Never before have there been so many great personal development tools at your disposal. And it's all waiting right there at your fingertips, because you'll find that your Mac is the only gateway you need to access this world of self-improvement.

Whether you need to discover new ways of making yourself more effective at work or you simply need some help organising your life at home, your Mac can help you do it.

So, without further delay, here are 10 great ways your Mac can help out with your personal development.

1. Learn to master speed-reading

Speed-reading is also a good skill to have if you're going to be digesting knowledge. The average reader reads at about 200 words per minute. Speed-reading enables you to take in more than 1000 words per minute, but requires serious concentration, which takes practice.

Speed reading

SPEEDY GONZALES: Why not learn to speed read to save time, with the free iSpeedRead?

There are various speed-reading applications for the Mac. Most operate like the freeware Speed Reading III, which trains you to look at two midpoints on each line and move forward without going back and re-reading. You can adjust the speed of the moving window from approximately 200 words per minute to an impressive 1,500 words per minute as you improve.

At $15 (£7) the app iSpeedRead is more sophisticated and includes comprehension tests to see if you've retained the information you're supposed to have absorbed.

2. Get into mind mapping

There are many techniques for improving your creativity and helping you come up with great ideas, but mind mapping is one of the best: it allows your brain to make connections between ideas in a natural way, as well as discover new connections between concepts.

Mind mapping

MAP YOUR MIND: Mind mapping enables you to unleash your creativity

Mind mapping is popular with creative individuals who are drawn to the Mac and there are many great programs available for OS X. To make a map, start with a central idea or word in the middle and create 'branches' for each related idea.

By creating this network of concepts, you may find it helps clarify your thoughts, making it easier to remember ideas. You can get into mind mapping straight away by starting out with something like ConceptDraw Mindmap or OmniGraffle, trials of which are on this month's disc.

3. Dip into an encyclopaedia

Armed with your new learning skills, you can now go out and saturate the empty sponge of your brain with knowledge. The best place to start is the good old encyclopaedia. All you need to access Wikipedia is a web browser, although the Dictionary application in your Applications folder (Leopard only) provides a nicer looking way to view it.

Encyclopaedia brit

JUST THE FACTS: Encyclopaedia Britannica has articles on just about everything, and includes multimedia content

However, there are good things and bad things about Wikipedia: while Wikipedia article accuracy is generally very high, since anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry you can occasionally find entries on important subjects that contain inaccuracies or pages that have been deliberately messed around with.

If you're after absolute reliability and depth of knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Britannica should be your first port of call. You can either use this through your web browser (for a fee) or buy one of the many DVD editions available from the site. Unlike the old print version, which would set you back a few hundred quid as well as taking up half the space in your house, the DVD version is only £40 and has multimedia content as well.

4. Learn an instrument

Learning an instrument has its own challenges, but your Mac can help here too. GarageBand '09 now comes with Basic Lessons, which teach you the basics of finger placement and chords for piano and guitar. For those who already know the basics, GarageBand's add-on Artist Lessons (£3.95 each) gets the likes of Sting, Norah Jones and Sarah McLachlan to take you through their songs and shows you how to play them.

A good alternative that goes on to take things even further is iPlayMusic. This provides many resources, including a Mac program with videos and 26 songs to play along with. Piano and Keyboard Method, has 300 step-by-step lessons for learning the piano, while Practica Musica teaches the fundamentals of music theory and ear training (in other words, the ability to identify an interval by ear).

5. Increase your mental agility

Simple sharpness of thinking is another great asset to have. If you just want to get your mind working at a faster pace, a few brain exercises will go a long way. Crosswords are a good way of getting your mental skills warmed up.

There are a significant number of crossword puzzle programs for the Mac, as well as a number of online puzzles at newspapers' sites. Infinite Crosswords gives you access to the Sunday puzzles from The LA Times and The Washington Post, while The New York Times has a subscription service and a dedicated cross-platform crossword puzzle program built using Adobe Air. There are also programs for mobile phones, including the iPhone, as well.

If you prefer numbers then Sudoku is a good alternative. There are many Sudoku programs out there such as: Web Sudoku Deluxe, SudokuAdept, which comes with millions of Sudoku, and Xudoku, which enables you to create as well as solve the puzzles.

06. A matter of food and drink

Your Mac should always be on standby to help with dinner parties. There are applications available for storing recipes, such as The Recipe Box and Kelli's Recipe Box. Most of these also have a 'recipe scaler' to help adjust ingredients in a recipe if you intend to cook for more or fewer guests.

Programs such as myRecipes also enable you to convert and store recipes from the net. Connoisseur takes things a little further with an iPod export option and a shopping-list creator. MacGourmet Deluxe has a party planner that syncs with iCal, includes a wine database and analyses the nutritional contents of meals.

However, the cleverest of them all is SousChef. It includes a database of all of its users' recipes, has an ingredient substitution tool and features a "10-foot mode" designed to be readable from across a room.

Lastly, Party Pro for the iPod has more than 20,000 recipes, instructions on the basic of bartending and how to stock a bar. There is also a bar locator.

07. Brain training

Both crosswords and Sudoku are, in their own way, brain trainers. Brain training is now a widely understood concept, thanks to Nintendo's Wii and Dr Ryuta Kawashima's Nintendo DS Brain Training Academy games, which have become the most widely used programs.

Brain training

BRAIN WORKOUT: Work out your frontal lobes with some brain training excercise

Brain training involves practising certain aspects of cognition, such as memorisation, spatial analysis, identification of objects, arithmetic and verbal reasoning. The theory is that by continuously practising, you will be able to improve and retain your skills in these areas.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that the Mac doesn't have a great selection of brain training programs yet. Although, it does have the perfectly adequate open source iMemory as well as Brain Workshop, which improves working memory and fluid intelligence.

By contrast, the iPhone and iPod touch provide an ever-increasing number of fantastic training applications, including MindDojo, Brain Tuner and Brain Exercise from the venerable Dr Kawashima himself. All those iPhone apps can be found on Apple's App Store.

08. Take a test down memory lane

Learning isn't just about having access to information and reading it: it's about remembering. Many resources on the Mac come with facilities for testing what you've learned. Unsurprisingly, some of the best are designed for people going to school and revising for exams.

Both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Letts produce excellent tools for teaching, revising and motivating you to learn a range of GCSE subjects, from sciences to humanities. At both GCSE and A-Level, the programs are more of a supplement to learning rather than the entire courses themselves, so don't think you'll be able to pass an exam using just the software.

And also don't forget that being a student entitles you to an educational discount on your next Mac. Visit www.apple.com/uk/students.

09. Learn a new language

Languages are the main area of interest for adult learning and present some unique challenges. As well as grammar and potentially a new alphabet to learn, there's inevitably the rote-learning required to remember the thousands of new words you'll need. Again, your Mac can help.

Flashcards have always been the preferred way to learn vocabulary, and the advent of new media has allowed them to become more than simple double-sided bits of paper: now they can include sound files so you know how words are supposed to be pronounced.

Berlitz

LEARN A LANGUAGE: Berlitz Premier gives you an immersive environment in which to learn languages

If you want to fashion your own flashcards, iFlash is far and away the best flashcard program: not only can you create multimedia flashcards for learning at home, but you can print them out to learn on the go, or you can synchronise your card decks with the free iPhone application.

If you don't want to create your own flashcards, Byki's Express and Deluxe software covers more than 70 languages, and includes MP3s and a pronunciation tutor that analyses what you say and corrects it. There are also iPhone apps of the flashcards.

For those who want more complete language learning courses, Rosetta Stone is one of the most popular tools available – although it's also phenomenally expensive at £379 for a complete set of levels (one to three). It throws away the flashcards in favour of a more immersive approach, flooding you with words, images and the voices of native speakers, just as you learnt to speak English when you were a child.

Many people will find EuroTalk's TalkNow application a cheaper and friendlier alternative, since it includes quizzes, games, a dictionary and MP3s. But at the top of the list is Berlitz's Premier language software, which includes all the features of other software, as well as role-playing, videos and transcripts. It's only available for a few languages but it is only £29.35. You always have the potential to achieve more. And your Mac can help you unlock that potential, if you know where to look.

10. A healthy body and a healthy mind

Apple can also improve your body! The most popular way of doing this is with the Nike+ system, compatible with iPod nanos, iPod touch (2nd gen) and the iPhone 3GS. Fit the Nike+ sensor to the pocket in your Nike+ shoe and it tracks your run and sends data back to your iPod or iPhone.

You can create custom workouts and select particular goals such as calorie burning. When you're done, sync back with iTunes and you'll be able to keep track of your progress. You will also get workout routines and music to download, as well as podcasts.

Healthy brain

TRAINING PLAN: Open Fitness will keep tabs on your diet and provide fitness routines

If you don't have Nike+ there are other options. FitBody helps you track your diet and workouts. Open Fitness tracks your diet as well, but also tracks other measurements and lets you download routines. For iPod/iPhone users, there are many fitness apps.

Older iPods can use iWorkOut, while the iPod touch and iPhone have FitPhone and iFitness. USMCTrainer runs you through the US Marine Corps's fitness programme. Meanwhile, Fitness Builder includes 4,000 exercise images and videos, 400 workouts, a body measurement tracker, a weight tracker, a progress tracker and various timers.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 212

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