tell, topical Vitamin A is the only anti-aging treatment that isn’t bullshit—it turns over damaged cells, boosts collagen production, and evens out pigmentation.
The prescription formulations (e.g. Retin-A) are more effective than retinol, but you have to start very slowly, use a low concentration, only apply at night, and expect things to get worse before they get better—results only arrive after 6 or 12 months. Seriously: be careful, I am not a doctor, etc.
Sleep mask for blocking light
I use a simple one like this, but I’m open to suggestions (it works fine to get me to sleep, then slips off during the night). A mask is a no-brainer for sleep hygiene, along with things like maintaining regular bedtimes, a cold room, no LED lights, filtering blue light before bed—use Night Shift on Mac and equivalent on Android—and earplugs if it’s noisy.
Fasting for longevity
I’ve fasted for 16 hours a day—pretty much ‘skipping breakfast’—for years. But more recently, I’ve also started doing periodic water fasts for five to seven days at a time. I’m in the process of writing a big guide as to why I think this is promising, but the short answer is that it might help to purge pre-cancerous cells and reset metabolic damage.
Sauna for cognitive and cardiovascular health
The research on sauna bathing is also super promising. There’s not enough room to list the benefits here, but the key takeaway is that it closely mimics exercise—it’s like doing cardio, except you’re sitting on your ass!
No surprise that I love saunas, and use them every opportunity I get. Rhonda Patrick, one of my favourite researchers, has a thorough review here which includes safety practices.
Modafinil for alertness
Almost everything in the category of ‘nootropics and supplements’ is suspect: it’s hard to find a magical smart pill, because Mother Nature rarely misses the trick. The most promising applications are a) plugging nutritional deficiencies, and b) stimulants.
Stimulants broadly let you move your attention span around—to ‘choose’ when to be tired—but are still probably zero-sum, i.e. there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
My favourite stimulant is caffeine; my second favourite is modafinil. Here’s gwern: “few stimulants come close to modafinil’s overall package of being a long-lasting, safe, effective, non-mood-altering, quasi-legal stimulant.”
I take 50-100mg when I’ve slept badly and need to function at a high level. Modafinil is a lifesaver after a big night, but I don’t think it improves my performance, so much as brings me back to baseline (200mg feels ‘speedy’ and gives me the bad kind of tunnel vision).
Note that it’s a controlled substance in e.g. the UK, US and New Zealand: I’m lucky enough to spend most of my time in countries with less infantilising states.
Melatonin for sleep quality and onset
Melatonin locks in a regular circadian rhythm and improves the quality of sleep. gwern estimates that it saves about an hour, e.g. he sleeps 7 hours but wakes up as refreshed as if he got 8. This seems about right to me.
The dosage and timing requires some trial and error. Scott Alexander has a whole post on this, in which he points out the optimal dose is 0.3mg, which is waaay smaller than the usual tablets. I buy 1mg ones and cut them up.
Again, incredibly, this is prescription-only in some places, including the UK and NZ.
Creatine for cognition and physical endurance
This is like the one sports supplement that has been tested up the wazoo, unambiguously works (apart from genetic non-responders), and is cheap as chips. It helps me squeeze out a few more reps on each set, but the main reason I take it is that it also has some cognitive benefits, and vegetarians are more likely to be deficient.
Knowledge and Productivity
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I’d rather join the Amish than go back to the bloated mess that is Windows. Chromebooks are still my favourite on a bang-for-buck basis, but I’m slowly coming round to macOS.
??? for smartphone
I’m looking for a new phone with a decent camera, so I can retire my Sony point-and-shoot and reduce the friction for taking photos.
My only requirements are: 1) good camera, 2) long-ass battery, 3) Android OS, 4) as little bloatware as possible. I will update this once I’ve done the research and picked a successor, but in the meantime, please hit me with your suggestions. Pixel 3A?
Roam Research for deconstruction and synthesis
The mothership. My beating heart. Massive conflict of interest: the founders are my friends, I helped out in various small ways, and am both metaphorically and literally heavily invested in the project.
I use Roam for all my research and writing projects—note-taking, Zettelkasten, idea generation, tickler files, structuring, task management—as well as all my personal stuff—lists, journaling, workouts, experimentation, groceries. I feel like I pretty much live inside my Roam database at this point.
Roam is priced on the premium end. If you’re a writer, student, researcher, or creative, you obviously shouldn’t pinch pennies on having the right tools. For most people, a kludge of free services is probably fine. I muddled through with Evernote and Google Docs previously, but this is just a whole different beast (more thoughts on competitors at the end of the Zettelkasten guide).
Zettelkasten for ideas sex
Several years ago, I noticed that after reading a fantastic book or blog post, I’d struggle to remember anything about it. Maybe I’d recall the vague outline, or a snippet. But mostly, all those ideas slipped out of my colander-brain.
So I started a methodical system of note-taking—a practice called Zettelkasten—which profoundly changed my life as a reader and as a writer. I’m now coming up on 10,000 notes and ideas going back six years, all of which are interconnected. This is my single most treasured possession, and my secret sauce as a writer, to the extent that I have any.
Zettelkasten + Roam is a match made in heaven, and I’ve got an effortpost
coming soon (update: here it is).
Freedom.to for blocking distractions
I tried so many tools of this nature—StayFocusd, Leechblock, etc—but I always found a way to get around them. Unlike the others, Freedom syncs across all platforms and devices, and makes it impossible for me to self-sabotage. Thinking about the ROI, this has got to be the best $20 I’ve ever spent.
Kindle Paperwhite for reading
Yeah, it’s never as good as the dead-tree version. But if I hadn’t caved and finally got a Kindle, I would read a whole lot less. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
It’s much easier to slip in your pocket or bag than a hefty hardback. You can read in the dark, on a plane, on a train. You can hold a George R.R Martin tome over your face without the risk of caving in your skull.
You can also buy any book from Amazon with a single click, and be thumbing through it one minute later. This kind of convenience is dangerous, but I never feel the slightest pang of guilt at spending money on books.
Getting Things Done for task management
David Allen’s classic productivity system is all about closing open loops in the brain. This could just as well be listed under the ‘mental health’ section: without a triage system, I quickly get overwhelmed, endlessly ruminate on the same things, and generally run around like a headless chicken.
Some people will find it stifling, or too time-consuming to be worthwhile. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. Allen’s book is a bit anachronistic (written decades ago, tokenly updated for the digital age). I wrote a guide to using Roam for GTD, which is my condensed take on how the system works.
Anki for remembering stuff
Did you know there’s an optimal algorithm for learning and revising new things? It’s called ‘spaced repetition’, and it’s a small crime that it’s not used in every classroom.
Anki is my favourite spaced repetition software. It’s free, it has an Android app, and a bunch of public decks for download. I have ~8000 flashcards which I’ve mostly used for language learning, but am planning to expand into a bunch of other areas. Will write a post on this at some point; in the meantime, here’s Michael Nielsen.
(Besides the obvious stuff like exercise, diet, sleep, and social medicine)
Roam for gratitude journaling
It might sound cheesy, but practicing gratitude is one of the few positive psychology interventions that really works. I do this by reflecting on a few things I’m grateful for at the end of each day.
Any medium is fine. The cool thing about using Roam in particular is that it automatically builds a repository of warm fuzzies—I can filter by person, topic, timeframe, or any other factor, and see who or what is improving my life (example here).
Cognitive behavioral therapy for bad feels
I usually resolve stressful life events through freeform writing, which has its own well-studied benefits. But I sometimes also use CBT-style prompts to get the words flowing. Rob Wiblin shared some checklists that I find especially useful—both for overcoming career and life setbacks, and times when you feel someone has wronged you.
Sample item: “What would I say to someone else if this happened to them? Presumably not “I suggest you… feel bad 👌”.
Pixel chart for mood tracking
I made this sheet to start taking more notice of my mood, and collect information on how it changes over time. I’m not convinced that the mere act of tracking is all that useful, but
the chart sure is pretty! I’m planning to eventually crunch this data and see if I can find any patterns, at which point I’ll report back with my findings.
Stoicism for equanimity
The cool thing about Stoicism is that it lets macho guys proudly talk about doing therapy, except they get to call it ‘philosophy’ and change their profile pictures to busts of Roman statesmen, etc.
I don’t do any kind of explicit practice, but I’ve read the Stoic texts enough that the main principles (which were the precursor to CBT) now often automatically come to mind when I’m getting mad.
Siteground for web hosting
These guys are consistently voted the best hosting service. They have lots of free services, like SSL certificates and automatic WordPress updates, and have been endlessly helpful in dealing with my panicked/stupid questions when I periodically break the site.
The reason you see so many people recommend Bluehost is because they have the most lucrative affiliate program. If someone recommends you Bluehost, that’s a (weak) signal that they do not have your best interests in mind. I used to get a commission from Siteground, but not any more—I endorse them because I’m very happy with their service.
Mailerlite for email lists
Mailing software is really, really expensive, and comes with all sorts of crazy bells-and-whistles that I will never use. If you don’t anticipate getting more than 2000 subscribers, I recommend Mailchimp’s free plan. If you just want to mail stuff to people with relatively little fuss, Mailerlite is the ways to go. It’s simple, it’s (comparatively) cheap, and still offers some of the fancy functionality, like WordPress integrations and A/B testing.
WordPress for blogging
I only weakly recommend this since I don’t love the platform, but for the sake of completeness: if you go down this route, for the love of sweet baby Jesus sign up with WordPress.org, so you actually have control, flexibility, your own domain, etc. Don’t cheap out with WordPress.com.
The theme I use is called Moesia, although at this point it’s almost entirely obscured by a custom child theme built on top of it. My essential tools are Cloudflare’s CDN, and Siteground’s dedicated caching services.
Macpac for backpacks
Related: Here’s my minimalist packing list.
Icebreaker merino clothing
It’s not cheap, but my merino socks, undies and shirts are still going strong after hundreds of wears. Icebreaker pioneered merino wool clothing, and is my personal favourite.
Carbon fiber money clip for cash and cards
All I carry these days is a credit card, an ID, and some cash—a carbon fiber clip is super light and cheap, and I sure don’t miss having a bulky wallet.
I haven’t used a loyalty card in five years so your mileage may vary, although this should be fine for traveling.
What do you use and love? If you have a conflict of interest please say so (and I’ll probably delete blatant spam) but other than, don’t hold back! I want to hear about any product, service, tool, or practice that is beautifully designed, highly effective, or otherwise brings you joy.