This year I thought I would take a different approach and distil what I’ve learned this past year, and how they’ll take me forward into 2021.
11 Lessons learned from 2020
1. Consistency matters but don’t be enslaved to it
My unbroken meditation streak accidentally ended, but critically I continued to follow my Never Miss Twice directive. It freed me from the tyranny of not wanting to break it. I think my streak was around 1400 days. It didn’t faze me. I know why I meditate, and since losing the streak, I’ve allowed myself more leeway. It’s still a practice I enjoy, but I don’t need to force it. In fact, I’m introducing some new disciplines, which I’ll use interchangeably with my meditation practices. I’m applying the same mindset to other habits to be kind to myself. Consistency matters, but having freedom matters more, and as long as I don’t miss twice, I don’t need to feel guilty.
2. There’s opportunity in constraints
I chose to make the most of the extra time in the first UK lockdown. I used the time to go deep into understanding and to change my note-taking habits when I discovered Roam Research. It has fundamentally changed how I think, and it has opened many new doors and connections I wouldn’t have imagined at the start of the year.
At the same time, I worked on building and strengthening our niche positioning for my business, which has also paid dividends through the COVID-19 crisis as organisations have decreased their internal costs. We are optimally positioned to help them continue to maintain their bespoke software assets.
3. Put yourself out there
The world is a big and fantastic place. When you know where to look, it’s filled with smart, intelligent people. An interesting side-benefit of becoming heavily involved in the community that has sprung up around Roam Research and sharing what I’ve learned has been to have the opportunity to connect with like-minded people across the globe. As a corollary to #2, through the human desire to connect and find our tribes, exacerbated by the worldwide need to limit our physical distance from each other, we found different ways to get that connection and community. I have made many new international friends from every continent on this magnificent planet.
4. Small-lifts and continual iteration are better than big projects
One of the bigger things I’ve struggled with in the past is breaking projects and tasks down into granular, actionable pieces. I participated in the 11th cohort of Building a Second Brain. One of the critical things I learned is that I prefer smaller-lifts and continual iteration. Using the PARA system makes it far easier to manage the deluge of things I want to get done and make progress on them at the right time.
5. Distraction and focus
I’ve long known that I can be easily distracted by shiny new things. I’ve erected artificial barriers in recent years to limit that tendency. Still, I’ve learned, especially with enforced Work-From-Home directives, that putting systems and processes in place to proactively prevent them from derailing me make a big difference to my focus and effectiveness when I follow them. There were many occasions when I didn’t, and it showed. I’m committing to be more diligent and intentionally iterate on what works and what doesn’t.
I had forgotten how addictive Twitter can be, especially since this year, the people I follow are compelling and engaging. It has meant that I quickly needed strategies to minimise the distractions and undo the new default actions it triggered in me.
I’ve put in place tools for blocking, and re-training my brain for more focused deep work sessions. Through time-blocking and practising concentrating for longer and longer periods, I am cementing my daily zettelkasten habit.
6. Prefer shorter feedback and reflection cycles
Using the tools that Roam provides to instil practices like interstitial journaling and daily reflections has made it easier and faster to track and spot behaviour patterns. I can reflect on learnings and improve on them more rapidly.
7. Routines and rituals
While it seems counter-intuitive, having routines and rituals to fall back on means that you can save your willpower for what matters. When you don’t need to use it for tiny decisions, you can “save your spoons”. Using ideas like The Discipline to pre-decide how I spend my free time is an excellent example of simple systems applied intentionally.
8. Tracking the right things
Metrics are helpful, but you have to pay attention to them and make sure you’re measuring the right things to meet your needs. Instead of tracking the number of books read, it’s more important to me that I don’t just collect information, but that I put it to use. I’m using pages read per day as a more useful indicator that I’m reading enough, and pairing that with number of zettels created per day as a measure of my deliberate practice for writing and thinking. If you’re tracking metrics and not seeing the positive changes you envisaged, don’t keep monitoring it. Review why you’re not seeing the desired change and look for other measures which may get you closer to your desired identity.
This is especially important in team contexts. You all need a shared understanding to be able to pull together in the same direction.
9. Cultivate portable skills that compound for higher leverage
I’m the bottleneck for most things in my business. This year, I again took advantage of the extra time the situation afforded me to build and practice skills I wanted to cultivate, which are broadly applicable. Even if the projects were a failure in their own right, the skills I built in the effort could be used repeatedly in future endeavours. This idea of winning, even if you lose, is fast becoming one of my critical operating principles for choosing new skills to learn.
10. Find good people and get out of their way
In my business, we have been implementing EOS, a kind of “operating system” for running a successful company. I have learned that finding the right people who share and embody a set of core values, giving them a vision to head toward and then getting out of their way you can achieve more than you can imagine. This year has only been setting the foundations, but we’re seeing fruit already. Hence, in 2021 I intend to double-down on the system as the business grows and thrives. I hope to cultivate and create a people-first company, and I’m excited to explore that.
11. Intention is everything
The biggest thing I’ve realised this year, through my theme, is how easy it is to be unintentional. Having the right words to label something and keeping it in front of you helps make it more prominent and notice when you’re slipping to get back on track.
Word of the year
I found a lot of value in setting a word or theme for the year to remind me what I’m working toward. My theme for 2020 was Intention. I want to continue to build on that further in 2021 by iterating on it with Attention.
Using modern tools to intentionally program your attention at the right time with minimal effort is the key to greater effectiveness. You can save your energy and willpower for the tasks at hand, not making lots of small decisions. The mental cost of making a decision is the same, whether it’s a big or small decision, so make decisions that eliminate the need to make future choices. By placing your attention with intention, you can focus on the right things at the right time.
It also means paying attention to what’s in front of you, right now. Being present in all that you do. When I’m working, I’m working. When I’m with my family, they are my everything and the sole subject of my attention.
What am I working towards in 2021?
This year, it’s fewer but more ambitious targets. My business is growing, which means new challenges building a culture and scaling in a congruent way with my values. Besides the goals I’ve set for the business, I’m excited to explore what it means to be a People-First company.
In 2020, I shipped 51,427 words. This year, my goal is to publish at least 100,000 words. Anything that’s publicly accessible in some form will count. This can be articles, letters, longer-form essays and lessons and tutorials. The only thing I’m not going to include are Tweets.
Last year, I set my intention toward my fitness goals, and this year I intend to make it a reality. COVID-19 and fate permitting, I’m stretching myself to achieve the SFG Level 1 certification. There’s a UK certification happening in October that I want to be ready for.
Want to see how I compared to previous years? You can read all my annual reviews here.