Lessons Learned From A Year of Monthly Themes
In 2020 I tried an experiment. In the time before COVID I made a plan to set a theme for each month. These themes would be simple – just one word. The idea was to let that theme influence what I did and how I thought for that month.
The hope was to set themes related to areas of my life that were out of balance. Working too hard? Set a theme that reminds you to relax. Having trouble getting things done? Set a theme that would encourage focus. Not sure what to work on? Set a theme that encourages you to dream big.
This idea was inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project where she picked a different topic for each month to work on. I didn’t end up looking at her themes, but we both ended up picking the same one for December! It was also inspired by Cait Flanders’s A Year of Less, which touched on many similar ideas without being quite as rigid in structure.
At least that was the hope. Let’s see how well it went!
Coming into the new year I was spending a lot of time on social media –– too much time. It had been a year since I retired, and I was still getting used to having 24 hours of time to fill. Jumping around from task to task meant I wasn’t getting into a “flow” state with anything.
Here’s what I tried and how it went:
- ✅ Do a digital detox and take a month off social media.
- ❌ Read and reflect on a page from The Daily Stoic every morning.
- ✅ Set aside dedicated time for activities.
- ❌ Set 3 tasks every day in Todoist.
- ✅ Eliminate distractions.
The most impactful change this month was planning things ahead of time. Whether that was setting aside time on my calendar, or just mentally preparing myself, just spending some time to think through a task helped a lot.
What helped more than anything was getting pulled into jury duty for a 5-week trial (!). This happened the first Monday of the year, and lasted all of January. During the trial, I needed to get up at 7:45 AM every weekday, walk down to the courthouse and sit with my full attention for 8 hours.
This turned out to be the change I needed. It’s impossible to be half-there when someone’s life is on the line. It made my minor concerns over my own focus seem small in comparison. Having a theme of focus also made me a really good juror.
Focus as a theme: 4/5.
After a month of unplanned work as a juror and volunteering and attending Sundance, I felt like I had a growing to-do list that was neglected. I hate having “unclosed loops” in my head drawing small bits of my attention. This month’s theme was all about closing as many loops as possible.
This included a bunch of things that were important to me at the time:
- ❌ Finish the Minafi Investor Bootcamp
- ❌ Finish the video games I’ve started (Red Dead Redemption 2, Dead Cells, Death Stranding).
- ✅ Finish the graphic novels I’ve started reading.
- ✅ Finish the latest books in any series that I’ve started (ex: book 3 when I’ve already read 1&2).
- ✅ Finish my jury duty.
- ✅ Unsubscribe, unfollow people and declutter.
Of all the themes of the year, this was one of my favorites. By focusing on closing as many open loops as possible, I freed up the rest of the year for new things (which turned out to be staying at home during COVID ?).
It also gave me more time and mental energy for new books, new games, and new projects – while being able to move onto them without looking back. At the end of this month, I felt rejuvenated and ready to start new things!
Finish as a theme: 5/5
Yeah, I picked “routine” as my theme for the month that COVID-19 hit the US hard. You can guess how this theme went.
The hope was to create more things that I considered my routine. Without a job – or jury duty – I’d started to miss some kind of structure. Mrs. Minafi also left her job in January, so we were still trying to figure out what our day-to-day lives post-RE would be like.
- ❌ Going to the gym every morning at 8 am (my gym closed due to COVID).
- ✅ Create a quiet morning routine. For me, this involved reading in the morning with coffee.
- ❌ Weekly date night with Mrs. Minafi (tough to do when you’re in the first month of a pandemic).
- ❌ Spend time doing some focused learning on a topic.
Yeah, this didn’t work out too well. At least, it wasn’t what I planned. To my surprise, I did end up creating a bunch of routines this month that were useful later on in the year.
- Have a reset day each week to make sure the apartment is clean, my most important tasks are done and things are in order.
- Spend some time every morning learning Japanese (still doing this today!)
- Conduct a weekly planning session once a week.
- Schedule rest days where I don’t plan any tasks.
I still do all of these today! The weekly planning sessions have been some of the most useful, and I’m planning to write a post about that process soon.
My biggest takeaway from this month was that it’s still possible to make progress towards a goal by reevaluating it throughout the month and adapting success for changes since it was set out.
Routine as a theme: 3/5.
March was rough. My family planned on visiting but that trip was canceled. We had a 3-week trip to South Korea and Taiwan – also canceled.
Like most of the world, I spent much of the month staying on top of the news, making sure we had hand sanitizer, masks and toilet paper and adapting to a new world.
April was about breaking out of that consumption spiral and trying to be creative again. With that guideline laid out, I set a few goals:
- ✅ Cook new recipes
- ✅ Program something
- ✅ Take a course
- ✅ Spend time researching
- ✅ Write more
This worked out! By shifting my mindset to just creating things, I worried a lot less about the money side or trying to balance what I did.
If I spent too much time on social media, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that was always asking “why aren’t you creating?“. This constant drumbeat helped remind me to switch from consumption to creation.
On a personal level, this felt like giving myself a free pass to do anything as long as it was adding (or learning). I loved this theme and ended up revisiting it in a new way in June (Explore).
Create as a theme: 5/5.
My focus this month was on doing things I don’t want to do, but need to do in order to achieve goals down the line. Even for projects I love, there are parts I don’t. This theme was all about tackling those tasks to get them out of the way.
- ✅ Finish the Minafi Investor Bootcamp content
- ❌ Finish a draft of my interactive guide to investing
- ❌ Keep increasing my physical stamina
- ❌ Build more momentum to get used to working on hard things.
Well, 1 out of 4 isn’t bad, right? I was extremely excited to finally launch the Minafi Investor Bootcamp. That took way more work than I’ve let on. It has 2 hours of video content, which I edited myself after learning how. It uses a custom platform here on Minafi with the code I wrote. And it has about 65k words of content to read through – about a book.
In other words, I ended up building a platform, creating a video course and writing a book. No wonder it seemed so hard! Although, being able to switch from one to the other was really nice when I needed a break.
Work as a theme: 4/5 because I completed my most important topic.
This theme came to me while reading The History of the Future – a nonfiction book about the rise of virtual reality. John Carmack, the creator of Doom and long-time programmer, has a rule I love. After each phase of a project, he would take some time off to let his mind wander, try new things and let his creativity run wild.
Since I’d finally launched the course I was working on, it was a perfect time to try new things!
- ✅ Explore new hikes around Utah.
- ❌ Explore new data – specifically a post about race and financial independence.
- ✅ Explore new investment info by creating a Minafi Fund Directory
- ❌ Explore new ways to help make a change
- ✅ Explore augmented reality
This was suuuch an exciting month. After being stuck at home for months due to COVID, my mind missed exploring. This month was a reminder that exploring didn’t mean traveling to exotic locations – it could happen right here at home.
I wrote and launched the Minafi Fund Directory this month too – the easiest way to check if a mutual fund or ETF is a solid choice for retirement investing.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I started working on what would eventually be my minimalist journal – something I use every day now. It started as a completely different project but grew into this over time. Without planting those seeds this month it wouldn’t have grown.
My biggest letdown for the month was not writing an article on how race impacts FIRE. I’d planned to use data from my Interactive Guide to FIRE to explore how the path differed by race – something similar to what I did for the gender pay gap and the millennial retirement age.
But I ran into a snag. I didn’t ask for race initially when I created the FIRE guide, so I had a lot less data. Even today, only 2% (50/2,000) of people who provided their race choose black. Ultimately, my failure to write about this is a reason why my black readership is so small. I failed to write even about something this month, at the time when cars were being overturned in riots supporting George Floyd just blocks away from our apartment. We donated to causes to support BLM, the ACLU, and sent angry Tweets about the state of race in our country, but it ultimately didn’t feel like anything useful. I still want to write that post – but I want to find a way to do better first.
Explore as a theme: 5/5.
After wrapping up the course I was working on and spending some time to explore new things, I realized I needed to set my next new major project to work on. If I don’t have an ambitious, multi-stage project to work towards, I feel a little lost. During COVID there were many things I was looking forward to that were canceled. Overall we are EXTREMELY fortunate – something I think about every day. But it’s still important to have things to hope for.
This theme was less about productivity and a vision for getting things done, and more about finding exciting ways to get away:
- ✅ Revise my list of 101 Things I Want to Know, Have, Do or Be
- ✅ Create a Utah bucket list
- ✅ Plan trips, but don’t plan a date
- ❌ Find our next big event trip
This month was all about research. Everything on the above list can be done in bed on a computer.
The most impactful choice was to make a Local Bucket List. This turned out to have a bunch of things on it that we were able to do during COVID. We went backpacking to places we read about this month. We went to some local attractions once it was safe (like the aquarium). We found new places to explore within an hour’s drive.
Most importantly penciled in a road trip around Utah hitting a bunch of National Parks. In December of 2020, we took the plunge and went on a 2-week road trip through Capital Reef National Park, Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument, Bryce Canyon, and all the way down to The Grand Canyon.
Side note: we ate all our meals in our hotel room with takeout, minimized any interactions with people, and quarantined for 2 weeks after.
This trip would not have happened without taking some time to get inspired about what it could be.
Vision as a theme: 4/5.
This theme was a little different. Rather than trying to pack as much as possible into a month, this was about trying to remove everything I could. Whatever was left I would be able to focus more on.
It was inspired by the idea of a teacher trying to teach a student but was unable to make progress since the student’s mind was already full. Once they learned to let go and make room for new things they were able to progress.
Part of the reason I wanted to do this theme was the overwhelming amount of shouting and news about the election. It was becoming tiring and there were still 2 more months after this. I knew I wanted to volunteer and make an impact, but I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exhausted. This theme was a bit of self-care to prepare me mentally for the rest of the year.
I also went on a few overnight backpacking trips with friends this month, as well a few days in a hotel with Mrs. Minafi for her birthday weekend.
The goals this month were more about stopping than starting:
- ✅ Take a break from working on Minafi for 6 weeks
- ✅ Take a break from any social media validation (I could still use it, but I tried to stop caring about any “results”).
- ✅ Stop my current exercise routine and let a new one evolve.
- ✅ Pause any coding projects I feel I “need” to do.
- ✅ Stop using a todo list and a calendar (for my own time)
This was a break from everything. A break from self-imposed stress, from self-imposed deadlines, from my own routine, and what I thought I needed to do.
The result? I was lost. I floated around not sure what to do. Eventually, I picked up projects to work on, but it didn’t feel the same.
What this month highlighted was how much I suck at relaxing. I doubt I could ever be the kind of person who sits on a beach for a week drinking margaritas. I’d much rather be the one trying to explore every ruin in the jungle and recovering in the hot tub at night.
I want to get better at relaxing, but I still have a ways to go.
Empty as a theme: 1/5.
September, October, and November
Wait, no themes for September, October, and November? It turns out that stopping all personal systems (calendar, to-do list, habits) made it very tough to restart.
I wasn’t in the mood to write themes those months. Between the election, volunteering, doom scrolling, and everything else, I didn’t write much on Minafi during those months.
To take my mind off things, I programmed. I created an interactive sequence of accounts visualization and a Monte Carlo Retirement Simulator. Both were fun projects that I got so into that I forgot to eat some days (or blog).
Sometimes I’m most productive when I’m stressed out. I remember in college before final exams I would find entirely new projects to work on and put every moment I could into them. Major parts of my first website (a Dance Dance Revolution fan site) were created after midnight on the day of finals.
September through November felt very similar to that. It was trying to regain some sense of control by sinking time into projects. That’s also when I rewrote my minimal journal to be what it is today.
If there was a theme for this time it would probably have been track. After spending so much time thinking of ways to “empty” my mind, I didn’t want to go back to the old routine. I started tracking my days using the new app I built. I just wanted to escape it and do something else. Anything to get my mind off politics and focus on something fun or that I could control.
This was not a good place to be. The world knew people to show up and do their best, and I struggled to find a way to do that during these months. I did end up volunteering a bunch sending out 10s of thousands of texts (I’m sorry if you got one ?). Ultimately it didn’t feel like I was making a difference there and looked for ways to help out using my programming skills instead. I’ve tried a few programming volunteer opportunities, but I’m still on the lookout if you know any.
After the election, I tried to slow down and enjoy life a little more. Lately, I’d started trying to better understand what makes people happy. That’s a topic that dips into philosophy, mental health and is vastly different for everyone.
In an attempt to better understand, I started reading books on happiness. One line from The Happiness Equation stood out. All of the evidence on happiness that he’s reviewed and peopled interviewed came down to one important takeaway: Happiness does not follow action; action follows happiness.
In other words, rather than doing things to be happy, being happy motivates you to do things!
This isn’t good advice for everyone. If you’re severely depressed, have high anxiety, or are just overly stressed, advice like “just be happy” is a slap in the face.
For me though, where I was in life, “just be happy” was the right message at the right time. It was a reminder to show gratitude for what I have, love for those around me, and appreciation for what I’ve got – which is pretty great.
Going on a road trip that was planned for 5 months didn’t hurt either:
These pictures make the trip seem perfect, but that’s just not the case. There were mornings we didn’t want to get out of bed and times were we so sore we just wanted to ice our wounds. There was even one hike that we (ok, I) completely underestimated that resulted in us hiking into the night in 20-degree weather. Fortunately, we had head lamps, but it wasn’t a great night.
If you’ve ever been the person trying to “be upbeat” when those around you aren’t, you’ll know how annoying that can feel. I’m generally a happy guy, but there’s a world of difference between being happy yourself and actually helping others get there too.
This month was a combination of all the themes up until this point for the year. I tried to pick and choose things I enjoyed throughout the year – routines I enjoyed, exploration that inspired me – and put it all together.
Enjoy as theme: 5/5, would do again!
Takeaways From This Experience
We all needed new hobbies and interests to keep sane during 2020. Creating these themes and repeatedly thinking about them throughout each month was one way I took my mind off everything outside of my control happening in the world, and focused on what I could control.
In my previous 9-5 working life, I put a very high value on productivity. Even today I put too much emphasis on getting things done. One of the goals for this year was to move away from that as a measuring stick of personal success. Productivity without happiness, connection, and hope left a hole in my heart. These themes helped heal that.
I absolutely loved this experiment. What stands out now thinking back to it is how much more context I have for each of these words. If you said “explore” to me before this year, I’d have a different connection to it. Now each of these words feels like a friend who I’ve been through thick and thin and we’ve learned to live together.
Well, all except routine who is more like the roommate I never see, but makes a mess in the kitchen that I have cleaned up.
Even though I’m not setting themes for 2021, I am journaling privately every week. Both hit on the same end goal: repeated self-evaluation with an eye for growth. What you choose to grow depends on what’s most important to you.
What about you? Have you ever tried a similar growth experiment? How’d it go? Let me know in the comments.