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6 Problem-Solving Life Hacks (That I Should Have Tried Earlier)

Motivational framed poster in a store, Ottawa, June 2017

A few weeks ago, I switched to Gmail. “Welcome to the 21st century!” one of my clients joked. “Let me know if I can help.”

I thanked her and felt the need to point out I didn’t completely suck at technology—it wasn’t as if I had just cancelled a paid AOL account. In fact, switching to Gmail had been on my “long-term to-do list” (seriously, that’s the name of that list) for quite a while. I just hadn’t had the chance to tackle the task because it wasn’t just a matter of signing up with Gmail—I would also have to back up all emails and contacts and set up a forwarding service to the new account.

In 1999, I created a first name/last name Yahoo Mail address because this provider had a French interface and sixteen-year-old me didn’t speak English. And yes, I’m that person with one, single email address and no, I wasn’t drowning in spam. I probably would have kept on using it if Yahoo hadn’t started making puzzling business moves, pissing off many users in the process. There were the data breach, the broken redesign, ridiculous efforts to prevent ad-block users from accessing their mail, and lately, Yahoo decided my Android phone was an “unsecured device” and constantly logged me out.

I had enough of the slow undoing of Yahoo—email was the only service they were offering and they weren’t even doing it right. Meanwhile, Google was inventing driverless cars, so I decided to give the company yet another piece of my life. I opened a new Gmail account (one of the perks of having an uncommon last name, it’s always available!), clicked on a few buttons and I was all set. I’ve been using Gmail for a few weeks now and I’m forgetting Yahoo even existed.

This reminded me that trying a new way to do things can be worth the trouble in the long run.

When it comes to change, I’m an imperfect mix of European and North American attitudes. Europeans tend to approach change with circumspection and would rather put up with issues than take a chance and experiment with a potential solution. At the other end of the spectrum, I find Canadians and Americans are novelty seekers, overly enthusiastic about new ideas, concepts and products, even if they never stick to anything long enough to actually see any benefit and tend to fall into marketing traps.

Over the years, some of this experimenter’s attitude rubbed off on me. I don’t just give a Gallic shrug to new ideas or solutions. I, too, started to look for life hacks. My quest was mostly contextual, triggered by two consecutive milestones—choosing self-employment and becoming a parent, two time-consuming activities for which there is no perfect instruction manual. Suddenly, I needed to be more productive and I didn’t have much patience for, or flexibility with, small everyday annoyances.

I ended up finding six solutions to six problems. Most of them are already popular, but they really helped me—and maybe they will inspire you as well!

Problem? Hardcovers are heavy, expensive and you need light to read (duh)

Solution? Kindle Paperwhite

I was on dozens of waiting lists for bestsellers at the Ottawa public library and lugging around hardcovers when, in 2011, a friend lent me her Kindle for a test drive. I’ve never looked back since. The Kindle Paperwhite I currently have is sleek and sturdy with great battery life. With its built-in light, I can read in the dark, which is very useful when the three of us share a hotel room. The ebook format is also the best way for me to buy French or foreign novels—goodbye high shipping fees!

Problem? Cooking on the stovetop requires constant attention and you need to use several pots and pans

Solution? A slow cooker

Again, why didn’t I try that earlier? I’ve been using my slow cooker for a year, mostly to make various combinations of grains (rice—basmati, brown, wild …—farro, oatmeal, etc.), vegetables, beans and spices. I make a big batch, portion it into two or three containers, store them in the fridge and I have dinner ready for nights I’m too busy to make anything but Mark’s lunchbox. Contrary to what I thought, most meals don’t need to simmer overnight, mine usually take a couple of hours to cook fully. Pro-tip: put veggies at the bottom and grains on top, then mix well towards the end so that grains aren’t mushy.

Problem? Earphone cables break easily and earbuds don’t always fit right

Solution? Bluetooth earbuds

I can’t believe I spent years replacing broken headphones instead of going wireless. Bluetooth earbuds are much sturdier, the sound quality is great, and no cable is going to get caught on something with earbuds flying out of your ears. I lucked in with Anker, a great company. When the sound button on my earbuds became lose a couple of weeks ago, they shipped me a brand new pair (!).

Problem? I don’t use my credit card enough to accumulate points for cool rewards

Solution? A cashback credit card

I’ve been collecting Aeroplan miles for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never redeemed them because I think I’d only qualify for a return ticket to Toronto and I don’t need overpriced merchandise. So last year, I signed up for an American Express cash-back card. It’s a basic card with no annual fee and I earn 1% cash back on all my purchases. I paid off the full balance monthly, and at the end of the 12-month period, I got about $200. I don’t mind free money, thank you.

Problem? Notes everywhere

Solution? Evernote, a cross-platform software to collect everything that matters in one place

Evernote is your personal notebook online, where you have your to-do lists, grocery shopping list, clothing size info of relatives for gifts, funny quotes that make you smile, the latest bestsellers you plan to read, hard-to-memorize codes and card numbers, ambitious projects to tackle one day, etc. With Evernote, you can clip web info, enhance your notes with links, pictures, attachments and audio, share them if you want, and just get things done. I still have a notebook in my bag and another one on my desk, but important info is recorded in Evernote.

Problem? Made-in-China gizmos with a stupid profit margin

Solution? Buying directly from suppliers in China

Technically, I can probably afford a $40 phone case, but I refuse to pay that much because I know how much it costs in Asia. China has massive manufacturing capabilities, so I buy from AliExpress. I bought phone cases, Kindle cases, cable, chargers, wall stickers, boxes, stationery and more for just a few dollars. I’ve never had any issues with my orders and shipping is almost always free. Note that it does take a while—a month or two in most cases.

How about you? What are your favourite life hacks? What’s a small annoyance you’d like to solve?

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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