There’s something that I’ve grown to love about the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It feels like time slows down, and everyone becomes more reflective.
It is for these reasons that every year since 2014, I’ve deliberately set aside some time that week to evaluate the past year and set my theme for the year ahead.
For the past five of those years, I’ve shared my theme for the year in a blog post. My theme in 2014 was change and resiliency. In 2015, it was vulnerability. In 2016, it was mindfulness. In 2017, it was honey over vinegar. This past year: process.
I start out by asking a series of macro-level questions.
- What are the things that went well in 2018? What are the things that I am most proud of?
- What were my biggest mistakes or failures in 2018?
- What do I want to stop doing?
- What goals did I not achieve this year?
- Where is the resistance winning?
- Did I fully embrace the theme that I set for myself for the year?
When I started to think about 2018, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. If you are just looking at my year through social media, this may confuse you. It is all photos of fun traveling adventures, great books I read, and oddly, a weird fascination with turtles last spring.
In the past few years, I had no problem writing down five or more things I was proud of accomplishing. This year I struggled to write down anything. Many of the accomplishments I ended up writing down seem shallow and trivial.
- I wrote my monthly email newsletter consistently for an entire year without skipping any months. (You can subscribe here if you are interested.)
- Read 19 books.
Compared to the past few years, these accomplishments don’t feel particularly special.
In contrast, the words that come to mind when I think about 2018 are anything but accomplishments. They are:
- Playing it small and safe
My theme in 2018 was process. It was meant to help me get back to the basics, establish some additional habits, do the hard work, and set myself up to better play the long game.
In hindsight, focusing on process had a lot more unintended negative consequences than positive ones. I used it as a crutch to play small, make excuses and, time and time again, hide from vulnerability and risk. I was defaulting to comfort instead of courage. It was like focusing only on the process took away my edge and fire.
So often, when you are stuck in a rut, the only way out of it is when other people mention it to you.
If you are lucky, it builds up in subtle ways over the course of a couple of weeks or months.
Other times, you get a loud wake-up call.
In this case, the smack in the face came from a tough conversation with a mentor who shared some uncomfortable critical feedback.
As I began to reflect more on the year as a whole, this mentor’s feedback grew louder and louder.
It became clear that every meaningful goal that I was working towards was generally in the 40% – 70% “complete” range.
Over the course of the year, I had short bursts or sprints where I made a lot of progress. Then, I’d hit a decision point, reach an obstacle, encounter something more urgent, find a new shiny object, get bored with it, you name it. I’d predictably put the project on hold and abandon all of the momentum and progress that I had previously made. I’d let excuses, fear, playing it small, and sometimes, pure laziness keep me from going at the task 100% until it was finished.
The truth was I lacked focus. I was too quick to find any excuse or reason to cave into the resistance and stop working on a goal.
That’s something that I need to change in 2019, and the main reason why my theme for the year ahead is FOCUS.
When I think about focus, I automatically think of this question from Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing.
“What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
I’ve lost count of the number of people that I’ve shared this question with, and yet, this past year, I didn’t practice what I told others to do at all.
When most of us think about focus, we think about “deep work,” multitasking, and getting rid of distractions. We confuse focus with productivity and getting shit done.
The reality is FOCUS isn’t about productivity. It is about making the conscious decision to do less, but do it better.
- Prioritizing the important instead of the urgent.
- Figuring out what you should do instead of what you want to do.
- Identifying the things that really matter and ignoring the rest.
When you dial in and focus, you might not know how to get from “A” to “B.” However, the immediate next step will emerge. As you keep working, more steps will open up. That’s how real progress and opportunities emerge.
This all starts with a decision to focus.