Welcome to my 2021 retrospective!
I know, I know... another "end of the year post" to add to the heaps already published by far more interesting people than myself. But, if there's anything I've learned over the last two years, it's that reflection is one of the most effective ways to grow.
After 2020, this past year brought me far more good than it did bad, the key points of which I will discuss below, but before I do that, there are a few things that I will not be wasting time on. The first is COVID-19. Enough has been said about it already that I'll leave my end-of-year thoughts at this: vaccines good, variants bad. Extrapolate what you want from that, as it's all I'll say.
Another subject I won't be spending much time on is work. I changed jobs, leaving one that was easy but toxic for another that is challenging but rewarding. I have no intention of putting either company in the spotlight, because that's not what this post is about. If you are hankerin' for some hot goss, you're welcome to shoot me an email, but otherwise I think we can leave that subject for another day.
Now, on to the retro!
Like I said, 2021 dealt me far more good cards than bad, and in the spirit of embracing positivity first, I'm going to talk about those first.
At the beginning of the year, I came across a personal page on tilde.town cataloging a user named
~dustin's reading for the last several years. I loved the concept so much that I blatantly ripped it off for my own site. I enjoyed tracking my own reading so much that I blew my goal out of the water, completing over 80 books of varying lengths.
The experiment was such a success that I've more than doubled last year's goal and will be continuing it for the foreseeable future. And, not to leave anyone guessing, of the 80 books I read last year, here are some of my top favorites (in no particular order):
- Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg Like most of us, I seriously struggled with phone addiction in 2020. The doomscrolling seriously affected my mental health, and generally ruined my outlook on life, so I started 2021 off by reading a book to help me kick the habit. An easy read, Goodbye Phone, Hello World has a ton of great practical advice for breaking up with your phone and getting back out into reality.
- The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday After spending a year letting my fears and anxieties get the best of me, I spent much of this year exploring better ways to manage them. The Obstacle Is The Way was one of the books that really changed the way I think, and was my introduction into the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. While books like Meditations and Letters From A Stoic are far more popular, Holiday's books are a much more approachable entrance into a philosophy that is as old as it is deep.
- Kill It with Fire by Marianne Bellotti As a software developer, I've been through my fair share of "modernizations," but nothing captures my experiences more accurately and clearly than Marianne Bellotti's Kill It with Fire. An incredibly well-written book about modernizing legacy systems (and future-proofing modern ones), it has made the top of my list of "required reading" for my direct reports and mentees.
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport Breaking up with your smartphone is one thing, but rethinking your entire approach to using technology is something else altogether. Digital Minimalism provides actionable steps to eliminating technology dependence, while at the same time not outlawing it all together. If you want to be more deliberate about how you use the technology in your life without having to live off-the-grid, this book is for you.
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield One of the last books I read this year, Gates of Fire is a historical fiction about the Battle of Thermopylae (you know, the one the movie 300 was about). I've never been a big reader of the military genre, but this book was more of an exploration of courage than a recap of an ancient battle. To be honest, I'm surprised as anyone that it's on this list, but it turned out to be my favorite book of the entire year.
If you read the list of books I enjoyed the most last year, then it should come as no surprise to you that my efforts to reduce my technology dependence have been a net-positive in my life. While this is more of a general mindset than any specific event, making delibrate choices about the technology I use (and don't use) has really helped me find my center. That said, I know that a lot of people enjoy lists of clear examples, so here are a few things that were particularly valuable:
- To go along with my reading habit, I leaned heavily into printed books. I didn't eliminate my Kindle, but I did make a conscious effort to stare at fewer screens throughout the day.
- I dusted off my old music players and made delibrate choices about what music I listened to. Having to select a specific CD, a tape, or a record made me appreciate the music listening experience far more than shuffling a 1,000 song playlist and filling the background with "noise."
- Instead of using digital note-taking apps, I bought a couple dozen yellow legal pads and use those before committing something to bits and bytes. In today's world, it's impossible to stay completely analog, but this at least allows me to move away from the computer and phone and really focus on what I'm writing and why. It's been so helpful that I've even dedicated a space in my office just for writing.
- I bought a feature phone from Nokia and transferred my old Google Voice number over to it. While real life has made it impossible to completely ditch my smart phone (I can't pay for parking, pick my kids up from school, or even see a restaurant menu without one), whenever possible I leave it at home and only carry my dumb phone with me. It's not a complete solution, but it is liberating nonetheless.
- My smartphone stays in a drawer in my office for as much of the day as humanly possible. That means while I work, while I sleep, while I read, and for any other reason I can think of. There is no reason to have it in my pocket at all times, and the phrase "out of sight, out of mind" is more true than I expected.
Those who know me know that I have struggled with serious digestive issues for the better part of the last decade. I've tried everything from minimalistic diets to meditation, and while there have been marginal improvements, it's largely just become something I've learned to live with.
Until now, at least.
In September, I decided to give intermittent fasting a try. Not to help my digestion, but I had been reading about it and thought it might be a healthier alternative to the binge eating I have gotten accustomed to. Turns out, it has worked wonders on my gut. For the first time in years, I was able to go on a vacation and enjoy every single second of it.
I'm not sure why it's been so helpful, but it has seriously changed my life in ways that I couldn't have possibly imagined.
Back in college, I learned everything about networking. I ran everything from web and email servers to name servers, and I loved every second of it. There was something raw and magical about doing everything from scratch, and that's what I tried to get back to in 2021.
It might seem counterintuitive to both reduce my technology dependence while increasing technology use by self-hosting, but one of the methods I've adopted for detoxing from tech is eliminating my dependence on the internet itself. Self-hosting my own services is rewarding, and more importantly puts me in control of my own destiny. By not being beholden to any external services, I get to decide what I use and how. No unwanted notifications or "social" features.
In Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Work Week, he advocates for being generally uninformed about the state of the world, and after 2020, being uninformed is exactly what I needed. In 2021, I made a deliberate effort to be as ignorant as possible about the world in order to save my sanity. Anything important that I need to know finds its way to me through family and friends, while the unimportant stuff leaves me alone.
24-hour news channels, social media, and everything else that claims to keep us "informed" have done more harm to my mental health than good, so I have decided that I'm done with it. If I need to know something (such as which candidates or measures I support in an election), I'm still aware of how a search engine works, but by not being constantly flooded with "news that isn't news," my life has become far more peaceful.
Despite 2021 being a pretty good year overall, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. A few things happened that I didn't particularly love and I'm still dealing with in one way or another.
After literal decades of hunching over a computer, my body finally said "enough!" and slipped a disc in my neck. After months of pain and suffering (and tests and scans and physical therapy and and and) it is a problem that is mostly under control, but there are still bad days.
Unfortunately, one of the best solutions I've found to manage the pain is to work at a standing desk, which I absolutely hate. The good lord did not intend for man to write software on his feet. It is inhuman. But, this is my life as I get to live it right now, and if I'm being honest I'd rather have sore legs and be able to play with my kids at the end of the day than live in excruciating pain just to sit on my ass for eight hours at a stretch.
Word of advice: take care of your body. You only get one, and once you screw it up, fixing it is painful, expensive, and time consuming.
I work way too damn much. With a day job, freelance writing, and freelance software development, I seriously burned myself out this year. Some of that is thanks to a toxic work culture I was able to escape from, some of it is because the literal pain in the neck paying the bills has become, and some of it is just because I have trouble saying "no" when an opportunity comes up.
Thankfully I've pulled back on a lot of my engagements, but I haven't zeroed them out yet. As much as I'd love to work less, kids are expensive, and for the time being I have gotten pretty good at turning my time into money. That said, I would love to find a way to get some of that time back this year.
Working from Home
I used to love working from home. So much so that a generous remote working policy was table stakes at any job I was applying for, but no more. The pandemic was isolating enough that I desperately miss spending my days with people I enjoy (and working with people I enjoy spending time with is high on my list of priorities). I know it won't be forever, but damn if it isn't lonely sometimes (even with a house full of kids).
Alright, enough reflecting. I didn't want this post to just be a recap of the goods and bads of the last 12 months, but also a loosely-defined action plan for some things I want to accomplish over the next 12 months too.
To be clear, these aren't New Years Resolutions. Those don't work. They are just a list of a few areas where I would like to grow and explore. If it happens, great, and if not, well... at least I wrote something down, right?
At some point this past year, I discovered a list of personal experiments by a man named David Cain on his blog Raptitude. Like
~dustin's reading log, this list grabbed my attention in a big way. While I may not be as diligent as David is at tracking my own experiments, I plan on trying to at least do something similar in my own way. A few ideas of 30-day daily experiments to start with:
- Work without listening to music
- Achieve and maintain Inbox Zero
- Go on a spending fast
- Use only command line interfaces
- Wear ankle weights
- Create and use a soundtrack for my life
- Meditate for 30 minutes
I really want to get into more into analog... stuff. I have an old Canon AE-1 SLR that I've been wanting to learn how to use well, along with developing my own film. Same thing goes for music, calendar and task management, art, driving directions (remember maps?), letter writing, cooking, whatever. I like things that make me slow down, so developing an even deeper appreciation for them is really exciting for me.
The Hard Path
This can probably go without saying, but I am incredibly lazy. Not unlike many other software developers, I got into it as much because I liked automating things that I didn't want to deal with almost as much as I liked the act of writing software itself. It has served me well professionally, but in the same vein as going analog to slow down and be more mindful, I want to deliberately choose the hard path more often. From doing the job instead of hiring it out to someone else, to increasing the challenge of things I already know how to do, I want to find new ways to grow and strengthen my mind and body. Or, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, I want to start wearing out and stop rusting out.