Groundhog Day Resolutions 2015: Kick Off

"Groundhog by Pearson Scott Foreman" [Updated for clarity Feb 5]

Groundhog Day Resolutions (GHDR) are my annual “New Year’s Resolutions” deferred from January 1st to February 2nd. Why wait? I don’t know about you, but after weeks of Holiday Madness I’m in no condition to set any kind of goal. After setting them, I also I designate easy-to-remember “review days” on March 3rd, April 4th, and so forth up to December 12 so I engage in meaningful periodic review.

This year, my overall goals are:

  1. Breaking Dependency on Time because I believe this will lead to greater creativity and productivity due to an improved attitude. I have a weird obsession with time.
  2. Minimization of Energy Sapping Possessions and Responsibilities because I believe that my cluttered home/work environment is not bringing me joy.
  3. Full-time Stationery Business by End of Year because the timing is right to make the transition. An established business will hopefullly enable me to spend extended time with family members on the other side of the world.
  4. Finding the Will to Create and Share because this past year has been tough on my drive to share and create, and I want to get it back. It is essential, I think, to a meaningful life.
  5. Health and Strength because I’m getting old (47!) and have been neglecting all aspects of personal maintenance.

You’ll notice that there are no personal projects listed, nor have I added any exciting stretch goals. I’m feeling tired and low on energy, and it’s been difficult to write or look at computer screens. Maybe I just need new glasses, but I am trying to be prudent by keeping this year’s goals within grasp of my sloth-like reach.

I’ve written up the gruesome details behind each of the above goals in detail; click the MORE link to read the rationale behind each one!

Details Goal Descriptions

1. Breaking Dependency on Time

I found the end of 2014 to be largely positive but difficult going. I was fortunate to have regular project work for the entirety of the year, which meant I was less stressed about money. I splurged on a few ridiculous toys, like a $400 joystick/throttle for computer gaming. However, I’ve found that my attention has been entirely absorbed by work projects, and I had little remaining energy to pursue my other projects. What was even worse was the baleful lack of interest I felt, and I couldn’t think of anything I would rather be doing. My curiosity and drive had pretty much dried-up.

Rather than beat myself up over my creative numbness, I decided that it was OK to just focus on getting through the work, also eliminating as much responsibility as I could by cutting-out housework and personal projects. I was feeling tired and uninspired, burdened by my own expectations, and I essentially chose minimal commitment as the coping strategy.

Choosing minimum commitment, as lame as it felt at the time, turned out to be an useful contrast to my usual standard of endeavoring to achieve maximum productivity and efficiency. It framed the dozens of little mental aches and pains I have from a reduction-oriented perspective, which is quite diffferent from the production-oriented mindset I tend to have. For example, I’ve been very aware of the following personal proclivities:

  • Making progress in a new endeavor always takes more time than I want, and I feel slow.
  • I tend to feel like time is stolen from me by other commitments.
  • I like hoarding time, having huge chunks of it available. My best days are days when the entire day is unscheduled.
  • I like it when I get time back from an efficient process or through preparedness.

These thoughts aren’t out-of-place in someone who values productivity and the pursuit of creative endeavors, and one can easily derive productivity-oriented goals to optimize learning, commitment, and executive efficiency. Of course, I’ve written about all of these points at one time or another, developing productivity hacks and tools for many of them. However, when viewed through my reductive, “minimum commitment” lens, I saw a different pattern: I am totally obsessed with time and more interestingly, by the negative feelings that come from feeling that I am falling short of expectations set by myself and others.

I don’t want to be obsessed with time if it’s because I feel bad about myself. On a practical level, non-critical negative feelings are a huge distraction from performance, because they interrupt one’s train of thought. Imagine trying to do some work with a manager that constantly taps your shoulder saying, “Hey, we need this quickly. Can you work faster? It’s really important. Is this going to be a problem?” every 15 minutes. The well-meaning manager may think he’s being effective by keeping an employee focused on the “big picture”, but it has the opposite effect by constantly applying a feeling of guilt or irritation. That is what I am doing to myself by being obsessed with time; perhaps it is born out of being in the managerial position in my early working years before I understood how to be creative myself.

Anyway, in my creative process I tend to face a few mental blocks immediately. The first one is “do I have the knowledge and skill to do the job?” If I do, the next block is: “how long will it take to resolve?” This is where I get stuck, because I usually don’t know. Even if I have a good idea of how to do it, the mere uncertainty of “how long it will take” is fraught with anxiety. My thoughts automatically go to “how fast can I do this” to “I am not fast enough” or “this will take time I don’t want to spend.” In both reactions, I am automatically demotivated because I am obsessed with conserving time, because I associate that with competence. It’s the kind of thinking that I have found makes creative unenjoyable, and if I review my lifetime of creative endeavors, most of the time I have not enjoyed being creative in my work. It was a job, to be done quickly and profitably. Ugh.

So, this year? I am going to try to break the connection of “self worth” from “being fast”. That means embracing slowness, letting tasks taking as long as they need, and not feeling bad about it. When I worked at Electronic Arts as newbie Art Manager, there were a couple of artists who seemed so immune to timeline pressure that it would drive management crazy. However, they always did phenomenal work, and it is only in hindsight that I’ve realized that they were fully comfortable with the time it took to do the work well, and demanded it. Since then I’ve noticed that other artists I respect have a much different relationship with time than I have had, carving out huge swaths of time for their work with no promise of a hard deadline. They deliver in a timely fashion, though, because they commit to the process of discovery-in-the-moment with steady determination; it produces quality work. I think this lack of time-sense in the moment of creation is a mindset I need to learn.

I’ve started to explore this approach with the recent programming work, and have discovered that getting into the “flow” state is a lot easier when you’re not worried about how long something takes. Any creative task with a large element of uncertainty, I suspect, is easier to face if you’re not feeling rushed.

So that’s what I mean by “breaking dependency on time”. To measure my success on this goal, I will choose blog posts about beating time, which has the prerequisite of being mindful about time in the first place as I do my work, which is exactly what I want.

2. Minimization of Energy Sapping Possessions and Responsibilities

I am fortunate to have a home, a small townhouse condo that I completely own. I am also fortunate to be able to work at home, especially the past couple of years, on a project that is honing my bankable skillset. I am super grateful for still having my health, though it is an ongoing concern as I grow older. I am not, however, happy about the cluttered state of my home.

I have too much junk, and the way that space is used is inefficient and annoying. Partly it is because I don’t like doing chores, and I don’t particularly enjoy picking furniture; this is much related to the “time obsession” and “how long it takes” reactions I described in the previous goal. But mostly, I think I have too much junk because I just don’t think about my environment very much.

There are two reason I want to make minimization of junk a priority:

  • Having a nice home also means having a place to entertain people, which will help me contribute to the creation of a vibrant local community. That’s the idea behind my living room cafe plans.
  • I know that a well-designed, clean space does wonder for my productivity. That’s why I go to coffee shops to work, as much as it is for the sense of connectedness with people.

There are two books that have helped consolidate my thinking on the matter: Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangout at the Heart of a Community.

Kondo’s book is delightful in how it proclaims how absolutely everything in your home should bring you joy, and I think her ruthless-but-joyful approach is compatible with my desire to adopt the mindfulness about my possessions that I lack. I see this book as a process template for reflecting my inner values outwardly in my physical surroundings.

On the other end of the places spectrum, Oldenburg’s book is a systematic exploration of public spaces as a catalyst for community. To even start that discussion, he recognizes that he has to lay down a working definition of community, using examples from different time periods and places around the world. I’m finding it a slow but fascinating read. I’ve already found that the yearning that I have for a communal space is blueprinted in this book, and it’s event given me a good idea of how I can modify my behavior to participate in small talk. Introverts who find social conversation horribly awkward may find this book interesting for just that aspect.

After reading through these two books, my sense is that there are extra responsibilities that I’ve taken on that I need to drop, because they don’t bring me joy. They feel like a social tax that I have to pay. I believe that it’s a tax worth paying, but if there is a way I can pay it and also feel good about the work, that is preferable.

Minimizing my possessions and responsibilities will take a tremendous amount of focused work. As a metric, I will blog about each successful hurdle negotiated anytime I’m able to minimize something significant AND I also receive a burst of joyful satisfaction.

3. Full-time Stationery Business by End of Year

I’ve not made many new forms this past year, and I’m way behind on replying to emails, but I’m happy that the printed versions of the Emergent Task Planner have continued to sell for the 6th year in a row. I’ve seen growth in the volume of sales every time I’ve added a new product. It’s starting to sink-in that this IS a viable business. I have not been as enthusiastic about e-commerce because a lot of the required work seems needlessly inefficient and obtuse, but I am starting to get over it. With that improvement in my attitude, I’m seeing that maybe this is something I should commit to as a serious full-time business.

So what will that take? The origin of my productivity tools is that they were designed as personal experiments, not as an integrated productivity system. While they are all based on what I think are solid productivity principles, there isn’t anything like a “conceptual platform” that newcomers can get their head around. I’ve avoided putting together a system-like description of all the tools because I didn’t know what it was. How could I sell something that wasn’t originally engineered to function as an integrated suite of productivity processes? It seemed dishonest.

This year, I am in a different place. I do have a good idea now about what has worked and why, and who it might work for. I also have a pretty good model of my own attitudes toward productivity and what matters to me versus other people. With effort, I can start to pull it all together and create that platform of integrated ideas. And thanks to the current project work I’m doing, I now capable of building an interactive web application that can help demonstrate what I mean.

From a pure monetary view, I’m thinking of “full-time serious business” as being able to make $3000/month in profit from all related stationery products that I offer. This is actually an old goal from Groundhog Day Resolution 2011 when I started to explore “Money Making Activities”. Back then, my goal was $1000/month of revenue (not profit), and by the end of the year I had maybe cracked $500/month. Profit is around 25-35%, so that was around $150/month of income. It wasn’t enough to live on, but at least the business itself was not losing money. Today, the revenue level is around $3000/month with 2 more products than I had before, yielding a more respectable $1000/month profit. Tripling that amount means selling $10,000 worth of product a month, which would be a huge milestone. Achieving that by the end of 2015 is my challenge, and trying to meet that challenge will be a huge part of my online business education. Fortunately, I have Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA to serve as a guide. It’s one of the clearest business books I’ve ever read.

4. Finding the Will to Create and Share

Blogging has been rough this past year. I was becoming highly aware that what I was writing about seemed to be stuff that I’d written about before, but figured I could keep writing, perhaps less frequently, because new readers might stumble on useful concepts that way, but my heart wasn’t quite in it. Then I received an email from an irate “long time reader” who told me I was writing the same garbage over and over, and was also upset that I had not responded to an earlier request. While the letters themselves were (putting it kindly) blunt in their viewpoint, they hit me at a low moment when my psychic armor was already weak. I’m amazed that I’m still even thinking about it now, but it makes me sad because it’s one of those unwinnable conversations. What is really amazing, though, is how it’s torpedoed my usual desire to share what I’m thinking.

I have been holding this in for a long time, refusing to escalate negative feelings into counter-attack because I don’t think that’s how you solve communication issues. In fact, the reader solved the problem by closing communications and unsubscribing, which is probably the preferred resolution in this case.

Now, I know that this is no reason to not do something. I know that the letters were not intended to have a bullying effect, and were intended as “helpful criticism”. I know that we should rise above such things and continue to do what we can do to individually shine even if we do not exactly know what we’re doing. I am surprised, though, that I am so vulnerable.

That said, enough time has passed and I’m looking ahead. The angry reader was right about one thing, which is that I had been rehashing the same thoughts over and over. What I don’t agree with is that my areas of interest are useless and uninteresting. They are interesting to ME, after all. However, I don’t write in a way that is always easy to follow, and I don’t often keep to a single simple topic. Most of my posts are really long (like this one) and of interest to only other people who are going through a similar process of figuring something out.

I’m not quite sure what to “broaden audience appeal”. This blog is really more of a journal than it is a “tip of the day” site catering to topical interests, though last September I announced a refocusing on SIX BIG GOALS in my writing about particular projects. As I haven’t been working on them that much due to work, there hasn’t been much going on. My personal fun projects have taken a backburner too, so I haven’t even been finding the time to post about that stuff. But I do feel the desire to share that stuff. There is so much stuff to share! I want to break down that barrier I am feeling, to get over my feeling that I don’t have the time, and share those pictures of weird Asian snacks.

I guess we’ll see how it goes in 2015. Just getting the feeling off my chest is a positive step, and having put the challenge into words I feel that the answers are pretty simple: make the time for it without worrying about the time, and drop into the flow of sharing what I love as a beacon to others who love the same thing. This website is a bazaar of ideas and objects, not a specialty retailer.

5. Health and Strength

I just turned 47 years old. That is definitely closer to 50 than it is to 40, which is waaaay far away from 30. What was I doing when I was 20? So much time has passed, and it feels that so little has been done.

While I’m feeling OK physically, I have felt better. I have been in better shape. For the past several years, I have not been mindful of my health or appearance. When everything feels ok, I tend not to spend time thinking about preventative healthcare. It’s only been recently that I’ve gotten health care coverage again under the ACA, and before that I didn’t even know how to use health care. It’s time to face it, with its cloud of uncertain, terribly-designed processes and poor information transparency. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that I didn’t follow-up on health services, because the whole system embodies what I try to avoid in my own design work.

There was an interesting side-effect of turning 47, which was the realization that I might have “enough”. Before, I wanted “everything”, or at least the feeling that “anything is possible”. That is the attitude that one has as the beginning of a poker game. Right now, there are a lot fewer hands to play, and a lot of what’s going to happen is already on the table.

Looking at my hand, I’m seeing that I have a few great cards:

  • I can design and program, which are high-value skills in today’s market.
  • I have a website and a line of productivity tools that has an audience of enthusiastic fans.
  • I have a working e-commerce business on Amazon selling my own original design work.
  • I have a network of friends and associates that help me connect to others like me.
  • I (currently) have the freedom to work at home as my own boss, with clients that I like.
  • I have a place to live that I own outright, minus a home equity line of credit that I am paying down.

What I think I need to play a winning hand:

  • Health and Strength
  • Intimate connection to significant others, friends, and family
  • Social connection to acquaintances, peers, and co-conspirators
  • The grit, ability, wherewithal, to execute the strategy

And for the first time, this seems like it’s ENOUGH, at least right now. It is probably because at the moment, I have no big aspirations. Is this a sign of wanting to settle, or is it a reflection of maturity?

I suppose I will find out. In the meantime I’m not going to worry about the WHY of it so much. From a practical perspective, it’s a solid game plan. I think it is enough to aim for now, and plans can always change as new data comes in.

Looking Ahead

All right…that’s all set for now. I expect to clean this post up a bit, and then put together some kind of strategy for the month ahead to start making progress. I feel that I have woken up, finally, to 2015.