I’ve struggled with what I even want to say about this year. There’s an awful lot that can remain unsaid since most of us had a similar experience with, well… all of it. I’m not sure I have anything to add to the broader discourse, and simply writing about how hard my year was seems both pointless and a little disingenuous. The objective truth is, on the scale of how difficult 2020 was for everyone, mine was very much on the easier side.
I work a comfortable tech job, at a company where demand for our product rose sharply as more people suddenly needed to communicate using video. My company has also done quite a lot to ensure we’re all taken care of, providing a pretty wide range of new perks at home, including a utilities stipend, recurring Seamless credit, a home office equipment budget, an additional paid day off every 2 weeks (on top of our regular 17-day PTO allowance), a paid subscription to Headspace, monthly snack box delivery, regular (remote) social events and more. Productivity expectations have also, in my experience, been adjusted accordingly; everyone seems aware that after many months in a pandemic the best you’re going to get out of anyone is about 90%, and most days will be shy of even that.
So, you know… with all that going for me, and being in good health, it’s a little guilt-inducing to say I had a tough year. But I also can’t ignore the fact that some parts of this year were in fact really difficult. I live alone, which has been something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m not getting absolutely sick of anyone I’m trapped with, but on the other… I’m alone. Basically always. Video calls and game nights certainly help, but after nearly a full year of isolation now, I’m really feeling it.
The side effects of that isolation manifest in a variety of ways, but the big ones are a wildly irregular sleep schedule and significant lack of motivation. This in turn triggers a lot of general anxiety, and in the case of work, a bit of guilt. Add to that a general fury at a wider society that seems incapable of caring about other members of that society by refusing to do something as simple as wear a fucking face mask properly and you get a recipe for a pretty rough self-perpetuating cycle. It’s this constant state of heightened anxiety that’s made some pretty basic challenges closer to crippling all year. The number of times I’ve put off small tasks by saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow” is a very large number. I haven’t been diagnosed with depression or any anxiety disorder, but I imagine this is close to what that’s like.
But I digress; I think I’ve just largely described how many people experienced 2020 (and will continue to experience most of 2021 as the pandemic continues). On top of that loosely shared experience, I did have some other personal challenges, including a breakup. And while I’m not going to discuss it at length as I did with my break up in last year’s review, it was a significant disappointment nonetheless. Indeed, I think my aforementioned anxiety struggles were a huge part of what ultimately caused that relationship to fail. We both dealt with our pandemic-induced struggles in pretty different ways that put a whole lot of stress on the relationship. Eventually, we felt the relationship wasn’t really serving either of us any more and we called it quits.
In an effort to internalize some gratitude for all I do have in this tremendous shit storm we find ourselves in, I went looking for some wins and things to be grateful for from the past year. And I made myself a pretty good list. Some of them are pretty small, like finding out I can actually grow a pretty nice beard, and some of them are much bigger, like seeing a therapist. These “wins”, both big and small, are the kind of things I want to carry forward through 2021 (more on that later).
I started seeing a therapist. Some time over the summer I had a pretty serious anxiety attack, the cause of which I couldn’t ever pinpoint, but seemingly for no reason I just felt panicked. Fast breathing, rapid heart rate, spiraling thoughts - all for basically no reason. It was at that point with my pandemic-induced anxiety troubles that I decided to start seeing a therapist, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. My weekly sessions have been exceedingly helpful, and I’m glad I made this decision.
I started streaming video games. I figured that if I was spending all my time at home playing games anyway, having other people be able to stop by and chat while I do it was a pretty great idea. So I started streaming on Twitch. I don’t get a lot of viewers most days, but streaming a couple times a week has still been a fun thing to do. It’s nudged me to try out a few more games, and provides a nice semi-social experience that can sometimes fight the isolation. I’ve also met a couple people with whom I now play games regularly. I’m going to keep streaming, even if only 2 people show up and I’m mostly talking to myself.
I donated quite a bit of money. I donated about 2.4% of my income to various causes this year. A sizable chunk of that was to political causes, but I also made significant donations to more charitable causes like Food Bank for NYC. With the presidential election behind us, I’m looking to just reallocate those political donations to other things (more on that later).
I did some good things for the environment. And while I very firmly believe the actual problem of climate change cannot be solved by consumer choices, that doesn’t mean personal action is entirely useless (as long as it doesn’t distract you from the real polluters). But this year I signed up for Arcadia, which sources my electricity from much cleaner sources than the standard supply for my area. It also connects me to community solar projects, which earns me a discount on my electricity, and is of course clean energy. People in many states are eligible so I highly recommend checking it out. I also made significant donations to The Ocean Cleanup, which is doing awesome work removing plastic from the ocean. Lastly, I got rid of my car, which is a pretty indirect way of helping the environment and probably even less impactful than the other two things, but feels like a symbolic environmental win.
I grew a collection of houseplants. I started the year with 3 houseplants, and now have 14 (15 if you count the Chia Pet unicorn I received as a Christmas gift). In addition to just being something to do, the plants have really livened up the corner of my living room and a couple window sills. I’m starting to run out of surfaces for plants, but this is a solvable problem.
I joined a book club. It’s organized through work, and the books are even purchased for me. It’s been a fantastic way to socialize with my coworkers, and it’s also nudged me to read more books than I have in ages. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve read books I probably never would’ve chosen myself and so far I’ve enjoyed them all. I’m looking forward to this continuing.
I paid off a student loan. So 2 down, 9 to go (because it seems unlikely we’ll get any sort of cancellation). But with federal loan payments on hold, I reallocated those payments and some extra towards a private loan that was not on hold and managed to pay it off right at the end of the year. With an interest rate of 5%, that’s a pretty solid win to me.
And so these are the kinds of things I want to try to carry forward into 2021. Before I get to that, how about some numbers?
By the Numbers
- Productivity pulse of 68 (-10)
- Averaged 3h 47m (-36m) all productive time per day
Notably large drop in daily productivity stats, but considering we’re living and working through a global pandemic, managing nearly 4 hours of all productive time each work day feels like a victory. I’ll also note the numbers skew lower because each week I’m able to take a half day off, and a lot of the time I forget to disable the time tracking during my off hours.
RescueTime Top 5 Categories:
- Communication & Scheduling (38%)
- Software Development (21%)
- Utilities (10%)
- Social Networking (7%)
- Entertainment (7%)
Last year my top two categories were reversed, and the massive increase in communication tools reflects the shift to remote work. Lots more video calls and meetings overall. I was also involved in a lot of hiring this year, so I had a lot of video calls for interviews and such. Social networking and entertainment sneaking into the top 5 reflects both my forgetfulness in disabling time tracking on my half days, and a very real increased distractibility in working in quarantine.
- Average of 4,634 steps / day (-44.3%)
- Average of 2,187 calories / day (-1.4%)
- Average of 234mg of caffeine / day (+6.4%)
- Average of 17.7g of fiber / day (+3.5%)
- Average of 7 hours 21 minutes of sleep / night (+1.4%)
- Ended the year weighing 141.5lbs, an increase of 7.8lbs from the start of the year
- Average body fat percentage of 9.6% (-12.2%)
- I spent 84% of my income1
Some obvious things in here, like the massive drop in average number of steps - there’s only so many times I can walk across my apartment, you know? I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I did increase my average amount of sleep by a small amount, which means my constant tiredness is not from lack of sleep so much as quality, consistency and oh yeah, being trapped in the same place at all times. I appear to be compensating with slightly more caffeine than last year.
I had set a goal to eat 24g of fiber per day, and I fell far short of that, struggling off and on throughout the year to maintain good eating habits. The last couple months of 2020 were better in that regard with November and December averaging 21.3g and 22g respectively. I’m curious how I gained 8lbs but somehow lost a notable amount of body fat without working out at all. It mostly calls into question the accuracy of my FitBit Aria scale for body fat measurement. Until I replace the scale (something I want to do anyway), I think I’m going to stop tracking body fat percentage.
I’m also really happy to see that I was able to save about 16% of my income this year. I had a few large expenses this year (including a few too many impulse purchases because I was bored at home), and also some extra student loan payments so managing a good savings rate is nice to see.
Goals from 2020
Like most people who set some goals in 2020, I pretty much threw mine out the window when we the pandemic quarantine began, but a quick recap and some reflection.
Spend 2 weeks alone in Europe: For obvious reasons, my trip to Europe was cancelled. It would seem that 2021 isn’t going to be predictable enough for me to try to plan such a large trip also, so I’m deferring it another year.
Step up healthy habits: Pandemic stress made this a bit difficult. I did not continue yoga classes, as mine used to conveniently be at the office and I don’t really have space to do online yoga classes in my apartment. I participated in one 5K race in February, but the other races I had registered for were cancelled, and I fell out of the habit of running. I did pay closer attention to fiber intake with mixed success, improving my daily average from 17.1g to just 17.7g - pretty far off my 24g goal.
Read 20 books: This did not happen - I only read 4 books. Extended quarantine has me feeling pretty burnt out, and reading is often too mentally taxing for me to do. The book club organized through work has been a bit of a motivator though, so that’s encouraging.
- Work on at least 3 non-work code projects: This didn’t happen at all. I can make it through a work day, but after that I have no interest at all in writing code right now. Again, it’s too mentally taxing to be the thing I want to do in my spare time.
Goals for 2021
I’m labeling this section goals, but not everything here is a “goal”, per se. I’m trying to frame some of these as wins from 2020 I’m “carrying forward” rather than setting many goals so they feel like less work.
Continue seeing my therapist: Working with a therapist has been really helpful for dealing with quarantine-induced anxiety and burnout, and some other issues I’ve been struggling with. I’m looking forward to continuing my sessions with them.
Invest in creative outlets: My primary creative outlet in 2020 was video games - I play a lot of simulation games - and they’ve been an incredible tool for managing anxiety to just be able to “zone out” for a while. Streaming them has been a nice way to make them somewhat social as well, so I’ll continue to stream on Twitch, though I stream more than simulation games. I’m also going to start re-learning the piano. I purchased a nice keyboard and I’m starting small, practicing just a couple times a week. Continuing to make investments in these hobbies will prove valuable, I think.
Get more plants: Having a good collection of houseplants has been a fantastic way to add a little life to my apartment, which is critical when virtually every waking moment is spent in one room. Making more investments in my collection will be nice. I’m also making this a creative outlet, growing some bonsai trees from seed and sharing photos of their progress on Instagram with haikus. If that sounds like your thing, give Bonshaiku a follow.
Double down on last year’s environmental wins: Again, consumer choices will not be enough to stave off climate change, but that doesn’t make some choices entirely useless. While consumer choices like plastic recycling is largely a myth that’s routinely undermined by real polluters, some consumer choices can serve as important inputs to systems we mostly don’t control. To that end, I’m opting in to 100% wind energy with Arcadia. I’m starting to compost food scraps, which is easier than I thought in NYC (there’s lots of drop-off locations scattered across the city). I’m also making recurring donations to carbon-offsetting projects with Project Wren, which has a calculator to estimate my personal carbon footprint and determines a dollar amount necessary to offset it. By the end of the year, I plan to double my contribution so I’m “carbon negative”. I can’t speak to the accuracy of their calculator, but the list of projects and the transparency around them is welcome. Carbon capture is also strictly necessary to prevent disastrous climate change so contributing to those efforts is a nice win.
Make more local donations: While I donated a solid amount of my income last year, much of that was to political campaigns not strictly in NY. I’d like to continue donating money, but I’m focusing on more local efforts. So far that’s meant making my occasional donation to Food Bank For New York City a recurring one. I’ve also set a rule for myself that political donations this year will be limited to local candidates and groups. Charitable donations are a line item in my monthly budget and there’s still unspent money in that budget at the moment so I’ll be looking for more ways to spend it locally.
Continue last year’s financial wins: One of the nice side effects of being forced to stay home is that I saved a decent chunk of money. My retirement savings actually started to grow, and I paid off one of my student loans. In an effort to continue that trend, I’ve gone ahead and increased my 401k contribution to 8% of my income, and increased my monthly IRA contribution by $50. With Federal loans still on hold interest free, I can also allocate those payments to my outstanding private loan. I won’t come close to paying it off this year, but it’s now my only loan not on hold so it makes the most sense to direct extra money at right now.
- Carry over a few of 2020’s goals: I liked some of the goals I had set last year, even though I didn’t come close to meeting them. I’d like to read 12 books, which mostly means continuing to participate in the book club at work (though I’m skipping our first book of 2021). I still think eating more fiber would be good so I’m keeping that goal. And I do want to get back to running - NYRR organizes virtual races so I’d like to participate in at least 5 of those this year.
Overall I don’t think there’s anything overly ambitious on this list. Indeed much of it can be automated, making it nice and achievable. With the uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic that’s just the sort of thing I could use right now. I don’t think 2020 was the year anyone wanted, but at least it’s set a pretty low bar for 2021 to clear. Here’s to a year of a just a few more wins.
1Spending tracked in Mint, minus the percentage of my income deposited to my 401k, which never arrives as income in Mint. Based on contributions this year, that was about 4% of my total income.