Lessons Learned From A Year of Monthly Themes

In 2020 I set a new theme for each month. Each day I’d reflect on that theme and let it influence what I spend and mental energy on. The result surprised even me.
Adam

Written by Adam on 2021-02-28. Personal, Mindfulness, Blog. 8 comments. Find out how I make money.

In 2020 I tried an experiment. In the time before COVID I made a plan to set a theme for each month. These themes would be simple – just one word. The idea was to let that theme influence what I did and how I thought for that month.

The hope was to set themes related to areas of my life that were out of balance. Working too hard? Set a theme that reminds you to relax. Having trouble getting things done? Set a theme that would encourage focus. Not sure what to work on? Set a theme that encourages you to dream big.

Adam at Sunrise point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Adam at Sunrise point in Bryce Canyon National Park

This idea was inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project where she picked a different topic for each month to work on. I didn’t end up looking at her themes, but we both ended up picking the same one for December! It was also inspired by Cait Flanders A Year of Less, which touched on many similar ideas without being quite as rigid in structure.

At least that was the hope. Let’s see how well it went!

January: Focus

Coming into the new year I was spending a lot of time on social media –– too much time. It had been a year since I retired, and I was still getting used to having 24 hours of time to fill. Jumping around from task to task meant I wasn’t getting into a “flow” state with anything.

Here’s what I tried and how it went:

  • ✅ Do a digital detox and take a month off social media.
  • ❌ Read and reflect on a page from The Daily Stoic every morning.
  • ✅ Set aside dedicated time for activities.
  • ❌ Set 3 tasks every day in Todoist.
  • ✅ Eliminate distractions.

The most impactful change this month was planning things ahead of time. Whether that was setting aside time on my calendar, or just mentally preparing myself, just spending some time to think through a task helped a lot.

What helped more than anything was getting pulled into jury duty for a 5-week trial (!). This happened the first Monday of the year, and lasted all of January. During the trial I needed to get up at 7:45 AM every weekday, walk down to the courthouse and sit with my full attention for 8 hours.

This turned out to be the change I needed. It’s impossible to be half-there when someone’s life is on the line. It made my minor concerns over my own focus seem small in comparison. Having a theme of focus also made me a really good juror.

Focus as a theme: 4/5.

February: Finish

After a month of unplanned work as a juror and volunteering and attending Sundance, I felt like I had a growing to-do list that was neglected. I hate having “unclosed loops” in my head drawing small bits of my attention. This months theme was all about closing as many loops as possible.

This included a bunch of things that were important to me at the time:

  • ❌ Finish the Minafi Investor Bootcamp
  • ❌ Finish the video games I’ve started (Red Dead Redemption 2, Dead Cells, Death Stranding).
  • ✅ Finish the graphic novels I’ve started reading.
  • ✅ Finish the latest books in any series that I’ve started (ex: book 3 when I’ve already read 1&2).
  • ✅ Finish my jury duty.
  • ✅ Unsubscribe, unfollow people and declutter.

Of all the themes of the year, this was one of my favorites. By focusing on closing as many open loops as possible, I freed up the rest of the year for new things (which turned out to be staying at home during COVID 😅).

It also gave me more time and mental energy for new books, new games, new projects – while being able to move onto them without looking back. At the end of this month, I felt rejuvenated and ready to start new things!

Finish as a theme: 5/5

March: Routine

Yeah, I picked “routine” as my theme for the month that COVID-19 hit the US hard. You can guess how this theme went.

The hope was to create more things that I considered my routine. Without a job – or jury duty – I’d started to miss some kind of structure. Mrs. Minafi also left her job in January, so we were still trying to figure out what our day-to-day lives post-RE would be like.

  • ❌ Going to the gym every morning at 8 am (my gym closed due to COVID).
  • ✅ Create a quiet morning routine. For me, this involved reading in the morning with coffee.
  • ❌ Weekly date night with Mrs. Minafi (tough to do when you’re in the first month of a pandemic).
  • ❌ Spend time doing some focused learning on a topic.

Yeah, this didn’t work out too well. At least, it wasn’t what I planned. To my surprise, I did end up creating a bunch of routines this month that were useful later on in the year.

  • Have a reset day each week to make sure the apartment is clean, my most important tasks are done and things are in order.
  • Spend some time every morning learning Japanese (still doing this today!)
  • Conduct a weekly planning session once a week.
  • Schedule in rest days where I don’t plan any tasks.

I still do all of these today! The weekly planning sessions have been some of the most useful, and I’m planning to write a post about that process soon.

My biggest takeaway from this month was that it’s still possible to make progress towards a goal by reevaluating it throughout the month and adapting success for changes since it was set out.

Routine as a theme: 3/5.

April: Create

March was rough. My family planned on visiting but that trip was cancelled. We had a 3-week trip to South Korea and Taiwan – also cancelled.

Like most of the world, I spent much of the month staying on top of the news, making sure we had hand sanitizer, masks and toilet paper and adapting to a new world.

April was about breaking out of that consumption spiral and trying to be creative again. With that guideline laid out, I set a few goals:

  • ✅ Cook new recipes
  • ✅ Program something
  • ✅ Take a course
  • ✅ Spend time researching
  • ✅ Write more

This worked out! By shifting my mindset to just creating things, I worried a lot less about the money side, or trying to balance what I did.

If I spent too much time on social media, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that was always asking “why aren’t you creating?“. This constant drumbeat helped remind me to switch from consumption to creation.

On a personal level this felt like giving myself a free pass to do anything as long as it was adding (or learning). I loved this theme, and ended up revisiting it in a new way in June (Explore).

Create as a theme: 5/5.

May: Work

My focus this month was on doing things I don’t want to do, but need to do in order to achieve goals down the line. Even for projects I love, there are parts I don’t. This theme was all about tackling those tasks to get them out of the way.

  • ✅ Finish the Minafi Investor Bootcamp content
  • ❌ Finish a draft of my interactive guide to investing
  • ❌ Keep increasing my physical stamina
  • ❌ Build more momentum to get used to working on hard things.

Well, 1 out of 4 isn’t bad, right? I was extremely excited to finally launch the Minafi Investor Bootcamp. That took way more work than I’ve let on. It has 2 hours of video content, which I edited myself after learning how. It uses a custom platform here on Minafi with code I wrote. And it has about 65k words of content to read through – about a book.

In other words, I ended up building a platform, creating a video course and writing a book. No wonder it seemed so hard! Although, being able to switch from one to the other was really nice when I needed a break.

Work as a theme: 4/5 because I completed my most important topic.

June: Explore

This theme came to me while reading The History of the Future – a nonfiction book about the rise of virtual reality. John Carmack, the creator of Doom and long-time programmer, has a rule I love. After each phase of a project he would take some time off to let his mind wander, to try new things and let his creativity run wild.

Since I’d finally launched the course I was working on, it a perfect time to try new things!

  • ✅ Explore new hikes around Utah.
  • ❌ Explore new data – specifically a post about race and financial independence.
  • ✅ Explore new investment info by creating a Minafi Fund Directory
  • ❌ Explore new ways to help make a change
  • ✅ Explore augmented reality

This was suuuch an exciting month. After being stuck at home for months due to COVID, my mind missed exploring. This month was a reminder that exploring didn’t mean travel to exotic locations – it could happen right here at home.

Adam at Mill B North Trail in SLC
Adam at Mill B North Trail in SLC

I wrote and launched the Minafi Fund Directory this month too – the easiest way to check if a mutual fund or ETF is a solid choice for retirement investing.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I started working on what would eventually be my minimalist journal – something I use every day now. It started as a completely different project but grew into this over time. Without planting those seeds this month it wouldn’t have grown.

My biggest letdown for the month was not writing an article on how race impacts FIRE. I’d planned to use data from my Interactive Guide to FIRE to explore how the path differed by race – something similar to what I did for the gender pay gap and the millennial retirement age.

But I ran into a snag. I didn’t ask for race initially when I created the FIRE guide, so I had a lot less data. Even as of today, only 2% (50/2,000) of people who provided their race choose black. Ultimately, my failure to write about this is a reason why my black readership is so small. I failed to write even about something this month, at the time when cars were being overturned in riots supporting George Floyd just blocks away from our apartment. We donated to causes to support BLM, the ACLU, and sent angry Tweets about the state of race in our country, but it ultimately didn’t feel like anything useful. I still want to write that post – but I want to find a way to do better first.

Explore as a theme: 5/5.

July: Vision

After wrapping up the course I was working on and spending some time to explore new things, I realized I needed to set my next new major project to work on. If I don’t have an ambitious, multi-stage project to work towards, I feel a little lost. During COVID there were many things I was looking forward to that were cancelled. Overall we are EXTREMELY fortunate – something I think about everyday. But it’s still is important to have things to hope for.

This theme was less about productivity and a vision for getting things done, and more about finding exciting ways to get away:

This month was all about research. Everything on the above list can be done in bed on a computer.

The most impactful choice was to make a Local Bucket List. This turned out to have a bunch of things on it that we were able to do during COVID. We went backpacking to places we read about this month. We went to some local attractions once it was safe (like the aquarium). We found new places to explore within an hour’s drive.

Most importantly penciled in a road trip around Utah hitting a bunch of National Parks. In December of 2020 we took the plunge and went on a 2-week road trip through Capital Reef National Park, Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument, Bryce Canyon, and all the way down to The Grand Canyon.

Side note: we ate all our meals in our hotel room with takeout, minimized any interactions with people, and quarantined for 2 weeks after.

This trip would not have happened without taking some time to get inspired about what it could be.

Vision as a theme: 4/5.

August: Empty

This theme was a little different. Rather than trying to pack as much as possible into a month, this was about trying to remove everything I could. Whatever was left I would be able to focus more on.

It was inspired by the idea of a teacher trying to teach a student, but was unable to make progress since the students mind was already full. Once they learned to let go and make room for new things they were able to progress.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this theme was the overwhelming amount of shouting and news about the election. It was becoming tiring and there were still 2 more months after this. I knew I wanted to volunteer and make an impact, but I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exhausted. This theme was a bit of self-care to prepare me mentally for the rest of the year.

I also went on a few overnight backpacking trips with friends this month, as well a few days in a hotel with Mrs. Minafi for her birthday weekend.

The goals this month were more about stopping than starting:

  • ✅ 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)

This was a break from everything. A break from self-imposed stress, from self-imposed deadlines, from my own routine, and what I thought I needed to do.

The result? I was lost. I floated around not sure what to do. Eventually I picked up projects to work on, but it didn’t feel the same.

What this month highlighted was how much I suck at relaxing. I doubt I could ever be the kind of person who sits on a beach for a week drinking margaritas. I’d much rather be the one trying to explore every ruin in the jungle and recovering in the hot tub at night.

I want to get better at relaxing, but I still have a ways to go.

Empty as a theme: 1/5.

September, October, and November

Wait, no themes for September, October, and November? It turns out that stopping all personal systems (calendar, todo list, habits) made it very tough to restart.

I wasn’t in the mood to write themes those months. Between the election, volunteering, doom scrolling, and everything else, I didn’t write much on Minafi during those months.

To take my mind off things, I programmed. I created an interactive sequence of accounts visualization and a Monte Carlo Retirement Simulator. Both were fun projects that I got so into that I forgot to eat some days (or blog).

Sometimes I’m most productive when I’m stressed out. I remember in college before final exams I would find entirely new projects to work on and put every moment I could into them. Major parts of my first website (a Dance Dance Revolution fan site) were created after midnight the day of finals.

September through November felt very similar to that. It was trying to regain some sense of control by sinking time into projects. That’s also when I rewrote my minimal journal to be what it is today.

Personal happiness over 3 months
Personal happiness over 3 months (can you see the debates & the election?)

If there was a theme for this time it would probably have been track. After spending so much time thinking of ways to “empty” my mind, I didn’t want to go back to the old routine. I started tracking my days using the new app I built. I just wanted to escape it and do something else. Anything to get my mind off politics and focus on something fun or that I could control.

This was not a good place to be. The world knew people to show up and do their best, and I struggled to find a way to do that during these months. I did end up volunteering a bunch sending out 10s of thousands of texts (I’m sorry if you got one 😅). Ultimately it didn’t feel like I was making a difference there and looked for ways to help out using my programming skills instead. I’ve tried a few programming volunteer opportunities, but I’m still on the lookout if you know any.

December: Enjoy

After the election, I tried to slow down and enjoy life a little more. Lately, I’d started trying to better understand what makes people happy. That’s a topic that dips into philosophy, mental health and is vastly different from everyone.

In an attempt to better understand, I started reading books on happiness. One line from The Happiness Equation stood out. All of the evidence on happiness that he’s reviewed and peopled interviewed came down to one important takeaway: Happiness does not follow action; action follows happiness.

In other words, rather than doing things to be happy, being happy motivates you to do things!

This isn’t good advice for everyone. If you’re severely depressed, have high anxiety or are just overly stressed, advice like “just be happy” is a slap in the face.

For me though, where I was in life, “just be happy” was the right message at the right time. It was a reminder to show gratitude for what I have, love for those around me, and appreciation of what I’ve got – which is pretty great.

Going on a road trip that was planned for 5 months didn’t hurt either:

Horseshoe Bend (we stayed away from the edge)
Queens Garden Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Mrs. Minafi hiking Spooky Gulch near Escalante, UT
Somewhere in Capital Reef National Park
Goblin Valley State Park
Lower Calk Creek Falls near Escalante, UT
Lower Calk Creek Falls near Escalante, UT
The Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon – a 19m, 5k ft elevation trail to from rim to river

These pictures make the trip seem perfect, but that’s just not the case. There were mornings we didn’t want to get out of bed and times were we so sore we just wanted to ice our wounds. There was even one hike that we (ok, I) completely underestimated that resulted in us hiking into the night in 20-degree weather. Fortunately, we had head lamps, but it wasn’t a great night.

If you’ve ever been the person trying to “be upbeat” when those around you aren’t, you’ll know how annoying that can feel. I’m generally a happy guy, but there’s a world of difference between being happy yourself and actually helping others get there too.

This month was a combination of all the themes up until this point for the year. I tried to pick and choose things I enjoyed throughout the year – routines I enjoyed, exploration that inspired me – and put it all together.

Enjoy as theme: 5/5, would do again!

Takeaways From This Experience

We all needed new hobbies and interests to keep sane during 2020. Creating these themes and repeatedly thinking about them throughout each month was one way I took my mind off everything outside of my control happening in the world, and focused on what I could control.

In my previous 9-5 working life, I put a very high value on productivity. Even today I put too much emphasis on getting things done. One of the goals for this year was to move away from that as a measuring stick of personal success. Productivity without happiness, connection, and hope left a hole in my heart. These themes helped heal that.

I absolutely loved this experiment. What stands out now thinking back to it is how much more context I have for each of these words. If you said “explore” to me before this year, I’d have a different connection to it. Now each of these words feels like a friend who I’ve been through thick and thin with and we’ve learned to live together.

Well, all except routine who is more like the roommate I never see, but makes a mess in the kitchen that I have clean up.

Even though I’m not setting themes for 2021, I am journaling privately every week. Both hit on the same end goal: repeated self-evaluation with an eye for growth. What you choose to grow depends on what’s most important to you.

What about you? Have you ever tried a similar growth experiment? How’d it go? Let me know in the comments.

Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

8 Comments

Why not add to the conversation below? Your voice is welcome!

Adam,

I love reading your posts – and especially enjoy gaining a little insight into how you and your wife have structured your past few months during the pandemic. You’re absolutely right in that it’s so important to keep your purpose at heart and maintain a solid vision to get you through the tough times. My husband and I have done the same – remembering why we are doing what we are doing by creating a vision board. Thank you so much for sharing – and for posting these great pictures! Keep up the great work.

Cheers,

Fiona

Aw, thanks Fiona! I love seeing how other people work and specifically how they stay motivated. I’ve never tried a vision board myself, but I think my journal is similar with goals and things I want to accomplish or become.

Cool idea to do this monthly!

Thanks! Having some kind of schedule for when to change it helped for sure. The only downside was after a month of “Empty” I was sooo empty that I didn’t want to blog, write or do much of anything. Building back that momentum was tough. 😅 I always love reading Cait Flanders experiments like this back in the day, and tried to channel some of that.

What a wonderful reflection on your past year and how you utilized themes. I stumbled here today thanks to JD’s Apex Money shoutout to your blog on his FI roundup. So much I loved in this and will try to remember all you did. Love Cait’s book as she has been a wonderful acquaintance the last few years (both on BC’s west coast). I love all your exploration of Utah and area, I hit every National Park through there on a solo road trip back in 2015. I am in the midst of a social media detox myself right now after reading Digital Minimalism. It is going amazing and I honestly thought I had my social media use under control. It is crazy how much of a buzz of almost mild anxiety you generate on those platforms, from doom scrolling to getting caught up in local community FB groups on gossip or other people ranting. Anyhow, enough of my rambling, great post and I will bookmark this to keep referring back to it. Cheers ~ Chris

Thanks Chris! I’ve always loved the northwest, and dream of moving there someday (maybe even within a year? We’ll see). I’ve never been to BC though, and really want to visit. The trip through UT sounds like a blast too. Any favorite sites from your visit?

Your gear list on your blog reminded me it’s almost backpacking season here too! My gear is a LOT heavier than I’d like it to be ( https://lighterpack.com/r/4pspja ) but with how rarely I backpack it’s not yet worth the expense to upgrade my tent or pack. A few friends and I are planning to hike the largest peak in UT this year (Kings Peak) and it would be a lot easier with 10 fewer pounds 😅.

That is awesome that you have a Kings Peak down your way, we have one here on Vancouver Island that I have climbed several times. 100% lighter gear can cost a lot and is a tricky one for us FI minded types. There are some good budget light weight options out there, buy used and of course sell anything you dont need to keep the cost nominal. In my opinion hiking & backpacking has the highest ROI for mental and physical health when building our budgets. (it is also a beautiful place to experience solitude and dive deep into working on our mindfulness)
This post has the links to my gear (some updates since then) and also my lighter pack link, hope this helps some. https://www.chrisistace.com/backpacking-gear-list-for-3-5-day-trip/ **on a side note LighterPack changed up their website and I just fixed the embedded link on my post so it should show now, thanks for bringing it up as I would have never known.

As for my favourite hiking spot in Utah, wow there were so many. Hmmmm, well the hike you did in Bryce Canyon I did as well and it is up there. Angels Landing with almost no people at all on a super early morning was incredible too. Here was the trip I did solo back in 2015
https://www.chrisistace.com/affordable-ultimate-western-national-parks-road-trip/

Thanks for the links! We tried to hike Angels Landing a few years ago, but it was stop-and-go all the way up due to the crowds. We turned around halfway up and were happy to skip the crowds.

Seeing your blog makes me want to write about the outdoors and travel more too. 😅

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