On emails, living deliberately, and the art of the “year in review”
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
What did Thoreau mean when he said he wished to “live deliberately?” It’s an odd word to use to describe a way of living. Did he mean “deliberately” in the slow, steady sense of the word? Or did he mean that he wanted to spend his life deliberating—the way one might carefully deliberate over a decision to accept a job or buy a car? Regardless of what he meant, I prefer how I’ve always interpreted the line: I believe Thoreau wished to live thoughtfully and intentionally. In other words, to live deliberately would be to live life with forethought. It is to live with your values, ideas, goals, and principles in mind. To live deliberately is to live your life actively (in which you wield control of your life) rather than passively (in which you let life happen to you).
I can’t help but live my life deliberately. It’s really the only way I can live. To make a decision without reflection and analysis, and just by “going with my gut,” would be to go against years of habit and instinct—it would feel like suddenly trying to write with my left hand. (There is of course plenty to be said for “going with your gut,” but only after a thoughtful analysis of your options has taken place.) All of my big decisions are thoroughly analyzed and thought out and debated (and now increasingly mathematized). Some of this I do by myself, but mostly I collaborate with friends, almost always in the form of email. I prefer email as a form of communication because I know the writing process will help me communicate what I think and feel with optimum clarity and precision.
I’m of course eager for a second opinion when I email, but I think I write emails mostly to learn my own thoughts. Emailing, then, is like writing a diary entry. But not quite, because emailing involves another human being who is intelligent, perceptive, and has good judgment. Knowing that my words will be read by him, I’m compelled to compose my thoughts with his objections in mind, to consider the weaknesses of my argument, to lay out my thoughts with good sense and logic that will stand the test of his scrutiny. My diary entries (if I ever write one) are inferior because they’re typically far more rambling and ungrounded.
My emails usually are quite simple. I write them about once a week to chart what’s going on in my life. Mostly, it’s mundane stuff, but often I try to solve an ongoing problem that may have been vexing me for months—perhaps I’m concerned about not making enough money, or maybe I’m charting the progress of getting over a wrist injury. Sometimes it’s more existential. Maybe I’m questioning what my career ought to be. These emails usually come with self-prescriptions and a list of goals or ideas about how I might best tackle the problem.
I’ve been sending emails to a close friend since the age of sixteen. I’ve been preserving those emails since 2004. Think about having such a thing—twelve years of honest and thoughtful weekly reports chronicling what was going on in your life: career thoughts, travel reflections, failures, success, goals, lessons learned.
What can one learn from so much introspective material? The weekly reports are always valuable as snapshots of the past, and, upon re-reading, they’re sure to at least deliver a nice blast of nostalgia. But in the past few years I’ve wanted to look at my life from a more zoomed-out angle. So, at the end of each year, I started reading my emails of the past year and creating a “year in review.”
I’ve been writing these reviews for three years now, and each year I’ve refined the reviews to make them more comprehensive, more sophisticated, more intense. For instance, as the years go by, I find that I am becoming more of a “data collector.” One can learn a lot about yourself if you have introspective talents, but you can also learn a lot about yourself just by looking at the numbers. I’ve begun to create lists of books I read, radio shows I listen to, TV shows I watch. I keep detailed accounts of my money earned, spent, and saved. I keep a dream log. I write down every book I read or skim and write a paragraph detailing my impressions about each. (I think these data-collecting habits were developed during my vandwelling years at Duke, when I discovered the usefulness of recording all my purchases and vigilantly monitoring my bank account.)
Here are the different sections to my year in review: A. Data collection and category summaries. B. Review of last year’s goals. C. Major existential themes. D. This year’s goals. E. Updated life goals. F. Summary.
A. Data collection and category summaries.
For “Data collection and category summaries,” I have a set list of categories that I return to each year. I’m sure they will vary per person, but for me they are: Career accomplishments (what did I accomplish career-wise?), Entertainment (how much time did I spend reading, watching, playing?), Travels and living situations (where did I live and where did I go?), Major purchases (did I buy a car or a Kindle this year?), Finances (how much did I make, lose, or save?), Family/Friendships (which friendships have grown and which have deteriorated?), Health (what was my health like for 2015?), Adventure (did I get my adventure fill?), Romance (was I single or what’s the state of my relationship?). Excerpts:
-Wrote two blog entries, helped edit two books (David’s and ***), and wrote four essays (Nebraska cold house for NYT, Great Plains Trail for Backpacker, Keystone XL for Time, and NFL’s CTE problem for somebody undetermined).
-Finished editing Trespassing across America. Had many copy edits to perform. Had to create media plans. Had to work on photos. Etc., etc.
-Maintained good standing at Park Service after five-month season as backcountry ranger.
Saw a dramatic reduction in TV time from previous year. Had a lot to do with not binge-watching a whole series like Game of Thrones or The Wire. Easy way to lose 100 hours. Also, my being quarantined in Alaska prevented me from having access to TV. I watched more than a few movies to compensate, though.
Fargo Season One: 10 hours Game of Thrones Season Five: 10 hours The Comeback Season Two: 4 hours The Jinx: 5 hours Hello Ladies: 4 hours Last Man on Earth Seasons One and Two: 13 hours Catastrophe Season One: 3 hours Broadchurch Season One: 6 hours Borgen Seasons One and Two: 20 hours Bits of Vikings, Master of None, Mr. Robot, Veep: 10 hours
2014: 164 hours 2015: 85 hours
I read 30 books, many in Alaska on patrol. This is a nice increase from the previous couple of years.
2006- 33 books read 2007- 45 2008- 47 2009- 35 2010- 41 2011- 41 2012- 31 2013- 20 2014- 24 2015- 30
Didn’t listen to all that much, seeing as how I’m caught up on Radio Lab. I probably listened to about 25 hours of radio on a few long drives.
2014 Radio, TV, and movie time: 379 hours 2015 Radio, TV, and movie time: 282 hours
It was not a year of money spending. My car didn’t cost anything apart from gas and oil changes. I bought a Kindle for about $125. I bought 3-4 pairs of shoes and boots (I have a weird shoe-hoarding fetish), amounting to about $300. I paid $400 or so bucks on medical bills in addition to monthly payments. Though I paid for all my own food for the year (and rent for a good portion of it), it was a pretty good year for saving money.
B. Review of last year’s goals.
I look at the goals I set for myself last year and comment on my fulfillment of them.
My goals for 2015 were:
1. I must floss twice a day. I’ve utterly failed here, though I continue to brush and floss once a day. Probably should be a 2016 goal, but I best not commit to anything softly.
2. Reduce computer videogame playing time. Failed.
3. I want to finish Trespassing (easy, as it’s almost done) and successfully publish three sizable articles for magazines. I already have one job lined up with Backpacker, so this is not an unreachable goal. I did finish Trespassing, though I have to look it over once more. I did publish four pieces, but only one was sizable and it may not print until 2017. I’ll call this goal fulfilled.
4. Be at peace with my leisure time. Don’t fret if I’m not abundantly productive. Accomplished this for the most part. I love my leisure time and am not troubled with all those hours, save for the video games.
5. Commit to my next big writing/adventure project. I can’t say I’ve committed, but I’m awfully, awfully close. I’ve put plenty of thought into it, so I’ll count this goal as fulfilled.
6. Make decent money. Between book and Park Service, I made about $40K, which I consider successful.
C. Major existential themes.
For this section, I’ll look at all of the above and pick out the leading stories of the year. Usually there’s one that dominates—something I’ve been dealing with for maybe half a year. And then there’s a few smaller themes—like this year I had a run of bad health. I also had a period when I questioned my decision to make money this summer rather than pursue my next grand book adventure. Excerpt:
I also had ongoing thoughts about taking the Park Service job, where I didn’t feel challenged or fulfilled. It made me wonder if I should forget about the weekly paycheck to focus on grander, riskier book-project goals. This has not been resolved, as I’m both tempted by the easy paycheck and the grandiose goals.
D. This year’s goals.
In this section, I list a number of accomplishable goals for 2016. Excerpt:
1. Make $30,000.
2. Pursue in earnest your third book. This is somewhat at odds with goal #1 of making money. So I may not be able pull off both.
3. Publish four articles. This should be somewhat easier than last year given that I have a book coming out and publications will be more likely to pick up my stories. I wish these could be big earners, but I know from experience to stop hoping for that. I’ll look upon these as a way to do my civic duty and expand my writing resume for hopefully more lucrative writing work.
4. Fix my fucking wrist! Take pains to prevent reoccurrence of melanoma. Maintain excellent health and diet.
5. Reduce videogames to 75 hours a year. Unbelievable that this has to be a goal.
6. Personal enhancements: Spruce up on Spanish. I plan on spending two-plus months in Costa Rica. I don’t plan on leaving fluent, but, if I could get back to the level of my college years, I’ll be content. Improve photography. I know I’m good, but I have so much to learn. I basically use one setting on my camera. I understand about 4 percent of my camera’s functions.
E. Updated life goals.
Next, I’ll write out my “updated life goals.” These are things I’m looking to accomplish beyond 2016. These are things I can slowly work toward, or simply aspire to. Excerpt:
1. Eventually surround myself with a garden and living things and animals. Today I walked past donkeys on my walk to the Post Office and had a nice moment with them. We’ve been house-sitting a cat all week. I miss working in David’s outdoors. I don’t expect these things next year, but I’d like to embrace them fully someday.
2. Write books! I have three great ideas that I return to on an almost daily basis. They all excite me. Almost nothing excites me anymore, so I know these are paths to fulfillment and adventure.
Finally, I’ll summarize my year. Was it a good year or bad year? Was it because of luck, or was it of my own doing? Am I a fulfilled, contented person?
This may all sound like too much. It may sound like I’m living too deliberately. You might argue that it’s better to leave room for impulsive decisions and spontaneity. But truthfully, I do live spontaneously. I’ve found that to live a passionate and spontaneous life is not to be “a feather in the wind,” but to deliberately plan a passionate and spontaneous life. In other words, you must give your life the structure and space it needs to be able to make spontaneous decisions (i.e., saving for and meticulously planning out a six-month journey on which every day there’ll be some component of adventure and spontaneity.).
At most, these reviews will help you prioritize the important stuff. They’ll help you feel balanced, focused, and organized. At minimum, you’ll have chronicled and preserved your thoughts, which will be a joy to read in the future.