I usually wait until January 1st to launch my official goal planning for the coming year. But as I approach 2022, I wonder if I need a different mindset going in.
My normal approach is that I think about the past year, update my to-do list, and try to dream big for the year. I often do quite well with this approach over the year, setting goals and tracking them, etc. Earlier this month, I ripped the bandaid off to talk truth to myself, and did a review of the past year, although in some ways it was the past two years. Mostly it was like many other people, two years of living in a wasteland of poor progress. While I appreciate the comments and caring I received from friends who read the posts and were worried that I was being too hard on myself, the review is only partly normative. Mainly it is descriptive. I lament the lack of progress, but I am not overly berating myself for it. I know what I’m capable of in a normal world, and I know what I’ve been capable of in the last two years. I am less “upset” with myself than “disappointed” that circumstances let me down or that I wasn’t up to the task the way that I had hoped to be. It’s a fine line, but I feel that it is a lot like a performance review for work. Nothing that I “tell” myself at that time comes as a surprise — I already lived through it. It’s documentation of the snapshot in time, summarizing a year of progress, not “Surprise! You suck!”.
But perhaps there is a larger normative element if I look back over many years. There are a lot of goals I committed to and yet didn’t make much progress on during individual years. Some of that is simple time…if I set myself a hundred goals, obviously I won’t achieve all of them. Nor do I expect to, although that is a very hard nuance to convey. Lots of people chime in on my posts, claiming it is too much, or that it will dissipate my momentum across too disparate of initiatives. They’re not wrong, there IS an element of that in there. Yet I also know there is an element in my approach, the part that I cling to, that is an ambition to drive me rather than simply bobbing along on the surface, drifting in the currents like flotsam and jetsam.
So I am doing a larger review, a bigger span of time, and I have almost 31 years of information. This isn’t so much “business as usual” as it is a bit more shock to the system? Like “A Christmas Carol”, perhaps, being visited by the Ghost of New Years Past.
Way back in the early ’90s, I can’t be entirely sure of the date, I started a document called “PolyWogg’s Rules”. I hadn’t yet broken my psyche down into constituent parts and put them back together again, but I had this idea. I would write down principles that were important to me. Maybe it was like “Lefler’s Laws” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, I don’t know, but I started noting things. I didn’t get very far, although it comes up in multiple years later. I like the premise, but it is often hard to come up with something seriously pithy that doesn’t sound trite or lacks enough nuance. The ones that I wrote at the time still resonate with me though:
- You must first know yourself if you are “To thine own self be true”.
- Look to the future, but live for today; live for today but look to the future.
- Accomplishments may be mistaken for progress, and a lack of accomplishment may be mistaken for a lack of progress. To move beyond mere existence and achieve real progress, one must have a destination.
- Don’t let a destination blind you to interesting detours or shortcuts.
- Being busy is not the same as being happy.
- It is true that you can only truly count on yourself. Trust others anyway…if there was no risk, it wouldn’t be called trust.
That first one is the one that goes to the heart of my soul. An “unexamined life” is the enemy. If you strip everything else away from me, that line will be the last layer of tissue around my heart. The next four are all interrelated, and I have no idea how to write them in a single bullet. Thirty years later, I would probably draft them more as something around having a to-do list is not the same as having a life and that I shouldn’t be a slave to either.
The last one (relying only on yourself) guided me through much of the ’90s and I would forget it from time to time at my emotional peril. By the end of the ’90s, I had realized that it was more a question of trusting people to be true to themselves. Not in a selfish way, more simply that I shouldn’t expect people to be who I want them to be, I should expect them to be who they are. A parent, a lover, a friend, even an asshat in a store. I struggle with it sometimes with my son, because he is still developing, and sometimes I want him to be something he is not, to handle something in a way that he mentally or emotionally can’t. That I want him to leap forward in his development to a different place, because that is part of being a parent, supporting him in his growth, yet at his actual pace, not my desired pace. Or he won’t. His call, not mine, although I can influence it.
Many of the documents from 1990-1998 are more snapshots of schedules or short-term to-do lists. Meetings here, social outings there. References to family, school, work. Interesting but not very “shocking” to the system. Mostly I would say it was amusing in some ways to see various ways I organized myself with different personal planner tools in different jobs (different tools for different situations). Some were just blank templates that I customized over the course of a job lasting 2-3 years; others were quick layouts I used for a specific time or project but weren’t ones that I added to my regular rotation. Some of the files are more complicated to open as they used software that’s not active anymore (like Lotus Organizer). But there was something that I used to treasure buried deep in an old file.
In 1996, I found some research I had done on ninjutsu, as I was taking some informal exercise classes based on some of the moves. I found the original “definition” I had for the greeting: SHI-KIN HARA-MITSU DAI-KO-MYO — “Every encounter is sacred and could present the one potential key to the perfection of the great universal enlightenment we seek.” Except it was crap.
First and foremost, the word was “shiken” and it means “heart or fist”. Secondly, haramitsu is usually represented as one word, and is about achieving buddhahood / enlightenment perhaps, but there are also kanji in the Japanese version that refers to being confused in the mind. Finally, “daikoumyo” is a better spelling and talks about a great light or bright feature.
Together they represent a Japanase Buddhist mantra, which some ascribe to ninjutsu, but unclear if it has any actual ties. It seems it is more like “Your heart will be enlightened by a great light” or “your fist can lead to enlightenment and a bright future”. At one point in my life, this erroneous mantra meant something to me. I don’t know that it does anymore as I see no real path going forward for me to connect body, soul, and mind together in that form. For the long-run, I would chalk it up to a desired return to meditation as some point to find inner peace. And I like the idea of fluid exercise, perhaps Tai Chi for my future.
Amusingly, right next to the ninjutsu stuff was the poem, Warning by Jenny Joseph, also known colloquially as “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple”. I saw it as a kinder, more gentle version of “Do not go gently into the night”.
In 1998, I found a note I had saved about becoming volunteer technical support crew for the Ottawa Little Theatre and it made it on to my long-term bucket list, but doesn’t really apply to my interests anymore.
In 1999, I had added to the notes in my organizer file. And updated my Rules. At the time, I was obsessed with personal responsibility, and my additional “rules” reflected that interest:
- You are responsible for both intended and unintended consequences of your actions or inactions.
- Never make a woman feel uncomfortable with your perceived intentions.
- Perception is reality; reality is perception.
- Never presuppose a “no” — ask but don’t be rude or pushy.
On the first point, my views changed over time. I do still feel that it is important to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions, but I also include a reasonableness test in there somewhere. Or, as someone once mused, we’re responsible for pushing someone else’s buttons, not for installing the buttons in the first place. And intent matters, the “mens rea” of the act.
The second and third points were worded in ways that related to specific events in the past, not big events, just little things that were niggling at my brain. I was single at this point, stripping my psyche down into parts, twisting and turning them in different ways, and I had a number of female friends. I was sensitive to nuance and not making them think I was interested in them, unsure of myself as I explored platonic friendships while I tried figuring out who I was. I was worried that my self-analysis and self-reflection would make me insensitive to others, that my inward focus might manifest outward nuances that I was not aware of…I was, and am, generally clueless when it comes to women and unwritten “vibes” so to speak, and had a couple of occasions where women mistook my behaviour as signalling interest when I wasn’t. Oddly enough, for a woman I was interested in, she had no idea. I was determined when I finished my PolyWogg years that no one would ever be confused about what I was feeling or intending, as a more “self-actualized” person perhaps.
The last point (assuming “no”) is terribly worded, and with the previous bullets, kind of cringe-y. Except it doesn’t have anything to do with dating. It is a lesson that a manager at the GE in Peterborough shared with our university team working on a project with them way back in 1990. The idea was that often we get in our own heads. We expect someone to say no to something we want, we assume the no, and so we rule ourselves out before we even apply. We avoid trying in order to avoid possible failure. But if you want something, assuming a “no” just means you guarantee the failure. My brother and mother were prone to this, and I saw it after my dad died. They routinely assumed something they wanted would not go their way, so they just rejected it first. It’s not simple pessimism, it’s more like acting on pessimism and creating a self-fulfilling outcome. I wanted to avoid that, and it took me several years to fix that in my own behaviour. I’m still pessimistic by some standards, realistic by others. But recently, I knew that a job was going to become available and I could have assumed that I would get no shot at it. An opportunity came along, and so I asked about it. I vocalized my interest, and after a bunch of interim stuff, I will now start the new job in three weeks. It may have come up anyway without me, but I didn’t presuppose the no.
That’s small in comparison with my birthday in June 2002. I had just completed my five years of tadpole status, although it was more like 4 years of diagnostics and 1 year of prototyping the new me. I was on the precipice of a major decision about my life, how I was going to live it, what I was going to focus on. The ultimate “planning” ghost. I knew my decision, I was certain of the direction I would take, I was just waiting for my 34th birthday to kick off the new life.
And yet, there was this girl. We had been spending a lot of time typing back and forth together at work through messenger, we’d gone for lunch together. I had no idea what either of our intentions were, but there was something there. Or maybe not. I wasn’t sure. I was presupposing a no, more or less. Not just a no from me internally, but a no from her. But on the day before my birthday, I suggested we go out for drinks, our first date/non-date. Nothing big, just drinks at a pub near our neighbourhood. When she arrived, I realized she was wearing lipstick, which seemed like a clue that it was a date, since I’d never seen her wear lipstick before. The next night, she came out for my birthday with a bunch of other people, we didn’t even sit together at the movie. But I was feeling a spark of interest in me. We went out again on Monday on what she has informed me was our first real date, the other two didn’t count. Nineteen years, three residences, one marriage, and one child later, we’re still saying yes to each other. But that experience came out of my commitment three years earlier to that principle. I didn’t presuppose the no, I gave it a chance and vocalized the possibility.
What else is in that 1999 planner? A recipe for Baileys. Another for a ham, rice and cheese quiche. Notes for a social group that I never really pursued, too much drama. A list of birthdays and anniversaries as I wanted to be someone who sent cards and remembered those things (I never was). I found outlines of my MPA commitments / requirements too, which I finished in 2002. A playlist of songs that I liked, three of which I don’t even recognize at this point!
In 2000, I gave up on Lotus Organizer, and switched over to tracking a lot of things in a simple spreadsheet. By 2001, I was tracking books, movies, TV, fitness, health. I tracked my “distributions” too — trivia, humour, book reviews, movie reviews, all of which were sent by emails to friends who “signed up”. Pre-web. All interesting forms of my commitments.
In 2002, I was focused on playing with new setups but bopped between a spreadsheet and a simple Word document. Much of my work life was focused on the OECD Peer Review of Canada’s Development Assistance Program for 1997-2002, a major project of mine. Lots of interesting things around OECD, G8, people I worked with at the time. And a small throwaway reference to register for my final push on my MPA at Carleton.
2003 was more confused. I was heavily focused on my ongoing stuff, very transactional, so long-term plans were relatively absent. But my files for 2004 are probably the most confused at all. I have a lot of notes for personal growth through spiritualism, and I confess, I barely remember writing ANY of it. There are a few bullets here and there that resonate, but I’ve moved well past that world.
In 2005, I have the template I was using to guide my thinking, but none of the content. There are some important underpinnings in there, with some of the key categories that show up later. Family and home, health, learning, etc. Something I called “natural role enlargement” even. I had a category for extrinsic rewards for myself, something I haven’t thought of in a long time. That sometimes I just do it because I deserve to treat myself rather than calculating the utility of something. I also included a long list of possible travel areas or special event categories for the future. I didn’t note that my future wife and I moved in together or bought a car, nor took a major trip together. There was no mention that I attended my graduation that year rather than “skipping” it entirely, and I even invited my mother to come. We had a Remembrance Day party and a housewarming. I even started reviewing Billboard music from 1980, started working in earnest on my website, took a film literacy course. And I changed departments for work to a brand new manager job after taking on a bigger role in the President’s Office at CIDA earlier. There were a LOT of accomplishments.
By contrast, I would say 2006 was a significant threshold for my planning. I had most of the elements that I have currently in some form…multiple categories, short- and long-term plans. I had my list of accomplishments from the previous year that I was “building on”, my foundation for the new year. But I wanted to kick it into higher gear. Maybe consider an engagement? Maybe think about buying a house? Heck, I even put astronomy on the list for the first time. By the end of the year, I had moved to my classic template for tracking goals — categories down the left-hand side of a table, and five columns of decreasing priority. I even found some place to include some of my principles:
- The saddest words are “unrealized potential”.
- Who begins too much, accomplishes little; who begins too little, wastes a life.
- 20% of your effort gives you 80% of your results, the remaining 80% delivers the next 20%.
- You may not always be able to be around but be nearby.
- Trauma and emotional distress have a long half-life.
- There’s no such thing as a casual conversation.
- Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know.
- Learn to express, not impress.
- Better I be a dolphin swimming with sharks, than a shark.
- I don’t have to work any particular place, I get to do it.
Those ten were the new ones, although I had some of the previous ones too. The first three (potential, beginnings, and effort) are the underpinning for why I set goals, why I care at all.
The one about being around / nearby is a troubling one for me, something I struggle with mightily. I suffer from emotional claustrophobia, in effect, a result of my life in Peterborough. I don’t do drama. If things get emotionally challenging, if there’s drama or conflict, sometimes I can’t handle it. And when fight or flight hits, my feet choose flight. I can try to at least be nearby, to be supportive, even if I can’t be in the situation. Which was the case sometimes with my family in those years. Similarly, I had come to realize that the past is not only a fickle mistress, she is long-lived too.
I find the commitment to expression intriguing. I had three in there together — recognition that every conversation, every interaction, has meaning; a belief that how I communicate my passion is important; and that I should avoid the “impress” game.
Of the final two in the list, the recognition that I can work anywhere, that I choose the work I do, not as a passive receptacle but an active participant in how I spend 35-40h of my week and a third of my life was as important perhaps as other choices I made in the list. But tied into that was that I knew who I was and who I wanted to be. And a type-A shark was not me. I was more dolphin than predator, fun chatterer over biting carnivore. By the end of the year, I had moved from working for a shark that was abusive to working for an old friend.
In 2007, I edited the layout again, tweaked the format, tried to think about big commitments I was gearing towards but the content wasn’t necessarily as impactful. I was participating in a writing group, we were attending the NAC, and work was incredibly interesting. I had two major projects that I was working on that seemed fascinating. But I took a look back too. I wrote a list of all my accomplishments and goals from the previous two years as I geared up for the coming year, a recognition that I was making progress, even when sometimes it didn’t feel like enough.
2008 is almost a wipe-out for regular planning because our lives were occupied for most of the year with planning our wedding and honeymoon.
2009 was a bit of time of confusion with the arrival of Jacob in May. I struggled to find a way to account for things that don’t really lend themselves to planning in the same way i.e., fatherhood. I added to my principles — dare to dream but live in the real world. It was a nicer way of communicating the idea of not presupposing a no. Other elements got tweaked. I tried to track “accomplishments” too — showing what I was doing not only for the current year, but showing what I had already accomplished in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 so it didn’t seem like a one-off year so much as a steady progression from previous years. It was hard to feel like I was telling a story to myself so much as just grouping “results” together. I also played, as I had in previous years, with the idea of a separate work and personal to-do list, but instead opted for the idea of a single page of “what’s current” between the two. It didn’t really “stick” with me though.
In 2010, I had expanded the idea of a short to-do list to two pages, one page for work and one page for home, and it was working for me, with a separate “master list” for home. The downside though for all of it was that it felt like I was managing transactions, taking my planning into the realm of simply list tracking or being responsive-only, not actively planning. I needed something more.
My big addition in 2011 was really to try and communicate to myself how I saw things merging together. The tracker worked, but it didn’t gel for me mentally. I developed a diagram and called it “thinking in eight dimensions”, mapping all my categories from my tracker against the personality profile elements that resonated with me.
It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it got me going. It gave me a kick in the rump after 20 years of playing with templates. I wrote about it on my blog, I geared up as if I would use it regularly, new energy to motivate me forward. I played with stuff for four months. And then I went back to my responsive approach. In May, I started tracking my weight and that lasted about two months. Other than that? Just day to day stuff.
In 2012, I started strong again in January. Taking stock of 2011, blogging, diagrams. And this time I went WHOLE hog. I even wrote myself a 25 page guide, printed it, and bound it in spiral rings. Yep, I was anal. I thought if I had a great guide that included:
- My rules;
- A scorecard of accomplishments for 2011;
- My approach ot 2012;
- Goals for each of Mind/Intellect, Heart/Emotion, Soul/Arts Creativity & Spirituality, and Body/Physical, along with my goals for each;
- Travel; and
- An actual bucket list.
I thought it would put me over the top, give me the stability I was expecting where it would move from conscious effort to unconscious habit. I did my opening blog, updated in March, and fell asleep at the proverbial wheel.
By 2013, I had decided it was just a lack of commitment on my part. If I really doubled down, it would work. I would become an organized machine. I blogged in January to kick off the year. I tracked until May this time. And then I slept until the fall.
I simplified things for myself in 2014 and reduced the diagram to just four simple quadrants, no sub-elements. Just Blue/Mind, Green/Heart, Yellow/Soul and Red/Body. Throughout the year, I used the one-pager format again…a simple sheet updated once a month or so for personal and a separate sheet for work updated every 2 weeks or so or as needed. It was fine, but it wasn’t a bastion of success anywhere. Mostly responsive stuff. I didn’t even blog about my goals that year.
For 2015, I told myself that it was just lack of commitment still so that was my mantra — 2015, the year I commit. I called it PolyWogg 4.0 with a new map, a detailed tracker where I was going to assign colours every week for my progress / status. I even designed a coat of arms with the four colour quadrants represented on it. As part of the design / visuals, I even created personal logic models for each of the four categories. Of all the elements, I think the writing was the most detailed…I had goals to write 500K words for the year, and large amounts of sub-commitments under that category. I blogged actively for a few months and then did a check-in at mid-year plus end-of-year. Some of my accomplishments included a kitchen reno, a video game course through Coursera, and a huge amount of blogging despite ditching a goal that would have included a bunch of blog entries too. I would say overall though for the year, or at least the second half anyway, that I was just burned out mentally and emotionally. If PolyWogg 4.0 was the goal, PolyWogg 3.1 continued to reign.
However, I would say that my big “accomplishment” was when I was doing my end-of-year assessment:
The other idea though came from an article I read in the Harvard Business Review about a guy who did this odd career coach thing where people in all stages of development do a feedback session, and the “candidates” make a presentation about themselves to a group of critics/evaluators. Then, the critics give them summary feedback, the equivalent of a tweet to rate what they said (not how they said it, but what they’ve accomplished, their “story” if you will). One guy outlined all his accomplishments, professional successes, etc., and the youngest one in the feedback group gave his feedback — “Nice start”. At first the guy was really put out by it, almost dismissive, and then he realized the truth bomb — the kid was saying, “So what are you doing with it now? What’s next? Why is the story relevant?”.
For me, I don’t know the “why”. I only know the general direction at the moment. I’ve figured out the who for the journey (myself, Jacob and Andrea); the what and how are clear in the short-term (some of the key areas I want to work on); the where is Ottawa; and the when shifts (sometimes NOW, sometimes “I’ll get to it later”). But the “why”? I want to know where my story goes. Because what I’ve done is a nice start, and I took a few more steps this year, but the destination is still out of sight.
I would say the destination is still not entirely clear, but as ghosts go, this one haunts me.
For 2016, my focus shifted to the why somewhat. I was less concerned with all the tracking throughout the year, and more with another idea of a “hierarchy of personal development” that didn’t really go anywhere. It was interesting, but way too complex to motivate me. In the meantime, I moved my blog to a new home, worked out a new tool to help Andrea and I with tracking shopping lists and things, and I wrote TV reviews out the wazoo. I blogged extensively, if chaotically for categories, tried some new recipes late in the year, created a bunch of PhotoBooks that I was proud of for the year, and made a decision about my career (to follow in 2017). But the big development for the year, no pun intended, was weight gain after spending most of the year figuring out my sleep apnea and getting a sleep machine. It sucked a LOT of energy out of my life, and compounded by a cough-from-hell at the end of the year that lasted almost 2 months. It was not a beacon of progress but of survival. Yet I still made some good progress in some areas.
I mentioned above that I had made a career change, and 2017 was the year I made the change. I did an aggressive search to find a specific type of job and came up empty. In the end, I went sideways to a totally different type of job that looked amazing. By the end of the year, it was trending downward, but that wasn’t the plan’s fault. I committed to making a change and made it after 9 years in my previous job. I also kicked off a series of activities that I called “50 by 50″…fifty things I wanted to do before turning 50, although I extended the deadline to the end of the year before turning 51. And I blogged the crap out of it.
As 2018 dawned, I was still heavily focused on my 50×50 goals, and less interested in the process of taking stock weekly on other items. I knocked a ton of stuff off my list over the year, some small and some large. On my website, I doubled-down on a digital gallery and knocked myself out trying to make it all work. More importantly, the success gave me enough confidence to blog about losing weight. That’s not chickenfeed. Work initially went to hell in a handbasket, but I righted the boat, and found a new safer harbour that was fun. I also managed to start a PolyWogg Reading Challenge that people enjoyed. I was the RASC Ottawa Star Party Coordinator for the year, and my astronomy took an uptick by the end of the year (finally).
I would say that 2019, 2020 and 2021 are almost all together in a lump. Not because of COVID but because I started things that carried through to my new approaches. For example, at the start of 2019, I took a Personal Well-Being Index test, thinking of more “measurement” of my overall success. My overall goals list was back to being quite large, but the bigger news was that my mental health took a hit mid-year. I was actively struggling to feel good about much of anything, let alone continue to work on progress in any given area. I was working on it, but it sure didn’t feel like it. As a result, I wasn’t really tracking stuff as I normally would, just work stuff. I still had some progress…I did the PolyWogg Reading Challenge, I continued as Star Party Coordinator, and I did a bit of work for NaNoWriMo but couldn’t stick with it.
For 2020, I started it with dread, and that was without ever hearing of COVID. There were a bunch of big-ticket items coming, and I was worried about some of them:
- Help Jacob post-recovery
- Lose weight and get in shape
- The Year of the Purge
- PolyWogg Baking Challenge
- PolyWogg Reading Challenge
- Solo weekend away
- Set retirement date
- WordPress Photo Gallery project
- Astro photography
- Finish PolyWogg Guide to HR
Let’s see…Jacob’s surgery didn’t happen, I didn’t lose weight, the baking challenge didn’t go anywhere, I couldn’t do a solo weekend away, I need to do some financial stuff before setting my formal retirement date, I kind of skipped out on astro photography, and my HR guide kind of went sideways. I did manage to purge some stuff, kept the Reading Challenge going, and sort of handled the photo gallery project, although not anywhere near the way I intended.
On the other hand, we survived COVID lockdowns. WFH has been awesome in some ways, and for a long while, the three of us were having lunch together regularly with Jacob doing remote schooling. We coped. Mental health was an ongoing questionmark, and I blogged my way through “Things I Choose” to help me think about things I could do each day, not the things I couldn’t control. When I finished the year, I thought of my approach this way:
A. Know where you’re going;
B. Plan how to get there;
C. Set milestones or markers for yourself along the way;
D. Monitor your progress; and,
E. Regularly restart the process to ensure the original destination is still your true goal.
As I said, I survived; I adapted to working from home; I did some purging and massive reorganization (to move my office to the basement); managed to do some astro outreach; managed a website redesign; did some new writing; started some fun creative projects (Jacob and I); tried a few new recipes; underwent root canal surgery without becoming a basket case; and made some efforts to socialize.
Meanwhile, 2021 is at an end, and I already looked at my approach for the year. Now I just have to figure out what I’m telling myself about these last 31 years before I set my new goals for 2022.