23 things I learned this year
Christmas to New Year’s is my favorite week of the year. Life slows down, and I have time for reflection, resolutions, and planning. As you wrap up your year, here are 23 learnings I hope you’ll find helpful.
1. Default to numbered lists, not bullet points
When writing lists—to-dos, acceptance criteria, or otherwise—use numbers to:
Convey order, such as logical sequence or priority.
Display the volume of items (i.e., 23 learnings from this year)
Label items for easier identification (i.e., refer to #6 for setting resolutions)
2. Read in the morning
Reading is the habit of improving attention span, mind, and soul. Rather than the chaos of news, email, or social media, reading in the morning focuses on one thing and injects your mind with ideas to ponder throughout the day. A mere 15 minutes of either fiction or nonfiction at breakfast has worked wonders for me.
3. Plan the week on Friday
Avoid the Sunday Scaries or Mad Mondays by planning your week on Friday. Friday is perfect for tying up loose ends, reflecting, and plotting how to tackle the coming week. I used to plan on Sunday, but shifting to Friday has given me increased calm as I enter the weekend.
4. Stop eating after 20:00
Studies have proven that daily intermittent fasts of 12+ hours improve numerous health and wellness factors. Plus, ceasing food intake a few hours before bed can also make it easier to fall asleep. A simple rule can accomplish both goals: No food after 20:00 (8:00 PM).
5. Prevent sickness when traveling with immunity blasting
I used to become sick either while or after traveling without fail. I traveled over a dozen times in 2023, both internationally and cross-country, but never fell ill. There’s no definitive science on this, but anecdotally, I drank Vitamin-C supplements for a few days before travel and every day during. If I began to feel sick, I chewed zinc tablets every three hours to ward off illness.
6. Develop new habits that cost 5 to 15 minutes
The classic advice for building new habits is to start small. Before 2023, I interpreted this as microscopically small (i.e., floss one tooth, do one pullup, write one word) to get started. But I’ve learned that some habits can be too small to matter. Instead, aim for attainable habits of meaningful size to signal to yourself that you’re committing to something worthwhile. A good rule of thumb: Aim for a habit that takes 5 to 15 minutes to complete. Jog for 10 minutes, read for 15 minutes, meditate for 5 minutes.
7. Some notes are better than no notes
I struggle to keep consistent book notes. But even logging a few phrases to capture your learnings is invaluable for future reference. Seeking perfect notes will leave you with no notes.
8. Strength and cardio, not strength or cardio
For the past five months, I’ve pursued strength and cardio fitness improvements in parallel. I’ve targeted these seven exercises and tracked performance each month:
300 Meter Sprint
1.5 Mile Run
I follow these general benchmarks.
9. Chew gum in private
Don’t chew gum in a car with passengers. Don’t chew gum on planes. Don’t chew gum in an office. Don’t chew gum at the store. Chomp away from others.
10. Drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage
I’ve found that one glass of water for every serving of alcohol can reduce tomorrow’s headaches.
11. Daily stretching enables quicker recovery
I had several bad accidents from skiing, biking, and climbing this year, but I didn’t lose mobility during recovery. I credit this to a simple stretch routine I’ve performed daily for the past year.
12. Use Scandinavian bedding to reduce sleep disruption
During a trip to Iceland in April, I noticed that most beds feature twin comforters side-by-side instead of one queen comforter. This “Scandinavian bedding style” prevents sleep disruption between partners, leading to increased sleep quantity and quality. I made the switch and noticed fewer nightly wakeups (according to my Apple Watch).
13. Aim for a 10:1 fulfilled-to-broken promise ratio
A high say-do ratio is the foundation of a strong reputation. To build trust with others, follow through on ten promises for every broken commitment.
14. How we think matters more than what we think
Tim Urban’s What’s Our Problem? is an enlightening tome on America’s present social challenges. The central idea was the “thinking ladder”—a framework for evaluating the quality of one’s critical thinking skills. Our titular “problem” isn’t what we think but how we think, and my key learning is to take accountability for how we process information and not outsource that thinking to external sources.
15. Develop an inner sense of captaincy
When a ship nearly crashed into a cliff off the coast of the Galapagos islands because of a new and unalert captain, shipmate David Whyte learned a valuable lesson: Develop an inner sense of captaincy. It’s easy to outsource our thinking, safety, and direction to leaders at work, church, or even in our families. But no person is infallible or permanent. We are responsible for captaining our own ships.
16. Happiness has three legs
Happiness is a three-legged stool of purpose, satisfaction, and joy:
Purpose: Feeling like our roles and activities have meaning.
Satisfaction: Feeling like we are accomplishing a goal.
Joy: Experiencing pleasure and fun.
We often don’t feel all three but need this trio to feel happy.
17. But first, actively manage unhappiness
It’s often better to remove alligators than add kittens because the alligators will eat the kittens. Likewise, many of us begin the day with a natural level of unhappiness. Trying to pursue happiness (often joy) without dealing with our unhappiness is a recipe for more misery. For me, a few daily rituals remove my natural unhappiness, so I have a chance at capturing happiness:
18. Don’t let pride limit your happiness
We may derive happiness from things we’re embarrassed about (i.e., model trains or talking about tax rates), so we don’t wholly lean into them. We worry about damaging our pride, so we mask these interests to avoid looking “strange” around others. But life is best when we intensely pursue passions, indicators of our purpose. As I read in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard this year:
“What a fool I would have been to let self-respect interfere with my happiness!”
19. Look at people in their left eye
When speaking to others, look into their left eye. Since most mothers are right-handed, they hold their children in a way that causes the baby to gaze at its mother from its left eye. The amygdala builds a positive emotional association with attention given to the left eye. So, making eye contact in this way can foster a deeper, more trusting connection with someone.
20. Lightly script one-on-one conversations
Either out of laziness or a fear of coming off as robotic, we tend to under-prepare for one-on-one meetings. However, these meetings allow deep and meaningful conversation, so showing up without a plan disrespects the other person. Instead, list topics you want to cover, write a few sentences to convey an idea, or craft some questions, and you’ll consistently have more productive and enjoyable conversations. I keep a running document for each person I regularly meet with.
21. Avoid clichéd thoughts
Writers grumble about cliches like “boil the ocean” and “open a can of worms” because they signify lazy thinking. I gravitate toward cliches in speech and writing when I have nothing to offer, so I’m better off not saying anything. But when I have a thought to share, I pause to consider the most straightforward way to say it, which often emits a novel expression.
22. Write the first draft longhand
I overcame writer’s block this fall by abandoning my former approach to fiction writing: meticulous planning. Instead, I picked up a paper notebook and handwrote a story’s first draft without resorting to an outline. Writing longhand reinvigorated my joy as I could experience the story's novelty, curiosity fueling my pen.
23. Write many, many drafts to find the essence
I read several books by George Saunders this year, but the best was A Swim in a Pond in the Rain—a close reading of seven Russian short stories. One metaphor that stuck with me was this: Imagine you’re gifted an apartment and a decoration budget. If you decorated it all in one week, the apartment would be some percentage you. But if you decorated it week over week for a year, it would be a significantly higher percentage more you. One or two drafts can convey a point, but several, dozens, or even hundreds of drafts will bring it increasingly closer to its essential form.
Write each draft without fear; you will revise it later.
The Next Chapter
This is my last article for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the 1200 of you who have subscribed to read my articles over the previous three years, we've had a good journey. Turtle’s Pace isn’t going anywhere—you’re always welcome to read the archives—but the turtle is going dormant so I can focus my creative energy elsewhere in 2024.
Without further ado, I’m excited to launch Product Field Guide—a newsletter on how to be an effective product manager! If you work in technology or have an interest in product thinking, you should subscribe 😃
Thanks again for reading Turtle’s Pace, and I wish you a Happy New Year!