What I Learned In 2020

(This is a personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.)

This is the ninth year that I’ve done a year in review piece. I’m at a different stage of my journey so you might benefit from and find yourself in prior year versions. Here are easy links to 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019

In 2020, the world shifted beneath our feet but my business kept growing. The anxiety I had about certain facets of my business disappeared, replaced by anxiety about COVID-19 and our political landscape.

I found sanctuary in simple habits that I’ll take forward into 2021.

COVID-19

Groundhog Day Phil Driving

It was 2020, so you can’t avoid talking about COVID-19. The strange thing is, social distancing didn’t change the way I do business. For the most part, I do all my work remotely. From time to time I might go into the city (we really don’t call it San Fran) and meet with a client.

I couldn’t do that in 2015 because I was going through chemotherapy. I found that not meeting in person worked just fine. Clients agreed.

So that’s how it’s been for the last five years. Once in a blue moon I might go in for a meeting but I largely stay at home. Heck, I have two clients in Australia, four in New York and two in Seattle so it’s not like I’m going to meet with them in person much anyway.

So the quarantine and lock down orders were not a big change for me. But it was different.

The day was no longer split up by trips to drop my daughter at school, going out to get groceries or stepping out with my wife for mojitos at a favorite restaurant. My daughter was doing distance learning, we quickly moved to delivery services for our groceries and I upped my bartending skills.

The days were definitely monolithic and homogenous, leading to a general groundhog day malaise.

Motivation

X-Meh

Available at Woot

The biggest problem I had in 2020 was motivation. Early in the year I bought out a partner, found a developer and began working on side projects. It was the outcome of my 2019 epiphany. Let’s do this!

But even before COVID-19 hit in earnest, I was slowing down. And once COVID-19 was upon us my motivation evaporated. The reasons for this were two-fold and interrelated.

Money is not a problem. The business grew, yet again, another 13% in 2020. Some people get a buzz from making more and more money but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying I don’t still strive for that to some degree. There are some goals I have in mind. Things I’d do with that money. But it’s no longer a primal motivation to do this or that thing so I can make money to get out of debt or to pay the mortgage or go on that vacation.

Things were going amazingly well in my life. So my passions turned outwards, toward dealing with COVID-19 and the 2020 election cycle. Why should I spend time in pursuit of even more money when so many things were going wrong?

Digressions

Office Space Movie Scene

Some of my efforts were productive. I was engaged with my local school district, helping to oust an ineffective Superintendent and then pushing for the right course of action with the new one. I gave to specific political candidates and made sure every DonorsChoose project at my daughter’s school was fully funded.

Some of my efforts were less productive, doom-scrolling and ranting about the lack of logic and empathy I saw in our country.

To me, the division seems less about Republicans vs Democrats and more about a difference between a philosophy of ‘me’ vs ‘we’. (My politics are far-left and while I rarely engage in public I make no apologies for that perspective either.)

I also agonized over the George Floyd murder and the systemic racism it exposed. How could I be an ally? While I have a very good imagination, I can’t understand how it must feel to be black in America.

I caught glimpses in Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. But ultimately, I felt powerless. Perhaps that’s apt.

Habits

New York Times Crossword Puzzle Statistics

There was a silver lining to lock down orders and the deluge of bad news. I took up some good habits. I’m a big believer that you reach certain goals by instilling good habits. Yet, I often found I failed at making those habits are reality.

In 2020, I made good habits stick. I’m not sure exactly why and, to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in finding out. I’m just happy I got there.

Each year I say I want to read more. The habit I changed? As an early riser I would wake up and watch TV. I stopped doing that and read instead.

As a result, I read 16 books in approximately 9 months, including books by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, N.K. Jemisin, Jonathan Franzen and Emily St. John Mandel.

I have a morning routine of sorts. I’m up early. Like 5am early. I do the New York Times Crossword. I make some coffee. I read.

But I also learned that you don’t have to be dogmatic about it. During the Tour de France, I woke up and eagerly watched each stage, enjoying both the race and scenery. And I’d watch biathlon too, becoming a huge fan despite my distaste for both skiing and guns.

Hiccups

Tower Bridge Jigsaw Puzzle

One of the other things we did as a family was jigsaw puzzles. Not just a few but 28 and counting, with all but two of those being 2,000 piece puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles and the crossword reinforced essential truths. Both can only be completed if you take it step-by-step. You don’t just fit all the pieces together in a half-hour. You don’t get every clue one after the other in the crossword. (You might get close on Monday!)

There are parts of each that are relatively easy. You sort and pick out the edges and get the outline of the puzzle done first. In the crossword you go through and pick off the ones that come to you right away. You also put in the obvious plural (s), past (ed) and comparative (est and ier) suffixes when spotted.

But then you find there are rough patches. It can be slow going as you work on the gradient of the sky. And sometimes you get stuck on the crossword. A fleeting thought that this is the one that you can’t crack.

The trick is to keep going.

The next time you sit down at the table, the light is a bit better and you see the subtle difference in the sky and the pieces are now going in one after the other. Or suddenly you get one of the long answers that reinforces the theme to that crossword. Things click and you’re getting the double meaning of the clues again.

Incrementalism

Brick by Brick Lego Tower Bridge Project

I did not get to where I am today by accident. Nor could I have gotten here 8 years earlier. You have to build, brick on brick like a massive lego project, to reach your goal.

It reminds me of the song Wake Up, Stop Dreaming by Wang Chung.

Wake up stop dreaming
There’s more than just two steps to heaven
I’m saying if you wanna get to heaven
You’d better wake up
Wake up, stop dreaming

I’m not religious yet the lyrics inspire me to not simply dream, but to do. Wake up! Take those next steps.

What 2020 did more than anything is confirm that every step is important even if they aren’t of equal value. I might put in a handful of pieces when I sit down at the table for 45 minutes. The next time I may put in a flurry of 150 pieces in the span of 10 minutes.

The puzzle doesn’t get completed without each of those steps.

This is where my personal and business lives intersect. Because one of my mantras about SEO is that the sum is greater than the parts. You can see some of this play out in my recent piece about SEO A/B testing. I’ll be writing a follow-up piece in the near future.

But as a preview, not every step is a step change. But you can’t get to the top of the mountain without taking all the steps.

Measurement

A New Chart of History

Measurement is clearly a large part of my business. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the time scale of measurement matters. While it often sounds self-serving, SEO takes time. Patience may be the most underrated skill in our industry.

I’ve battled weight issues for a number of years. I know how to lose the weight and have a number of times, only to put it back on again. Part of the reason for this is that the habits I used to lose that weight were very rigid.

I’d go for the lowest calorie intake possible, denying myself, so I could see results quickly. It wasn’t just about speed but about keeping momentum. When you weigh yourself every day it got hard to keep going when the number went up and not down.

This time around I’m not going for the lowest calorie intake. I’m looking to lose the weight slowly. There will be days when I have a couple of mojitos and blow past my calorie limit.

The funny thing is that those ‘cheat’ days and the numbers on the scale don’t line up. A day after indulging my weight often goes down. (Yes, yes, it might be that I’m dehydrated.) Other times, after a particularly good day – or even a stretch of two – my weight stays the same or creeps up.

But over time it all translates into consistent weight loss. I’ve lost a little over 10 pounds this year, averaging about 1.5 pounds each week. It’s not about living and dying by what the scale says every day. It’s about knowing that I’ll get the results I want if I keep taking those steps.

It dawned on me that I provide this service to clients. I help them move beyond the panic of a week that was a little soft. I encourage them not to spend hours in analysis but instead to execute on their roadmap. Do that next thing.

Putting It All Together

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

I enter 2021 feeling like I can combine the things I’ve learned over the course of the last few years. I will continue to take risks and be unafraid to fail. I can shake off the guilt of not returning some emails promptly or missing a few deadlines. I’ll rely on the relentless power of habits.

Even if it doesn’t come together as planned, it’s the next step and I’m eager to take it.

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