In a year filled with setbacks, loneliness, and uncertainty, I experienced incredible moments (like getting engaged!), growth, and a reconnection to the things that truly matter. So just like how I did for 2019 and 2018, it’s time to answer three important questions in a year that challenged us more than most:
- What went well?
- My biggest struggles?
- What did I learn?
What Went Well
Without a doubt, 2020 was a year of building for me. Since COVID-19 impacted what I could do out in the real world, I decided to double down on the digital one by learning how to build an audience, build my skills, and build relationships online.
Building an Audience
In early July, I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to see if I could grow an audience online by growing my Twitter followers and email subscribers. Most of my blog traffic came from SEO (search engine optimization), but a Google algorithm update in early May reduced my traffic from 100-150 visits per day down to 10-20. Witnessing my search traffic get crushed by the update was a wake-up call to figure out how I could diversify traffic to my blog.
When I started my growth experiment, I had 202 Twitter followers and 41 email subscribers. While not quite starting from zero, it’s not much to write home about. My initial growth strategy (not that I had one) was sending out a weekly email newsletter and occasionally replying to people on Twitter or tweeting any time I published a new blog post.
Once I decided to be more intentional about building an audience, I started Tweeting 3-5 times per week about what I was working on and promoting my newsletter more on Twitter. That helped build some consistency, but it barely moved the needle. My audience was too small and unengaged to help me grow.
The real results came after I realized that growing an audience for the sake of growth was the wrong goal. Having a large audience may satisfy my ego, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. I was seeking to build relationships with like-minded people and engage in interesting conversations with those who appreciated my work.
Once I knew what I wanted, I shifted from tweeting out into the abyss to actively engaging with people I found interesting. I started making conversations and offering help instead of trying to promote whatever I’d just written. And that mindset shift worked. By the end of the year, I had roughly tripled my Twitter followers to 595 (+295%) and email subscribers to 110 (+268%) and it feels like I'm just getting started.
I kicked off 2020 by challenging myself to learn new skills and improve the ones I already had. I started by doing a 30-day self-portrait challenge to improve my pencil drawing skills. I could already draw reasonably well, but wanted to see how much I could improve if I worked at it for a few hours every day. This ended up being one of the most fun challenges of the year, and I think the results speak for themselves.
I also used a 30-day challenge to teach myself how to code. Learning how to code had been something that had interested me for the better part of a year, but I kept putting it off because it seemed overwhelming. What got me to finally take action was using the 30-day challenge format. I knew I wouldn’t become a skilled programmer in such a short time, but it allowed me to overcome my excuses since I knew I could commit to it for at least 30 days.
I also used this year to continue improving my skills as a writer. I published six book notes, 11 articles, and 50 email newsletters. But most importantly, I took measures to improve my writing skills by joining two online writing groups. Both groups helped me elevate my skills by offering accountability, giving feedback on my drafts, and being a place where I could interact and learn from other talented writers (more on that in a bit).
Building Relationships Online
One of the biggest mental shifts I had this year was coming to terms that I don’t have to go at things alone. For whatever reason, when faced with a new problem, my default state is to try to figure it out by myself. While this strategy often works just fine for solving smaller problems, it usually fails or takes longer than expected when I try to tackle bigger ones.
I realized that if I want to accelerate my personal growth, I needed to surround myself with two types of people: those who were a few steps ahead of me and those currently working through the same problems as me. The best decisions I made in this area were joining two online writing groups: Writer’s Bloc and Compound Writing. Both groups introduced me to amazing people seeking to get better at their craft and willing to openly share their achievements and struggles.
I also expanded my network outside of those groups by meeting interesting people on Twitter and getting to know them better through Zoom calls and DMs. It's incredible what kind of positive impact Twitter can have on your life once you see it less as a tool for curing boredom and more as a tool to connect with almost anyone in the world.
My Biggest Struggles
Whether it was watching a lot of sports or spending too much time on Twitter and Reddit, I found it too easy to resort to cheap thrills instead of living in the present. It even got to the point that every time I hit a snag or was working on a problem that required deep thinking, I’d instinctively reach for my phone to relieve myself of doing challenging work.
I find this quite troublesome since I consider my ability to focus on problems to be one of my strengths. This is why I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to become a better writer. I don’t write just to share my ideas; I write because I want to uncover and explore the gaps in my thinking.
But as the year went on, I found it increasingly difficult to sit still and work through problems. It seemed like I forgot how to participate in one of the most sacred processes of great writers: learning to be comfortable with being bored. Boredom is a necessary precursor to letting creativity flourish, and I must rediscover this practice in the new year.
Hunting Field Mice Instead of Antelope
“Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?”
I pulled this quote from Tim Ferriss, who shared it in his best-selling book, Tools of Titans. Tim uses the question to ask whether or not he’s tackling his most important task. In other words, am I focusing on chasing cheap wins that feel like progress, or am I focusing on goals that actually move the needle?
Unfortunately, I found myself continually getting sucked into chasing field mice by putting too many tasks on my to-do list and doing whatever I could to check them off. It would have been a much better use of my time to ask instead why each item is on my to-do list and even ask what could be done to make the current list irrelevant.
It’s easy to get caught up chasing easy wins because it feels like progress. It's fun to experience that small dopamine hit every time you check off an item on your list. But you could go your entire life checking off all of your to-dos and still live an unfulfilling life. Going forward, I plan to take more time to reflect on what’s actually important and giving it my utmost attention while eliminating or delegating the rest.
What I Learned
Find Your Tribe
The most important thing I learned this year is the most simple: surround yourself with others looking to improve their lives in the same way you are. If you want to get fit, join a gym that offers group sessions so you can meet others with the same goal. If you want to improve a particular skill, attend a class, seminar, or online group to meet others looking to do the same. Find people who want the same things you're after and will encourage you to keep going.
The Power of the 30-Day Challenge
I attempted three 30-day challenges this year (well, one was for 28 days, but close enough). In those three months, I vastly improved one skill, taught myself a brand new one, and learned more about my health while also managing to lose eight pounds.
What makes 30-day challenges so powerful is they help you overcome the inertia to start when making a permanent change can feel so overwhelming. They work because they’re simple to do and temporary. It’s simple because you devote your time and energy to just one goal. And since you’re only committing yourself for 30 days, there’s no pressure to stick with it afterward if you decide that it’s not for you.
Reconnecting with What Matters
One of the most positive effects of living through an unprecedented year filled with uncertainty is reconnecting with what actually matters. Being forced to work from home for a few months with no place else to go made me reevaluate what I wanted out of this one shot I get at life. It also made me aware of just how easy it is to get bogged down by things that don’t really matter.
I spent more time making phone calls to family and friends, taking long walks out in nature, and discussing interesting ideas with strangers I’d met online than I had in any previous year. And do you know what the best part about these things is? They're all free to do and readily available. I guess it really is true that the best things in life are free.
Moving into 2021
Last year’s events provided the necessary jolt to reconnect with what’s important and made me aware of just how uncertain life can be. So to prepare for an exciting and uncertain future, my goal for 2021 is to continue improving four key areas of my life: career, health, writing, and relationships.
Not much changed in this area of my life from the year before. And while I should be grateful that this is my biggest complaint when so many others experienced layoffs and pay cuts, it’s because of my own doing (or lack thereof). Nothing changed because I spent too much time hunting field mice instead of antelope.
Instead of spending my time trying to pull on the biggest levers in life, such as advancing in my career, I defaulted to investing more of my time in my hobbies and pointless distractions. I’m not sure if it was because I was afraid of trying to make a change during a time of great uncertainty, but I need to reevaluate what’s actually riskier in the long run: staying in place or asking for what I really want. I've got to be braver in the new year.
I plan to continue tracking my primary lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift) and my max pullups. To put some numbers to my fitness goals, I want to close out the new year by hitting 20 perfect pullups (I hit 10 in 2020) and squatting at least 1.5x my body weight, or roughly 300 pounds.
I also want to focus on improving my sleep. Ever since the pandemic struck, my bedtime has slowly crept later and later into the evening, with my wake-up time still being around the same time. What used to be close to eight hours of sleep most nights slowly degraded to seven. I want to reverse this trend since I think it will significantly benefit other areas of my life, including my weightlifting goals.
I made writing an even bigger priority this year by surrounding myself with other great writers and thinkers. Joining two writing groups helped me improve my skills as a writer and editor, but most importantly, it reinforced my beliefs that I’m a writer. I plan to continue supporting my identity into the new year by maintaining a daily writing practice and strengthening my relationships with other writers.
If there’s one vital lesson that the pandemic taught me, it’s that relationships are what ultimately matter. Even though I wasn’t able to see many of my friends in person this past year, I made an effort to reach out to them more over the phone. I also established a routine Zoom call with one of my good friends to offer accountability and discuss interesting ideas. We even started a two-person book club by reading through The Brothers Karamazov together.
I want to continue this trend of maintaining close contact with my friends and family and hopefully get back to scheduling some trips in the new year to see them again. I also want to maintain the accountability call. It was one of the best decisions I made last year and I see no reason to stop. And most importantly, I want to continue growing my relationship with my soon-to-be wife.