The term ‘life hack’ can apply to any tool, shortcut, or skill that increases productivity and efficiency for any type of daily task or activity, in both personal and professional life. This post focuses on technology based lifehacks, specifically apps.
The term ‘wellness’ is being increasingly used in the media and commercially – and a simple web search will result in plenty of current news items and information. However, the basic principles are long established and the NHS has a wealth of practical information, including steps to mental wellbeing and a useful library of health related mobile apps.
Personal wellbeing as a topic is a large and important one – everyone has individual needs and preferences. This list is intended as a starting point to highlight some useful, easy-to-implement approaches and a handful of beneficial apps. Most of these apps are for mobile devices. For those apps available as desktop versions, you will need to check if computer administrator privileges are required for instillation, which may not be possible on work machines.
Approximately 20% of the UK population , including those with dyslexia, experience some form of visual stress when reading from a computer screen. This is exacerbated by fluorescent lighting and display contrast; from instance, black text on a white background. The OpenDyslexic font is designed to be more easily readable for those who find common fonts (Ariel; Helvetica etc) difficult to follow. Some web browsers, including Google Chrome, have plugins for OpenDyslexic font which converts text within web pages
Staff at University of Brighton are able to request that specific fonts, including OpenDyslexic, are installed. A similar font, Dyslexie, is installed by default on Windows 10 PCs – please see this separate article which covers these settings in Firefox.
There are also plugins and extensions (that can be installed on personally owned computers) which offer overlays and tints to optimise the readability of screen content. Two examples: Screen Shader is a Google Chrome extension providing “smart screen tinting,” which means it changes colour throughout the day to counterbalance daytime and night-time lighting conditions and reduce eye strain. A similar paid app for Mac laptop and desktop computers, Screen Tint, offers more control over your screen’s colour tint to respond to the ambient lighting conditions, particularly if you struggle with screen glare in night/dark conditions, in which case it applies a warmer tint.
nOverlay is a Google Chrome extension which allows you to change the background colour of webpages and set custom profiles for your preferred colour tint configurations. It also supports OpenDyslexic font. Colorveil is a free app available for Windows computers and tablets which helps to reduce eye strain by adding a customisable colour filter over your desktop, documents, internet browser etc.
Of course, why not give your eyes a rest and use a text-to-speech app or built-in feature to read the content on screen? Google offer a Text-To-Speech app for Android and Narrator is an in-built screen-reading app available in Windows 10 PCs. NaturalReader is a similar app (for iOS and Android) that can read aloud webpages, documents (including scanned images) and eBooks. You can choose from a set of natural-sounding voices with a range of voice and speed choices. There are also desktop and online versions.
Screen Tint app (Mac OS). Price: £2.99.
Being in the moment
A state of ‘flow’  (a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is when you are fully immersed in what you are doing, to the point that other needs are negligible . A good example of such an activity is gaming, but this can also extend to working and study. An important component of ‘flow,’ and one which keeps us engaged, is an instant reward and feedback cycle – we need to see our efforts are having some positive effect. This provides an increased sense of achievement and satisfaction. It is one approach which is used in occupational therapy.
There are, of course, apps which apply this concept to everyday tasks, both personal and professional. Thrive is a free app (Android and iOS) which takes a cognitive behavioural therapy approach  to alleviating stress and anxiety (using games and questionnaires). You might use this app before an event which is causing you anxiety (interview; presentation etc) or at regular intervals. The app offers help with relaxation techniques and sleep improvement and is approved by the NHS.
One of the most important measures in managing our mental and physical health is remembering to take regular breaks from intensive and demanding activities which require our full concentration. And while greater online connectivity and mobile apps have provided many benefits to work and life, the downside is the two become less separated and we end up working during those parts of the day which in the past offered some downtime, ie. travelling and lunch breaks, and even after hours. This is especially true when notifications are turned on continuously.
Apple and Microsoft both offer in-built tools for quietening your devices during those ‘out of office’ times of the day. The ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature in iOS (which silences calls and notifications) can be scheduled for when you need it to run, while Focus Assist (formerly, ‘Quite Hours’) in Windows 10 allows you to minimise or stop notifications for when you require some quite time.
In terms of apps, if you need an incentive to stay off your phone while you complete another task, one example is Forest, a paid app which nurtures and grows on your device a digital forest from a single sapling the longer you leave it alone. As a user of the app you can also contribute to the planting of trees in the real world.
If you particularly struggle at times to focus on tasks while finding yourself distracted by what’s happening online, you may want to look at the ‘Cold Turkey’ app (free, basic option) which offers a comprehensive lock down of online activity on your computer while you work. I would, however, suggest this is at the extreme end!
Forest app (iOS). Price: £1.99
Also known as the ‘Pomodoro Technique,’ this is designed to enhance creativity, productivity and focus. It can be applied to any task and requires this task to be divided into 25-minute blocks with short (2-5 mins) breaks. The idea is to reduce the impact of internal and external interruptions. The Be Focused app uses this principal, allowing goals to be set and tasks completed against a countdown timer. It also provides progress tracking.
Part of minimising stress is also understanding when you have spent enough time on a task – particularly applicable for those on the autistic spectrum. The ATracker app can log the time that you spend on specific tasks to ensure that you are distributing your effort among different assignments or elements of a complex assignment, such as a dissertation.
We all react differently to situations and some people find certain interactions more stressful than other people. However, there are some simple tips which may help to avoid stressful encounters. Might it help the situation to interact online, perhaps via video conference? By scheduling this communication, with a clear agenda laid out beforehand, it may help alleviate the stress caused by being put on the spot, especially with an unscheduled visit.
Another good reason to send written information or an agenda before a scheduled meeting is to provide the attendee/s opportunity to absorb the information in their own time and using any preferred means or assistive technologies. The same applies to a written summary after the event, with any agreed action points included.
Some of the wellbeing apps available focus on mental wellness and offer a form of ‘mood diary’ which, again, can be a CBT type approach to identifying negative thought patterns, identifying the influencing factors, or ‘traps,’ and helping to develop healthier thinking habits with suggestions and activities. One such app is Moodnotes (iOS only), which is designed by the team behind Monument game and it shares a similarly serene interface. Another example, Daylio, is both iOS and Android and has a very simple interface which supports fast interaction while on the go.
Finally, University of Brighton has partnered with BigWhiteWall.com, an online mental health community which is available 24-hours a day. This service is available to staff and students and offers self-help resources, peer support and access to trained, online counsellors.
Moodnotes (iOS only). Price: £4.99
 Wilkins, A.J. (1995). Visual Stress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Csikszentmihalyi, M (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
 Cherry, K. Flow’ Can Help You Achieve Goals: Understanding the Psychology of Flow. Available from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-flow-2794768 [Accessed 8 August 2019].
 Schueller SM, Adkins EC. Mobile Health Technologies to Deliver and Support Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Psychiatric Annals 2019 08;49(8):348-352.