For all of 2020, I’m trying something different. Every month I’m setting a theme. As part of that theme, I’m also setting goals and habits to help it along the way. These themes aren’t limited to the month. Each is for the entire year and in addition to everything else added before it.
It’s August now, which means this is the 8th month with a theme. So
- January: Focus
- February: Finish
- March: Routine
- April: Create
- May: Work
- June: Explore
- July: Vision
- August: Empty
- October: Track (I’ll go over this one in this post too).
- December: Enjoy
I picked these themes based on what I felt was the most important at the time to help me stay emotionally grounded, productive, and happy.
By August I was off by a few weeks. That led to starting my August theme halfway through the month. By the end of September, I’d planned for my next theme (Track). But there was a problem: after spending 6 weeks focused on emptying my mind and taking a break from Minafi, I really didn’t want to write anything. That explains the lack of an October post… and the lack of a November theme.
August Theme: Empty
It took me a while to realize it, but my themes for the entire first half of the year were focused on one thing: productivity. These themes weren’t focused on overall happiness, relationships or creativity. That’s probably why I felt the need to change things up. Even with this theme, my goal was still productivity based!
Have you ever taken a vacation then returned back to your job with a new and fresh set of eyes? Maybe you were able to see past problems in a new light or come up with unseen solutions. Or maybe by coming back you realized this wasn’t the job for you after all. Getting to that feeling with my own personal projects is my theme for August.August Theme
Taking breaks is a good thing. Paula Pant even schedules that into her yearly schedule! There’s something to it.
So often I find myself doing the same thing I did yesterday due to momentum. Taking a break forces you to stop your routines and form new ones.
For me that meant:
- Take a break from working on Minafi for 6 weeks
- Take a break from any social media validation (I could still use it, but I tried to stop caring about any “results”).
- Stop my current exercise routine and letting a new one evolve.
- Pause any coding projects I feel I “need” to do.
- Stop using a todo list and a calendar (for my own time)
Of all my themes from 2020, this one ended up having one of the largest impacts – but not exactly what I hoped. I wanted to take a break and come back rejuvenated and refreshed – ready to buckle down and work.
As much fun as it’s been to work on Minafi, there’s always been a voice in the back of my head saying “you need to grow this into a business!”. Sometimes I listen to that voice, but more often than not it’s just noise. For this month I actively told that voice to shut it.
What I found was something different: I felt happier by not stressing myself out. After a lifetime of thinking about money, it’s going to take a while to deprogram myself from focusing on it first.
Fire the 9 to 5 is another blogger who took a break. They recently posted after a 2 year hiatus. This quote hit close to home:
In reality, I’m struggling to find the motivation to write and maintain a site when sitting down at a laptop feels too much like “work” and is to be avoided at all costs in favour of the great outdoors. Even as I write this on a beautifully bright and crispy cold November day, I am sitting in my garden, bundled in a hat and scarf, with freezing fingers and frosty breath.FIRE the 9 to 5
Unless you’re getting paid, there’s no need to keep doing projects that feel like work. That sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes lost in translation.
Even with a break, I still ended up creating a retirement simulator, and an interactive guide to which accounts you should use to invest. Both of these only happened because I’d cleared my todo list and could work on anything – and these were projects that called out for me to work on them.
I also realized that my exercise routine since I stopped working was all wrong! I’ve been basing my routine around a 7-day week. Go to the gym on W, run on MF. Between retirement and COVID, there’s absolutely no reason for this. After some experimentation I figured out my new exercise routine:
Exercise every other day – alternating between an hour of running and an hour in the gym.
It’s simple, effective and not based around certain days of the week. I’ve been following this since then and it’s worked out so far. I’ll still miss days, but when I do I just exercise, take a day off then then start over.
The reasons to tie a schedule to certain days only make sense if those days are different. I used to go to the gym on the way back from work since it was on the way. Without that cue, there was no reason to keep that routine – but I somehow did for almost 2 years!
Taking a break helped me see some of these legacy routines, drives, and desires and reevaluate them in a new light.
October Theme: Track
After taking a break for a month I felt a lot happier. I was less stressed – that was obvious – but happiness is harder to gauge.
That got me wondering – maybe I should track this and see. Am I happier? Next time I make a change like this, how will I be able to track if it’s improved my happiness?
That led to a 2-month exploration into simple journaling. A few years ago I found a minimalist journaling system that stuck with me (open in an incognito tab). The idea is simple:
- Draw a box to represent today
- Fill the box with whatever data is most important to you.
That’s it. Include whatever it is you want to reflect on. You can do this in a physical journal, or online. Being a programmer with entirely too much free time on my hands, I decided to code this up. Before too long I had something that looked like this:
Each part represents something I’m interested in looking at. Here’s the full key of what everything means.
There’s a lot going on there for sure. Any single days will only be partially filled in with what I did that day. Most data is pulled from external services too – weather, location, steps, sleep time, productive time and more.
- Where am I?
- My location (from my phone via Exist.io)
- Weather (from my location via Exist.io)
- Creativity & Learning
- Manual tags based on if I read, took a course, studied a language, or wrote code (custom tags on Exist.io)
- Steps count (Apple Health + Exist)
- Calories (Foodnoms, Apple Health + Exist)
- Sleep time (Apple Health)
- Active time (Strava, Apple Health + Exist)
- Exercise type – running, hiking, weights, yoga, skiing, etc (Exist)
- Alcohol, gaming, socialization, etc (manually tagged via Exist)
This sounds like a LOT. The reason it works is because 90% of this is pulled in automatically for me. Filling out how a day went takes less than a minute.
Each morning I’ll give a rating to the previous day, fill out a quick takeaway (under 70 characters) and add in any additional activities (ex: had alcohol).
Most of this data is pulled from Exist.io, which sync’s with a bunch of external services. Exist gives insights on your data too by connecting themes together. If you’re interested in quantified self or personal tracking, then I’d encourage you to check it out. I tried pretty much every app and tool out there and Exist is by far my favorite.
After tracking these for two months, patterns start to emerge. The two red days? The first presidential debate and the election. The yellow days? Those are usually Costco & errand days.
Behind the scenes, there’s a Ruby on Rails website hosted on DigitalOcean. This website grabs all data from Exist.io’s API and presents them up in a pretty webpage.
I set this URL to my Chrome start page, so I see it every time I open a new tab. During the day this box is blank! I see this as a reminder that this day is not set in stone. I don’t have “productivity streaks” to keep up, or anything else that’s a requirement for this day to be a happy one.
I don’t know where this project will go. This online version has everything hardcoded – so it only works for me. If you’re curious to give this approach a shot, you can ream more about Michal Korzonek‘s Minimalist Journaling System and try it out for yourself.
On a personal note we also tried to get outside more in the last few warm months of the year. Hiking a few more trails and going on our last backpacking trips before it’s uncomfortably cold.
December Theme: Enjoy!
Tracking expenses (which I do with Tiller) and journaling offer a chance to do a very important step: reflect on your decisions. Call it whatever you want – meditation, mindfulness, journaling, private time – the goal is the same: clarity.
In my case spending the last 2 months tracking a few dozen stats has given me a lot to think about. Some of them more obvious than others:
Other connections that I anticipated weren’t there: being productive doesn’t make me any happier. Neither does exercising or hiking. Some things have made me less happy: taking online courses (which was a surprise) or getting on video calls with friends.
Other connections were there: I’m happier when I code, go on dates with Mrs. Minafi and spend less time in bed.
A common pitfall that companies make is to base their decisions on data that seems conclusive but doesn’t tell the full story.
That brings me to my theme for December: Enjoy! Rather than trying to focus on maximizing productivity or getting things done, I’ll slow down a bit more and try to enjoy the month.
2020 has been a rough year to enjoy. Finding the good in the garbage (to steal a Ratatouille Musical reference) hasn’t felt right during a time when thousands are dying each day, racial tensions are erupting, businesses and people are suffering, and the election was hanging over all of our heads.
Now that it’s December only one of those things has changed. While it’s easy for us to get wrapped up in the news and enter a downward spiral (guilty), it’s just as possible to break out of that cycle!
Take a break from the news, find a way to contribute/volunteer, figure out what you can control and focus on that – and try to enjoy it! I’ve started volunteering at Move Humanity Forward, which has been rewarding so far. Just those few hours a week have helped quiet the voice in my head screaming “you should be doing something to help”.
So what does an organized effort to “enjoy” a month even look like? I’m not sure about that myself. I do know that it involves a little less time setting hard boundaries and consuming news and more time working on whatever comes to mind.
For the first time ever we started listening to Christmas music and decorated our apartment before December. I’m looking forward to enjoying the season, a new president elect, a Schrödinger’s senate and, if the weather cooperates, another white Christmas.