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2019 Feet Under

Danny Nedelko by Idles

A nice little pick me up song for backing me up when I set the 2019 bar too high.

Last year I promised myself to track all my goals (which were effectively just habits) with the Loop - Habit Tracker app. I abandoned that sometime around April, because I realized it wasn’t really working for me. The goals I had set were in fact not really habits, or maybe habits were just not a good way of implementing them. In my mind, a habit is something that you do on a cadence. Things like:

  • Going to the gym is a habit
  • Brushing your teeth is a habit
  • Writing every day is a habit

I did my best to keep track of all of them but even as I pressed those checkmarks, it wasn’t really doing anything for me. Or to be more specific, I wasn’t really doing anything real. I was doing lots of little things, but I struggled to do anything large. Here’s some examples:

  • I was reading 20 pages a day, but I wasn’t able to think of a book I was reading
  • I was writing two/three times a week, but I wasn’t able to think of my last blog post
  • I was exploring new places, but I could only think of the restaurants in a two block radius

It wasn’t all negative! The task I opened with - going to the gym - is a perfect counter-example. I was doing this X times per week and saw real goals and milestones out of it. I could bench more, I could climb harder routes, etc. Still, that ended up being the exception, not the default. So what’s the answer then? I found it hidden inside a lovely blog post shared on Twitter: Deep Work1. She really hit on one of the biggest key points for me: you really have to spend significant time on something in order to do something. For me, a goal is larger than the sum of it’s parts.

Spending 20 minutes on something every day is not the same as spending over two straight hours on it. I used to pride myself on how well I could juggle and multi-task. I think that’s something that all millennials end up bragging about, at least at some point. I realized this past year, especially at work, that probably half my cognitive load was just remembering all the things I was supposed to do! That’s a huge drop in available brain power for actually performing said tasks2. I could go into a lot more detail why, but I really think Azeria (and the book that it’s based on, Deep Work by Cal Newport) nails it more than I could.

So here’s the deal. The theme of 2019 and me is going to be Deep Work. Ironically, I’m going to keep a pretty similar goal list to 2018, but I’m going to implement it in a radically different way. No more daily, three times a week, etc.

Write an EP

Last year: play guitar every day. Zooming out, I didn’t really care about playing guitar everyday. What I really wanted was to be in a band and to write some songs. So let’s just go right ahead and make that the goal! I don’t care what I play (but it will probably be percussion), I want to keep playing with a band and rocking out. What’s an EP? I dunno, let’s say 3-5 songs.

Play a gig

Similar but not directly related to the last one. This can be anything - small performance for friends, office party, actually being on a stage and opening for people. Covers, originals, something freeform, doesn’t matter. The point is to have a group of people (>3 is the minimum, I think) that can watch and attend an act.

Always see the opener

Last year: support independent creators. That spurred me to just randomly give money to the first thing I saw at the end of the week in order to hit that silly checkmark. That’s not what I really want though. I go to a lot of concerts, and I pride myself on being one of the first people there. The openers are the bands that are really pushing themselves, and I love them. This one is more upkeep than anything, but it’s something that I have to constantly push myself to do.

Write long-form/“deep” technical content

Last year: writing at a given frequency. Honestly, I’m kind of torn on this one. Forced writing still ended up with improved writing skills, just not content. It’ll be a bit of a balancing act going forward, but the new goal is to try and write deep-er technical content. The best thing I wrote in 2018 was a post on interleaving converters. This required a few things:

  • Reading to learn and really understand the problem/solution
  • Programming/solving an answer to the question I had
  • Writing up my results in a way that I could share

This took time and in my opinion, it really paid off! I want to keep doing this on a more frequent basis. No promises on frequency, but a promise to try and attack it more.

Close out technical projects

I love technical side projects. I love working all the time, and I don’t think it’s restricted to just being at the office or at your job. I am not implying you should always be working for company, but for me at least, constant technical growth is immensely satisfying. In the purest engineering method, I learn through doing. This got hit the most by the lack of Deep Work in my opinion. I would get decently far in a project, but never really close it out. Of course, half the blame is totally self-attributed. It’s far, far more fun to always start something new than finish something3.

Close out has a particular meaning to me. It’s not definitely not saying something is perfect, or in a state where it never needs to be touched again. It just means it’s at a reasonable milestone where I can say I accomplished something that is goal-like, rather than just a step of the process.

Better social relationships

Someone4 depressingly said:

Adult friendships are just saying “let’s get drink sometime!” until you die

Well, let’s avoid that. I’ve blogged a few times about having difficulty in maintaining social contacts. I recently read an excellent article relating this concept to burnout. The answer here is again not to promise some inane frequency of social interaction. It’s to set up real events with people and commit to them. Looking back on 2018, I don’t really remember any of the casual catch-ups. I remember the “big events” where we went out and did something together. A long Halloween party, a remote hideaway camp+concert, an overdue meetup in Seattle. To be clear, I don’t aim to offend participants in the smaller social interactions, or to cancel them. Still want those to happen, but I just wanted to add a new focus.

That’s probably a good note to transition on. Those are not my only goals, and the Deep Work thing shouldn’t delete every smaller task. I think I do a pretty good job of doing those now. Here are some of the smaller things I hope to maintain:

Reading: Honestly not even worried about this. I feel an odd combination of shame and boredom if I don’t have a book in progress. This is likely a direct result of the habit tracker, so thanks for that one!

Exercise: Slightly concerned about this. Not concerned about completely failing it, but it does tend to be the first thing I sacrifice. The first half of the year I was quite reliable at 3x a week, but has been intermittent since then. Let’s try to hit that again.

Biking/Exploring: Very concerned about this one, but for a not so bad reason. I recently moved in December to a place that’s barely a block from several public transit lines. As a result, it’s replaced all the biking I normally do. Not falling off this wagon will be tough, but I’m going to do my best.

  1. Highly recommend following the author! @fox0x01 ↩︎

  2. Alternatively, you could think of it as a matched load? ↩︎

  3. True of all things in life ↩︎

  4. On Twitter, almost certainly. Wish I had the citation! ↩︎