A look back at my 2020 theme, habits, books read, and more.
I posted a year-in-review for 2019 and found the exercise worthwhile, so I decided to do it again for 2020. I hope to make this an annual tradition.
For what it’s worth, I’m a big fan of these types of posts. There are a number of bloggers who post public reflections about their year, and I always enjoy reading about their successes, failures, and newfound lessons. Here are a few examples I’ve collected for 2020: Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Bruno Raljic, Eugene Yan, Nick Ang, Tiago Forte, Tom Whitewell, and The Cortex Podcast. Of course, the process is highly personal and, ultimately, of greatest value to the person performing the reflection. Perhaps this post, along with the preceding examples, will inspire others to do the same.
What follows is a review of my year and a chance to take stock of what worked and what didn’t.
If you are unfamiliar with annual themes, I recommend checking out the Cortex Podcast where hosts CGP Grey and Myke Hurley have discussed the idea in depth. Here’s a short video explaining the idea.
My stated theme for 2020 was momentum (here’s my post on the topic). In retrospect, this was a good choice. I’m inclined, like many, towards procrastination and inaction. Momentum was meant to counteract this. My hope was that I could manifest “momentum” by mere repetition of desired habits. The goal being frequency over quality. As I’ve made it through my first calendar year of uninterrupted blogging (excepting my planned vacation breaks), I consider my theme a success. I also applied to other parts of my life—exercise, music practice, reading, and starting a newsletter.
Although, I’m selecting a new theme for 2021, the idea of momentum will never be far from my thoughts. Generating initial momentum to start something new is a good idea, but so is actively maintaining momentum to keep those habits and projects moving along. This is one of the benefits of the annual theme: you focus on a single theme in a given year, but previous themes, and the habits they fostered, live on indefinitely.
2019 marks my first full year of voluntary unemployment since 2016. I’m no stranger to the phenomenon, I’ve taken extended sabbaticals in the past. Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m not busy or have work to do. I bristle at the notion (common in the USA) that “who you are” and “what you do” are tightly coupled with your “day job” (i.e. being on someone else’s payroll). I’ve been self-employed or my own boss since 2005 (when I went into independent consulting and subsequently co-founded two startups). The upshot has been greater control on how and where I spend my time.
- Blog: I’m pleased with the progress of my blog. I managed a steady schedule of 3 posts/week until the start of the summer and then I shifted to 2 posts/week. (if I count the newsletter, I’m back to 3 posts/week).
The blog continues to be a fulfilling hobby. It serves first and foremost as a learning and reference platform for me. I get to write what I’m interested in and make a public record of what I’m learning.
From a traffic standpoint, the Mental Pivot blog saw tremendous growth over 2020. In one year, I posted 118 articles which have been viewed by over 60k unique visitors (who generated 110k pageviews). By comparison, I posted 37 articles in 2019 which were seen by a paltry 136 unique visitors who generated 1318 pageviews.
While traffic was never the goal of the blog, but is a nice byproduct. It’s especially satisfying is hearing directly from readers who tell me how much my posts have helped them. That never gets tiring to hear.
- Newsletter: I started the Mental Pivot Newsletter this past September on Substack as a complement to the website. Since then, I’ve published 14 weekly editions. Audience growth has been slow but steady and I should hit 200 subscribers in the next week. The newsletter posts are averaging 200-300 views and an open-rate of 45%. I hope to grow these numbers in 2021.
I’m enjoying the newsletter far more than I anticipated. It gives me a chance to write shorter form content. It’s also introduced me to interesting people and excellent app, podcast, and reading recommendations.
- Apps: This was my biggest “fail” of the year. I maintain a small portfolio of mobile-device medical apps as another “side hobby.” I originally developed the apps for my wife who works in the healthcare industry. While I’m not focused on app development right now, I had intended to spend some time updating my flagship app this year. Alas, I failed to tackle this project so it’s getting pushed to 2021.
- NaNoWriMo: I wanted to participate in the 2020 event for the first time, but I just couldn’t get my act together. I want to take a crack at it in 2021, but I absolutely must prepare 1-2 months in advance. There’s simply no way I can go from writing ZERO fiction daily to writing 1667 words/day without making that activity routine.
- Exercise: I continue to exercise 5-6 times per week doing a combination of weightlifting and cardio. Weightlifting intensity suffered somewhat since I’m no longer going to my local gym (due to COVID-19) and have fewer weights to work with in my home gym (i.e. dumbbells rather than barbells or kettlebells). Cardio has improved in 2020 as my prior plantar fasciitis problems have disappeared. I’m currently able to run 3 times a week with no physical issues.
- Early mornings: I’m no longer waking up at 5am, in part, due to changes in schedule for my family owing to COVID-19. Instead, I’m waking up at 6am and I’ve shifted my exercise to the afternoon.
- Writing: This is working well. I find that mornings are my optimum time to write. If I want to write in the afternoon, I often work on ideation or revisions and save the drafting for the earlier part of the day.
- Reading: I maintained my reading pace in 2020 and list out the books I read later in this post. I managed to incorporate more fiction reading, which I’m pleased with.
- Piano: Given the pandemic, I’ve had more time to practice. Moreover, my son (who takes piano lessons) has been on a tear lately. This means I have to work extra hard to “keep up” by learning the repertoire he’s learning, so I can help him with his practicing. Competition, even of the benign sort, is great!
- Journaling: I started off the year great with daily journaling. Unfortunately, I had to move to a weekly journaling schedule late in the year. I need to reassess my journaling frequency and goals in 2021.
- Note-taking: My note-taking goes well but my Zettelkasten suffered this year. In part, this is because my blog and newsletter, in part, serve as a kind of note-taking repository. In other words, my public notes are going well, my private notes not so much. I plan to fix that.
- Dietary: I increased my repertoire of vegetarian meals and started intermittent fasting in 2020. The former was necessary to better support my daughter (who became a vegetarian in 2019). I remain an omnivore (I enjoy meat), but it’s been fun to increase my culinary “range.” The latter I started at the end of summer and in greater earnest after reading David Sinclair’s Lifespan. I’ve been doing a 16:8 schedule 5-6 days of the week. I aim to get better at this in 2021.
- I purged my phone of games and stopped playing Clash Royale and Overwatch. I still enjoy video games, but have been much more conscientious about when I play them (specifically: once a week on Thursday night when I game with a good friend online). Alas, I still cannot quit Reddit despite having deleted it multiple times from my phone (only to reinstall later). Other than The Great British Bake Off and The Mandalorian, my television consumption is way down. I have no issue with television, but it’s challenging to maintain my reading and blogging habits without cutting something else from my schedule.
I incorporated new hardware and software into my life this year. Here are tools I found most useful:
- iPad Pro: I acquired the latest iPad in June along with the new keyboard and the device has supplanted my 2018 MacBook Pro as my primary work machine. This device is a joy to use. The only shortcoming is that the development tools are limited. If I want to use Xcode or Unity, I need to jump onto my laptop. Hopefully, more software will be ported to iOS in the future.
- Airr: This app is essential if you want to be able to listen to podcasts and take notes simultaneously. I do most of my podcast listening via Airr. For a deeper dive, see my article on the app.
- Inoreader: This is a content consumption tool for aggregating RSS feeds, newsletters and other subscriptions in one place. I’ve come to rely on Inoreader increasingly to manage the content inflows that I sift through on a weekly basis.
- Substack: This popular publishing platform offers a turnkey solution for newsletter creators. The service can be used free of charge if your newsletter is free to read. If you offer a paid newsletter, Substack takes a flat 10% cut of your subscription revenue. Should you ever decide to move to another platform, Substack makes it easy to export your email list and move on.
I read 54 books this year. Most of them consumed on my trusty Kindle Paperwhite though a handful were physical books. I use audiobooks less and less, not because I don’t appreciate the medium, but because I find the format restrictive for taking notes.
Split by genre, 33 books were non-fiction and 21 were fiction. Fourteen of the fiction books were those I read with my son (something we enjoy doing together immensely). My favorite book that I read with him was book 4 of Lloyd Alexander’s classic “Chronicles of Prydain”, a fantasy novel that explored surprisingly profound themes about finding your place in the world.
31 of the non-fiction books I read ended up as posts in my ongoing “Book Notes” series.
As usual, books that I wouldn’t normally think to read were among my favorites—11/23/63, The Salt Path, and Lifespan—an important reminder to stretch your range of comfort when it comes to writers and topics.
Here’s my list in the order read this year. Bold text indicates books that were particularly enjoyable, surprising, or interesting.
- The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber
- The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz
- Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
- The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown
- How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- Non-Obvious Megatrends by Rohit Bhargava
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling (with my son)
- The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
- Principles of Microeconomics by N. Gregory Mankiw
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey
- Hello World by Hannah Fry
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
- The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler
- Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Economics in One Easy Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling (with my son)
- Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol
- Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
- Fortitude by Dan Crenshaw
- Range by David Epstein
- How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling (with my son)
- The Rainmaker by John Grisham
- The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
- Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
- The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (with my son)
- The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander (with my son)
- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
- The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander (with my son)
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
- Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander (with my son)
- The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
- The High King by Lloyd Alexander (with my son)
- The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
- The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (with my son)
- The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (with my son)
- The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel
- The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan (with my son)
- The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
- The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan (with my son)
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
- The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan (with my son)
- Lifespan by David Sinclair
- Shogun by James Clavell
- World War Z by Max Brooks
- How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
- Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (with my son)
- Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan
- Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
While we didn’t travel outside of two short weekend trips before the pandemic, COVID-19 offered a silver-lining for our family in the form of having more time together—meals, walks, board games, and the like. My oldest child graduated from high school and started as a freshman at UC Berkeley (albeit via distance-learning for now) and my middle child started high school.
My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in August. It’s been a wonderful journey and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. I’m especially proud of all the hard work she put in this year at the hospital and clinic (she’s an Ob-Gyn physician). She loves her work, deeply cares about her patients, and continues to be my role-model.
Final Word on 2020
2020 was a strange year for all of us. I am fortunate that the social, financial, and medical impact on myself and my family were minimal. I realize that this year was catastrophic and devastating for others, so I cannot take what I have for granted. My heart goes out to those folks. I hope that the vaccine turns things around soon and that 2021 will be better for everyone.
I’ll be posting a companion piece to this article in January, “Personal Theme, Habits and Objectives for 2021.”