2020: Year in Review

This is my first time writing one of these, and I hope to keep doing them every year from now on. I participate in retrospectives regularly at work, so why not on a personal level? It’s a way to remind me of the things I accomplished, the fun things we did as a family, lessons learned, and what to look forward to. When things seem bad, we might focus too much on the negative, so it’s important to write down all the great things that happened.

What went well

Speaking

One of the highlights of this year was speaking at the ParisRB conference in mid-February (before all hell broke loose), where I got to finally meet Matz in person. In late 2019, I developed an interest in Behavioral Science, and read books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Atomic Habits, and Nudge. I realized how this knowledge could be applied to Engineering, and pitched a talk about Speeding up Tests With Creativity and Behavioral Science. You can read the exact proposal I submitted on my Talks page. The story format I used in my submission was inspired by what Dan Pink calls The Pixar Pitch in his book To Sell Is Human.

I then spent most of the following 2 months putting the talk together and rehearsing it. At the time, I was on the “Reserve” team at Truss, the consultancy where I work. When someone is not working on a client project, they’re on Reserve, where they work on internal projects, and where there’s time set aside for learning. I’m grateful that Truss supported my talk preparations.

Exercise

I finally started riding more regularly on our Peloton bike, thanks to my wife’s nudging. In 2019, I did a whopping 2 Peloton workouts: a 5-minute full body stretch, and a 10-minute Yoga Basics. I did exercise in other ways though throughout 2019, mostly pushups, basic weight lifting, and 7-minute workouts. In 2020, I did 52 Peloton workouts, mostly cycling, but less overall weight training than in 2019.

Adjusting to life during COVID

When it became clear in early March that the coronavirus situation was serious, we anticipated that our kids’ Montessori preschool would close, but we weren’t sure how they would manage it. We were pleasantly surprised when they already had a schedule of virtual sessions, and a resource hub for parents with a bunch of helpful guides and sample activities. This made things a bit easier, but we still had to be there with the kids. I took care of them in the morning until lunch, and then my wife took over until dinner time. Truss has a very generous COVID childcare leave policy, so I didn’t have to stress about making up the time at night after putting the kids to bed.

To give the kids more options to stay busy and engaged, we did some brainstorming and research, and here are the ones that stuck and that they continue to enjoy:

Another household purchase that came in handy during the pandemic was the Bosch 800 series Dishwasher. It is super quiet, and the third tray is a game changer.

We also got the Coway Airmega AP-1512HH air purifier, and when the kids went back to preschool, we donated two of them for each of their classroom, and then the school ended up ordering some for the rest of the rooms.

New work/music setup

Truss is a distributed company, so I was used to working from home, but I didn’t have a proper office in this house. I had also started going regularly to a great co-working space near my kids’ preschool, which was convenient. I was using the Ergodriven Spark portable cardboard standing desk both at home and at the co-working space (I got two of them). I wasn’t expecting much for $25, but it had great reviews, and I was very happy with it. I’m not sure why they don’t make it anymore.

But when the preschool closed, I thought it would be a good idea to use the Truss home office budget to get a proper standing desk and set it up in the basement. I narrowed it down to either Fully or Uplift, and I went with Uplift because the size I wanted was available sooner, and I also got a coupon for $100 off from a fellow Trussel. Overall, the desk is great. The one thing I didn’t like was that the adhesive cable ties that came with it didn’t last very long. If you have any cable management recommendations, I’m all ears.

I got the 80x30" desk because I thought I could also use it for DJing. I used to DJ for about 18 years, and so I have a 7000+ record collection. Two and a half years after moving into our current house, most of the records were still sitting in the basement in crates and boxes. With the kids at home for the first four months of the pandemic, I thought this was a great opportunity to organize my records in their IKEA shelves, and to update them in my Discogs collection. Doing a bit each day kept the momentum going. Putting that last record on the shelf in July felt so satisfying. Once my main collection was done, I sorted my Monfresh Recastow inventory to make it faster to find records that people order.

Being in nature

The fact that COVID happened at the end of winter (where I live) meant we could at least look forward to enjoying the outdoors. We tried to take advantage of that as much as possible. My wife also had a great idea to take a road trip somewhere every Sunday. Before the pandemic, we would usually stick with familiar places on weekends, like playgrounds near our house, or museums in DC, or Great Falls Park by the Potomac River. In 2020, we expanded our horizons and visited the following places:

Blogging

After neglecting my blog for too long, I decided to start a writing habit in late 2020, with a goal of one post per week. Since November 26, my weekly digest has gone out with at least one post every week, except the week of Christmas because I didn’t finish my Jekyll post in time. It involved a lot of testing and I wanted to make sure every step worked.

Here are some stats from 2020:

Learned a new language

After I came back from Paris, I joined the MyMove project at Truss, which aims to improve the relocation process for military families. It uses Go on the backend, and React on the frontend. I had never coded anything substantial with Go before, so I thought it be a good opportunity to learn a new language, and to find out whether or not I like it.

It has now been 10 months, and I must say I’m not a big fan. Being a Rubyist, I find Go too verbose and not very readable. The ecosystem is also lacking. We’ve had to implement a lot of things on our own, and spend time researching options, most of which were poorly maintained and documented. From the Go open source projects I’ve looked up, it feels like they expect you to read the source code and the reference documentation to figure out how things work. I had a hard time finding helpful usage examples in READMEs or Wikis.

That said, there are other language-agnostic skills I bring to this project, such as refactoring, teaching testing best practices, speeding up tests and other workflows, improving onboarding, troubleshooting elusive bugs, and cleaning up legacy code, all of which I enjoy.

Learning from the masters

We signed up for Masterclass at the end of September, and we are enjoying it so far. I’ve been watching the cooking classes mostly, from Thomas Keller, Yotam Ottolenghi (I made his Hummus with Confit Garlic and Tahini and it was yummy in my tummy as my kids would say), and Appolonia Poilâne.

What didn’t go so well

Given the year that 2020 was, it’s not suprising that some things didn’t go as planned, so I’m not going to give myself a hard time about it.

Habits

When I was going to the co-working space, I had a routine built by stacking habits, which is a technique I learned from BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits free email course. It went something like this:

Needless to say, this environment and schedule went away, and so I lost these habits for most of the year.

Reading

I also read/listened to fewer books in 2020. Once my kids were able to go back to school in July, I got back into listening to audiobooks in the car on the way back home after dropping them off. Here are the books I listened to on Scribd:

Planning

My wife and I meant to use the Pace & Pattern Planner to write down our goals and plan a house improvement project, but we didn’t get very far with that.

What I learned

With everything that happened in 2020, my biggest takeaway was the importance of self-care and self-awareness. I’m fortunate to work with such caring and thoughtful people who normalized taking time off when needed, and that we weren’t expected to be operating at 100%. Hopping on the Peloton helped, as did trying to sleep 8 hours, and getting outside as much as possible.

Another thing I learned was that there’s nothing wrong with asking for someone’s email in exchange for something valuable and helpful. Up until a few months ago, I was linking directly to my script that sets up Ruby on a Mac, without telling people how to subscribe to my newsletter. I knew that this script solves a very painful problem for a lot of people because I get hundreds of visitors to my site each day. So then I thought I’d try to ask people to subscribe first before getting the script, and it worked! I wasn’t sure how many people would unsubscribe immediately after getting the script, but it turns out that most people stayed, so thank you!

What’s next for 2021

I have five main goals for 2021:

I have 4 habits that I want to track, and I came up with the mnemonic 1-888, which stands for 1 meditation session, 8 hours of sleep, 8 glasses of water, 8 pushups after finishing each glass of water. I’m not being too strict about that last one. If I do 25 pushups every day, I’ll be happy.

For meditation, I’ve started using the Headspace app, which we get for free as part of the Truss benefits package. For tracking habits, I just started using the Strides app. It seems fine so far. A co-worker mentioned they use Habitica, so I’m going to give that a try as well.

One way I’m trying to make sure I get 8 hours of sleep is by using a commitment device: setting up an Eero profile with scheduled pauses between 10pm and 6:30am. It cuts off the internet on the devices I specify. It works most of the time. I should start keeping my phone in a different room to avoid the temptation of turning it back on from the Eero app.

Things to try/look into

Someone on the Truss Slack asked about paper planners, and there were several interesting options that I hadn’t heard of. I’m curious about these:

I’ve also seen a few people recommend YearCompass for reflecting about the past year and planning the year ahead.

What about you? What do you use that works for you?

Final words

Overall, I’m grateful that we’ve managed to stay healthy, even with the kids back in preschool since July. As always, thanks for reading. Here’s to a healthier and happier 2021!


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