In between the celebrations of welcoming the new year, it's a moment to think and to reflect on the past 366 days. I pose the question what lessons I've learnt and how those can help in the year ahead. Below, you can find my personal thoughts on a variety of areas as I look back at the previous year.
This exercise in reflection was strongly inspired by Alex Vermeer, who has some excellent blog posts on primarily life optimisation and inspired me to try something similar for my own life.
Before looking back at 2016, I've made it a habit to be grateful for the past years and identify what was most meaningful to me during those years. It helps me to put it all in perspective and reminds myself of previous accomplishments, something which I easily forget.
- 2013: I accepted an internship at Fueled in New York City. I dropped out of college as well. 2013 marked the beginning of my professional career.
- 2014: A year of living in New York City and becoming a professional product manager.
- 2015: The year I moved back to Belgium and went freelance full-time, successfully being capable to support myself.
Now, without further ado, a reflection on the good and bad of 2016 and what's in store for 2017.
I believe that defining a purpose for yourself is important. It helps to set a course in life and directly impacts your decisions and general well-being. I've done this exercise earlier last year and I figured what I truly value most is design and how design is capable of making our world a slightly better place. That sense of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, has been a theme in my life since early 2015, when I started tracking as much as I can of my life through Gyroscope.
Since then, I consider my personal purpose that I want to make the world a better place through design. I do realise that it's naive for me to think that all decision I make reflect this purpose, but I know for certain that some (important) decisions such as my career-change this year were reflected by this idea.
When I speak about making the world a 'better place', I specifically mean tiny improvements. For example, at my current job at Bringme, I genuinely believe I'm impacting a small fraction of people's lives and their experience of shopping online. Again, it's an incredible, small fragment of someone's life, but it's very fulfilling knowing that you are impacting lives in a meaningful way.
Having a sense of purpose is one aspect, but succeeding in your purpose is a different level. On a professional level, I feel fulfilled thinking about the impact my work has had across different projects.
Beyond your professional impact, there's also the environmental and social impact you can have as a human being. There are a few aspects here. First, I've started to eat less meat and commute less by moving near my job (on average, I drive about twice a week now). Further, it's also the first year I've supported social initiatives such as Music for Life and Red Cross.
Further more on the topic of impact, the tech media has long given me a skewed view about what types of successes you should have early in life, especially at a young age. This year, I let go of those thoughts and decided to pursue my own definition of success. As a result, I have healthier expectations.
You often forget that you are on your own journey and not necessarily competing with your peers. Furthermore, I became more critical looking at media and how that skews your view of success.
Over the past year, I've became significantly more interested in material minimalism. This translates to owning less, but more qualitative items.
This was especially supported by moving out of my parents place and living in my own small studio apartment. Living on less than 30 square metres hasn't been a challenge but rather was eye-opening how little you need to make a comfortable home.
Beyond that, there's less 'space to fill' so I've noticed I haven't bought as much stuff and consciously think before I buy something new. Less space means you think more efficiently about how you use your space and what you need.
The idea of minimalism is something I want to continue to pay attention to over the next year. Owning less makes you significantly happier I've noticed, while also reducing the amount of money that you (unnecessary) spend.
Minimalism goes beyond tangibles, as I wrote in my blog post Minimalism in Productivity.
Because of complexity in taxation for freelancers, ever since I started freelancing in 2013 I've kept a Numbers sheet tracking my finances. Over the years, I've expanded on this to the point that my whole finances are now managed within this document. In that regard, I've always been keeping my finances in order.
Financially, 2016 was a very good year, despite some unplanned costs (moving, purchasing furniture, a new MacBook). I managed to maintain a high savings rate (despite the extra costs of living by myself now) and funnel more cash towards exchange-traded funds (ETFs). All by all, I managed to invest about 17% of my total net income in non-secure investments, which is a fairly high number. I retained a savings rate of 11% of my net income in cash savings. These are higher numbers than previous years.
Despite the stock market crash at the beginning of 2016, the year has been good in terms of my stock portfolio, hitting double-digit returns for a good portion of my portfolio, outperforming the BEL20 strongly (and on par with the S&P500).
Although, yearly reflections on my stock portfolio aren't really that interesting considering I'm investing for the long haul. Although, it's a good indication how my intentions compare to the market.
In a nut shell, I've accomplished my objectives of 2016 which were to retain my cash buffer for emergencies despite the unexpected costs, funnel enough money towards ETFs and maintaining a good savings rate.
Freelancing and side-projects have been a source of some income ever since 2013. 2016 was a successful year in that regard as I managed to grow this number by about 22% in comparison to 2014 (2015 doesn't count as I freelanced full-time). What's reassuring is that even without a job, I would be capable to break-even more or less with just side gigs. Financial independence is something I've gotten very intrigued about thanks to this Reddit community.
Some significant milestones have been hit past year. First and foremost, I became a Product Manager at Bringme, kindly declining a design position in New York. The decision was made to focus on product management again, as it would be more beneficial for my long-term career instead of having a design position at an agency.
Bringme is an interesting organisation. The first few months were marked as chaotic for the product process as the company has been expanding significantly and as a result of that, existing processes were no longer optimal.
Together with my colleague Vincent van Grootel we managed to implement an improved product process and ship a number of updates. This will be a good foundation for the year to come, to truly take Bringme as a product to the next level.
There's still plenty of challenges ahead for the organisation, but I have to admit that continues to make the work interesting and an excellent source of learnings for me, despite the hiccups and sometimes disappointing myself with mistakes I make.
There are a number of important milestones and projects I managed to complete beyond Bringme. I continued writing for Envato and I started being a design mentor for Designlab. Telling people about what I've learnt being a designer over the past few years has been a humbling experience. It is true what they say about teaching: you learn as much as you teach. This, thanks to interactions with a variety of people with different backgrounds.
Furthermore, I was capable of helping a number of startups with their design needs via Boomtown Boulder. It remains funny how it started with a little project for one startup years ago and since then this has grown into one of my largest professional network to date. Beyond that, nothing too spectacular, but I'm grateful for all the people I was capable to help in some (in)significant way last year through design.
Yet, there were also a number of failures and areas of improvement. Time management remains to be an issue sometimes, especially where work takes over health. Although, this has been an area I've worked on in the past few months by putting my focus on Bringme.
Furthermore, defining a product process within a growing organisation such as Bringme has proven te be challenging, especially considering there wasn't a proper product process before. That experience has been very insightful though.
One of my frustrations as a designer is I haven't grown significantly as I reflect on my work. Becoming a better visual designer is something I'm hoping to improve in 2017.
Finally, Andrew Kim and his work has been a huge inspiration of mine. I'm hopeful I can spend my time equally as productive looking at his design career to date.
In terms of my personal health, it has been a mixed year. Let's start with the good. Since I moved out, I have improved my diet - I eat much more fresh food and I've been paying attention to my general sugar intake. When it comes to exercise, I've ran more than I did last year, as well as for a further distance (6.3 km versus 5.4 km). Nothing ground-breaking, but a habit I definitely would like to continue work on this year. In all honesty, running is the only real exercise I've gotten, but I couldn't go all the way because of illness.
I also walked more in comparison to 2015, with an average of 7684 steps per day versus 5521 steps.
I was quite a lot sick this year. While heading on vacation, I got pneumonia which made me more sick than I've been in years. Now, many months later I'm still struggling with having a sensitive respiratory system which has resulted in months of coughing.
On the bright side, I've been paying a bit more attention on sleeping, but according to Sleep Cycle, it's still an area which could use a lot of work. I've noticed in a brief experiment where I dropped caffeine that I did sleep better and healthier but after about a week I did gave up because of the (admittedly minor) inconveniences.
I averaged about 6 hours of sleep, with a sleep quality of 60%.
To end with a positive note, I did get my blood and heart tested a week or three ago and all is well.
I didn't explicitly educate myself in anything this year. I've toyed around with the idea of learning either Swift or developing web apps, but it's a habit which never stuck.
The learnings I've had were mostly at Bringme and more specifically how an organisation can be run and how a management team can operate.
In summary, I got in touch with some soft skills, but I didn't grow significantly in terms of my skill-set. Which, in all honesty, I'm okay with as this was never an area of focus to begin with.
I've picked up reading once again and started to read more than previously. Another habit I'm hoping to go double-down on in 2017. I read 11 books past year, with the following three being my favourites.
- Food Rules: An Eater's Manual - I've became more interested in the effects of food on our health and body. This book was an excellent summary of the results of research in different areas, while also using common sense in our eating patterns.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow - We're often poor thinkers and this book makes you realise how you can fix broken thinking behaviour.
- Ready Player One - Anyone who ever played an MMORPG (think World of Warcraft) will tremendously enjoy this fiction book.
A skill I picked up past year with moving out was teaching myself to cook through HelloFresh. I have to say I'm tremendously happy that I've evolved from not being able to cook at all, to actually preparing some really tasty dishes.
This is an area of my life I've been consistently letting down for the past few years, despite intentions to improve every year. I strongly believe I can be a better friend.
The underlying reasons are typically career-related. This mostly by prioritising work above social events for example. It has been a very difficult habit to get rid off. Although, I have to say, I do make time for important social happenings. Whether it is a special event or by traveling, it's not an area I completely neglect but still neglect too much.
When it comes to my love life and relationships, I wasn't pursuing love and I didn't have any formal relationship over 2016 which was fine by me.
How I feel is something I haven't tracked explicitly, but in general I feel well enough and fulfilled. There were a few doubtful moments over the year for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless on average I was happy.
One of my beliefs is that being an authentic person is important in life. From external feedback I've heard I'm authentic in most situations, but still I feel that this is an area I could improve in.
Sometimes there's a difference between what I think and what I say and that's sometimes a source of frustration for myself.
When I compare 2015 and 2016, I was more productive in 2016. This is both defined by spending more time online as well as the quality of that time spent.
I spend a total of 3035 hours online in 2016, which is a 7% increase in comparison to 2015 (2825 hours).
I spend most time in Sketch (199 hours), Gmail (178 hours), Invision (113 hours) and Trello (101 hours). Interesting enough, Photoshop dropped to number 8 in my top 10 of apps, for a total of 63 hours in 2016.
Compare this to 2015: Gmail (192 hours), Photoshop (96 hours), Sketch (78 hours) which was my top 3 at that point.
In summary, more design in Sketch, a solid workflow in Trello and less time emailing.
Nonetheless, there are also plenty of moments I wasn't productive. In 2015, Reddit (193 hour) and Facebook (122 hours) were a painful confrontation to realise I spent as much time on non-productive efforts as the time I spent designing. In 2016, this has strongly improved. Reddit is still number one, but with a 57% decrease to 111 hours. Facebook has gone down as well, to 102 hours.
In 2016 I spent 64% of my online time productively. In 2015 this was about 51%.
Travel has been an important recurring theme in my life. This started when I moved to New York and noticed how new cultures & places have consistently been having a positive impact in my life.
Past year, I travelled much but not with too much variety. I discovered Portugal and spend time across different places there (Lisbon, Cascais & Troia). Furthermore, I went back to New York and spend time catching up with friends over there.
A highlight in 2016, beyond my travels was the Red Dot Award ceremony in Germany, which we attended with Bringme. With a few colleagues (which at this point have become great friends) we witnessed the award ceremony, had excellent food and afterwards went for a whisky tasting.
It's amazing how a location and the people who surround you can make anything fresh and exciting. I'm very grateful for the people who helped make last year wonderful, by them being their very selves.
How does the above affect next year? There are a few areas which I would like to improve by defining a number of habits.
For 2017, I decided to focus on systems and processes instead of objectives. You can't control outcomes, you do control your intentions. In that sense, habits keep you accountable.
The Year of Contentedness
con·tent·ed (kən-tĕn′tĭd) Satisfied with things as they are; content:
This is probably the least exciting theme you can set for a year, but hear me out. I'm honestly very happy with how 2016 went. Despite some minor hiccups I believe I had a tremendous year with achievements in different areas of life.
In that sense, I want to keep going as is and keep the same level of happiness which I have right now and continue in the current path I've carved for myself.
To end this post, I've constructed some thoughts about how I'm going to approach this year for each of the areas in my life.
Important to state is that these are ideas how I can improve this year in comparison to last, but these are not goals (hell, it's a big list), considering my focus is contentedness rather than accomplishing ambitious goals.
- Purpose: Improve my design skills, more specifically becoming a better visual designer
- Impact: Forge my own definition of success and keep myself accountable instead of believing what the media and society tells me what success is
- Tangibles: Consume less than I did previous year
- Finances: Continue to gain financial independence
- Career: Become a better product manager and improve my (professional) reputation
- Health: As you only have this partially under control, I hope that most health issues will be resolved
- Education: Read more books this year
- Social: Value my personal relationships more and spend more time with friends
- Emotions: Continue to feel contented
- Identity: Be more truthful towards the people in my life
- Productivity: Pay attention towards that the time I spend online is qualitative time
- Adventure: Travel to new places
Last year was about achieving. In 2017, it's all about retaining my well-being.