2020: A Personal Retrospective

The year 2020 was a tough one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from it.

One of the overriding themes of 2020 was that of stress – and, related to that stress, anger, which was very difficult for me to manage. So much so that I sought professional help – something I kind of wish I’d done sooner, as it has been very… well, helpful!

On a professional level, staying motivated was very hard – like a lot of people I had to help carry some extra load within my job due to the changing economic landscape. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve always worked from home, which meant that what was a huge change for most people was for me just another regular day. I’m also very fortunate in that I have a very nice little home office, outfitted very well (especially since our renovation) so that I can work in peace and yet still leave “the office” at the end of the day. Again, this is something lots of people are struggling with – the separation of “work time” and “home time” – but for me it is nothing new.

As a result of the extra loads I’ve had to carry at work, I’ve had to learn a lot of new technologies – which normally would be quite exciting, but the stress of short deadlines has made it less so. I find that I rarely have time to really get to know a new tool or technology very well – with the focus so sharply on meeting deadlines, I basically just learn it “good enough” to get the job done and then it’s off to the next thing. This goes against the usual way I learn new things, which is to play with them and use them until I feel like I have a really good understanding – building my way up through mini projects and whatnot until I feel like I’ve “mastered” it (or at least “gotten pretty good” at it).

Some might say that I should try to learn/master new tech in my off time, but I can’t bring myself to do that unless I’m really excited about something – after all, my off time is for me, not for work, and I hold very strongly to my work/personal time balance. Most of the stuff I’ve been learning this year hasn’t been terribly exciting for me – maybe because it’s not really new (just “new to me”), or maybe because this sort of stuff doesn’t interest me as much as it used to.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty good programmer – it’s not just a job to me; I read about it regularly and take pride in my work (or craft). And there are still times at my job where I am reminded that I am actually pretty darn good at what I do. But at the same time, I’ve also become somewhat jaded – I’ve been coding for so long (basically my entire adult life) that it all becomes somewhat tiring to me. Code is everywhere now (and too often it’s bad code – which drives me crazy), and where coding used to be about creating cool new things, now it’s more like just making appliances… and who can get excited about that?

Still, I am a programmer at heart and will remain so – even if I don’t code as much as I used to.

On a personal level, this year has taught me a lot about myself. With so little to do outside, I’ve had the time to look inward. One thing I’ve come to realize is just how sensitive I am to embarrassment. I’d always known I was a little touchy about embarrassment – when watching films or TV shows where characters were doing something embarrassing, I’d have to look away or leave the room, and some genres of shows (comedies, for the most part) I simply couldn’t watch or enjoy.

That fear of embarrassment affects my behavior in some subtle ways – I will go out of my way to avoid situations where there might be even the slightest chance of being embarrassed. Knowing this now, however, I can remind myself that most of the embarrassment never happens (or is only in my head) and so I can avoid limiting myself unnecessarily (or, at least I can try to… it’s an ongoing process).

Another thing I realized was just how much I hyper-focus on what I’m doing – probably a side-effect of being a programmer – to the extent that I often can’t handle anything other than the one thing that I’m doing, and any interruption (no matter how small) throws me off the rails. I’m trying to work around this mainly by communicating my need to not be interrupted and by writing things down so I can remember where I was. And for smaller things, I’m reminding myself that it’s OK to let go of that focus – it’s not worth being so wrapped up in, say, doing the dishes. But I don’t want to totally give up my hyper-focus; I often enjoy being engrossed in what I’m doing – whether it’s working on a computer problem, building something in my garage, or doing something more creative.

Speaking of which, this leads to one of my major personal themes for 2020 and beyond: letting go. With all the stress and anxiety of this year, it’s been problematic for me to be as tightly wound up as I can often get. What used to be manageable on a short scale is not healthy when it extends to months… or nearly a whole year.

Finding motivation is hard when you’re stressed, afraid, and distracted by terrible thoughts. It doesn’t help that I have always had a bit of difficulty making decisions, even on simple, mundane things.

I’ve had a hard time finding a balance between work and play – not just my job, but even household tasks. I’ll convince myself that I “have to” do things – maybe work a bit more to finish something, or tidy up around the house – before I allow myself to do something I want… and then I end up telling myself I don’t have time to do the thing I want, or I get stuck trying to decide what I want to do and end up procrastinating and doing nothing (or spending time on social media or watching random videos). So once again I turn to the idea of “letting go” – catching myself when I’m doing this internal “you have to do X before you are allowed to do Y” thing to myself and just letting go of that need. Specifically, I try to catch myself when I think or say “I have to do…” and change it to “I want to do…” That simple re-framing of the statement puts me back in control of my own time, and has helped immensely with fighting the feelings of being overwhelmed by stuff that “needs” to be done.

Likewise, taking time for myself has been a theme for this year. Like a lot of people, I’m hesitant to “take time for myself” when I need it… but this year I just had to do it. Although I’m still working on getting used to doing this, I hope to continue to build up the confidence to just let go of my worries and take time when I need it.

This was especially prevalent in my hobbies this year – for example, my photography. Taking photos took a back seat to apathy – partly due to a creative block that had been growing for a while, but also just letting other things take priority. Photography in particular is one thing I want to get back into in 2021, and I hope I can convince myself that it’s OK to do so; to let go of the need to do other things first.

Part of what I worry about, however, is that in putting aside what “needs” to be done, I’ll end up over-doing it in the other direction – spending all my time doing what I want to do. I tend to get absorbed in what I’m doing, and like anyone I can be lazy and procrastinate… so I have traditionally tried to avoid this problem by forcing myself to wait. But I think I’ve over-done it, especially in light of this last year, and I would like to change that.

I was especially fortunate to have the entire week off work between Christmas and New Years this year, and I’ve forced myself to use that time for what I want to do – mainly playing some games I’ve had for quite a while but never gotten around to playing (more of that work/play balance thing I just mentioned). I’ve kept up quite nicely with household chores while playing hours and hours of games – so the proof is right there; I can do what I enjoy while still doing what “needs” to be done. Hopefully I carry this lesson forward into 2021 and beyond.

I started journaling in earnest this year as well – and looking back on those entries has been very instructive. I fully plan to keep journaling going forward (I just bought myself 3 more notebooks, in fact), and I hope I can keep it up with more frequency.

I know that the changing of the year is purely a human construct, and that January 1, 2021 will be much the same as December 31, 2020 – there will be no magic improvement in the world or in my life when the clock strikes midnight – but all the same, mentally, psychologically, it will feel very good to finally put 2020 to rest.

Happy New Year!

By Keith Survell

Geek, professional programmer, amateur photographer, crazy rabbit guy, only slightly obsessed with cute things.