Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

My 2016 Annual Review

As 2016 ends and a new year starts, I wanted to share some of the constellations of things that happened in my life and sketch out the arrows of projects I’m working towards in 2016.

Comparatively speaking, 2016 was another great year. In spite of a start to the year that took me off of the path I was on and tough realities dealing with that, I achieved nearly all of what I had hoped for this past year, especially with my health, fitness, travel, writing and personal learning.

It was a hard but productive year. On one side I was looking for new opportunities. None of which panned out. I had reject several lukewarm offers. Instead, like all bootstrapping entrepreneurs I looked at my strengths, hustled up some opportunities and got to work.

Here is my annual review for 2016.

What is an Annual Review? How to do a Year-in-Review?

A quick diversion to explain how I approach my year-in-review. For me it is a two-step process: look back and look forward.

First, I look back at the past year and check in on how I did in relation to my objectives and projects. Since I’ve becoming increasingly data-driven, I pull out all of my aggregate data points and charts and read each of my weekly reviews. Equally, since I’ve been doing yearly reviews in some form for a few years, including my first public version, My 2015 Annual Review, I take them time to read those and check for any patterns.

Second, I look forward towards the year to come. I set goals and priorities for the months ahead. This largely means a process of establishing some big personal, professional and project objectives. For me the goal-setting process takes a couple of weeks through different drafts, conversations with friends and advisors, and personal reflections. Ultimately I’m trying to great hard but realistic challenges.

Following last year’s template, which I picked up from James Clear, I believe the easiest way to approach writing an annual review is with three questions:

  • What went well this?
  • What didn’t go so well this year?
  • What am I working towards?

The first two questions cover the year before and the last one for the year to come.

With that approach in mind, let’s get started.

What went well this year?

I was ambitious in my objectives for this past year, and I managed to achieve many things I had never thought possible before, including:

Better Habits & Routines: This area was not explicitly a part of my goals for this past year. But by mastering and working on better habits and routines, my life changed. I became a much more productive and successful person. One example I built on was “The Power of Weekly Reviews,” which is my weekly routine reflecting on the past and future week. Additionally using productivity tools like Habitica, I built a morning routine and a work process that helped me get more of the important shit done without the stress. By tracking my habits and being held accountable for them, I got one step closer to GTD Zen Wonderland.

Regular Exercise and Running: I ran a lot this past year. It started with a battle getting to 5k, including an ankle and knee sprain. In the end, I built up to finishing my first half-marathon in December 2016. In total, I ran over 180 times in 2016 for well over well 1000km. Regular exercise and better eating (and less stress!) had the added bonus of helping me lose nearly 10kg this past year too. I’ve found some cool new tracking tech for run tracking and discovered new people to run together with too. I also ran in some pretty wonderful places like Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, Fontainebleau, San Francisco, Porto, San Diego and a few lake runs in my hometown of Omaha.

A Work/Life Balance: 2015 was plagued by overwork and burnout. This was compounded by a difficult company culture and realities of business in China. 2016 started with a lot of these same pressures and company problems, so leaving that company in early 2016 gave me the opportunity to take a break, recharge and regain a better balance. All of this led to a year of generally getting enough sleep while doing great work wherever I was. I still traveled but also embraced China-style Mountain Living.

Tracking Everything: I become rather obsessed with personal tracking this past year. I tend to get obsessed with at least a few new things per year and self-tracking was probably the most consuming. I tracked and recorded several thousand data points this past year from food and music to time and heart rate and many other areas in-between. Through these experiments, I started writing a series of posts entitled, “Tracking Everything,” where I document various possibilities in tracking tech and human life. Overall, this survey has given me a wealth of data and prepared me to undertake a comprehensive year of tracking in 2017.

Writing: My goal was to write 25 posts. I managed to write a lot and published 31 posts for a total of 63,659 words in 2016. The key to writing more was adding 2 or 3 blocks in my calendar each week reserved for writing. So like my work obligations, I had already carved out the time. Knowing when my energy was best for writing helped too so I could avoid email and chat time sucks when my creativity worked best a few mornings per week. My most read articles in 2016 were: “The GTD Way: Managing Your Tasks and Information with Evernote” and “Metrics for Rating China’s Startup Community”. Both were long-form pieces focused on areas I had obsessed about over a few years time.

Hardware and IOT: Like 2015, I spent a good chunk of my personal study time this past year on hardware, IOT and maker studies. I mostly do web software, so it took some time to get comfortable assembling projects with wires, microcontrollers and hardware logic. I managed to build temperature logging tool and a monitor for auto-watering my plants.

Travel: I traveled to 9 countries this past year: Japan, China, USA, Hong Kong, France, Philippines, Taiwan, Belgium and Portugal. My trip to Okinawa, Japan, was the most spiritual and personally marking. It’s a place of deep beauty, urbanism and a dark history. I made visiting friends and family a bigger priority in my travel, and it felt great to visit so many of my closest friends in so many cool places, especially in November and December in Europe. I managed to go diving in a few new spots too this past year.

Reading: My goal was to read one book per week in 2016 or 52 in total. I completed this goal in November and went on to read over 60 books this year, taking me one step closer to my 2000 Book Reading Goal.

Increase My Wealth: Money doesn’t drive me. That said, I wanted to become more conscious of my financial plan. Over the year I read a bunch of articles and a few books, like Toni Robbins’ “Master the Game,” which helped me to clarify a number of concepts around financial planning and investing. So, along with increasing the revenue and profits at my company and subsequently my own wealth, I’ve slowly created some basic rules and habits for long-term financial success too. Money is a game and there are winners and losers. I don’t plan to be a loser.

Meditate: At the beginning of the year as I was struggling with some personal and professional changes, mediation became a way to regain my time and focus. Slowly meditation became a part of my daily maintenance. Like flossing, taking a shower and regular exercise, each day I take some time to be silent, listen to my breathing and focus on emptying my mind. It’s hard process wrestling with our mind, but I’ve made some progress and found a cornerstone to more rounded human existence through daily mediation.

What didn’t go so well this year?

We might not like to admit it but we all fail. I fail like everyone. It hurts to fail, especially when we have such good intentions.

We fail at things for a lot of reasons, but through my study and experiments in habits and tracking, I believe a lot of comes down to misaligned motivation and poor routines. If we haven’t clarified our motivation as a real thing, set it place solid routines and gotten a plan in place to actualize it, we fail. In my last post of 2016, “Achieving Your Goals: Make It Measurable, Trackable and Have a Plan”, I managed to clarify this.

Beyond failed goals and routines, the world and people in it can be harsh. Here are some areas that didn’t go so well for me this past year:

Leaving My Previous Company: A good percentage of my goals for 2016 revolved around my work with community programs and partners for startup education in Asia Pacific. I had made some good progress, but unfortunately, I found a major misalignment personally and professionally at this occupation, so I left. This meant readjusting a good chunk of my objectives shortly after making them. That said, by leaving my previous company post-acquisition, 2016 provided me an opportunity for more focus in a few areas. While I continued to work on speculative endeavors for startup education and accelerators, I was largely more focus-driven on my own businesses this past year.

Getting Stronger: I didn’t get stronger this past year, except if you consider running a form of strength. I suppose failing this objective had to do with being a tad too ambitious and overcommitted. I’m definitely not much stronger than I was a year ago.

Become a Better Teammate and Leader: I didn’t have as many opportunities to lead and be a teammate this past year since I left my previous company. I do think I became better as a boss and manager for my dev team. We definitely have a better chemistry and productivity this past year than in the past.

Continue to Grow Entrepreneurship Programs in Asia: In spite of no longer leading, I was able to continue to help grow a few programs to help entrepreneurs. I was proud of the team effort bringing Startup Next to Taiwan for the first time. I joined several seasons and saw several teams significantly up their businesses through education, mentorship and community. That said, my involvement globally was significantly lower this past year.

Dilettantism and Half-Finished Projects: I struggle with being a bit of a dilettante. I spend a few weeks or months on something but fail to take it all the way to completion. Looking back I studied a lot of different areas, languages and fields in 2016 but many seemly didn’t get done. I over commit and end up failing to execute it to completion. This leaves me with too many half-finished threads.

Family and friends-wise, there were not any major crisises. Everyone has been healthy and happy in my close circles. I was extremely fortunate as well to have avoided any major injuries and sickness too.

What am I working toward?

I again have a pretty ambitious list of objectives for 2017. Like the last few years, I’m continuing my personal development drive.

At the beginning of 2016, I was pushed by a coach and mentor to flesh out more of who I am, the feeling and passion in my tactical objectives. This “push” become a reflection I returned to throughout the year and helped me to find a a more holistic approach to my self and objective. Instead of just goals on a list or things to check off, I am striving to aim at the whole of what drives me.

Through a few exercises, thoughts and writing, I’ve found five “personas” or areas that drive who I am and my personal meaning: Traveler, Learner, Self-Improver, Helper and Creative. Having these five core personas has made it easier to view my life mission and objectives through those optics, enabling me to focus on things that contribute (and ignore those that don’t).

Obviously not everything I do can fulfill those 5 areas but working on things that come close seems to bring me the most joy and meaning.

For me, 2016 was about building solid routines, especially my morning routine. For 2017, I aim to continue building on those. Here are my main objectives I’m striving for in 2017:

1. Train and Run a Marathon: I’ve trained for a year and have a few more months ahead with my coach as I strive to do my first 42k marathon run. I’m also aiming to do 1000 miles in total distance running in 2016.

2. Self-Track “Everything”: After months of self-experiments, I’ve set 20 areas to track consistently in 2017. This will definitely create a ton of data I look forward to writing and reflecting upon during the year.

3. Write and Publish a Book: Tentatively titled “Data-Driven You,” I’m working on a book about self-tracking. Combining some personal stories and a how-to guide to tracking, it aims to be an informative yet inspirational read for would-be and long-time self-trackers and self-improvers.

4. Travel & Visit at least 6 countries: Travel is part of my life and personality. I hope to get to at least 6 countries in the year to come, including a few new ones. I continue to make time to visit my family each year too. I’ll continue to dive, run and explore this grand world of ours.

5. Get Stronger: I plan to work out my muscles more regularly. For now I’m a newbie so it is about activating my nerves and learning the forms. I want to aim at strength as an aspect of long-term health and durability. This one should be a fun one. In view of my learnings and progress with running, I can transfer a lot of the takeways to strength training too.

Conclusion: Striving Without Getting Obsessed with Only Achievements

A lot of folks like to create a theme for each year as part of their process of New Year’s Resolutions, like fun or scaling or health. It’s not currently my method, though I do notice different themes from the past. 2016 felt like the year of striving for me. I was striving to improvement myself, business and body.

It’s a theme I saw before in 2014:

“I’d say the most important aspect for 2014 for me was striving. I was striving on multiple projects in multiple domains. I expanded my skill set and experience in quite a few areas this past year. I didn’t succeed or finish everything to 100% but I was always out there pushing. And with each push, I got stronger. With each strive, I learned a bit more and gained a bit more confidence.”

Like a lot of my friends, we are high achievers. We attempt to keep doing amazing things and are somewhat tricked into trying to achieve so many things we expect to have done by a certain age. This can be a good driver to self-betterment, but it can also lock us into a cycle of never quite being satisfied. I’m victim of this societal thinking too: never quite satisfied in spite of the overall progress.

I still struggle with being achievement-driven. I take on a lot of objectives, goals and business ventures. I get a lot done but fail to enjoy the progress and journey and beat myself up about lack of perfection. This is an area I want to remember going into the new year: it’s not only about the achievements; it’s about the path you take.

Own your path. Don’t compare it. Build your way as you go about. And make each day, week and year awesome.

Here’s to an awesome 2016 and striving graciously in 2017!

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