Continuity

1 January 2024
1 Jan 2024
Battery Park, New York
6 mins

It’s nearly 2024.

I used to write these long, extensive lists of goals when one year rolled over into the next — usually 10 each time. I would structure the list to contain 5 goals that were relevant for “work” (and other things I bundle into “work” like personal projects and technical reading) and 5 more that were more relevant to my personal life, dealing with building relationships, improving my lifestyle, travel, and so on. I was really rigorous about them, too, like setting precise numbers of books I wanted to read or people I wanted to have conversations with. At a time in my life when there was overbearing structure all around me in the form of school schedules, geographic constraints, and academic and professional responsibilities competing for my time, these detailed ten-point lists were a way to continually remind myself how I wanted to spend it. They shaped a lot of my life, especially my career.

I stopped doing that, I think, when time froze in March 2020 in perpetuity with the planets and the constellations still hanging midair. I also left university around the same time, and since then my life has had a lot more continuity from season to season. I didn’t feel I needed to declare each year anew by enumerating a new list of things I cared to accomplish, because I was likely already working on those goals, and planning to continue pursuing them. Like many of us I also can’t quite escape the feeling that I’m still living in some over-extended 19th season of 2020.

In that continuity that blurred and smoothed out any life transitions, my mental image of my goals and priorities shifted and sharpened incrementally over time. So while I never took a dramatic turn of declaring a new set of goals or values for 2024, the implied list of goals in my mind looks different to any other year before. Rather than a melange of ten different, precise goals I want to check off, these days I try hard to focus on less than a handful of areas of my life into which I want to pour as much time as possible.

As a checkpoint in the ever-extending continuity of my life and a reminder to myself, I thought I’d write down those areas of focus here as the year ticks from a 3 to a 4.

Whenever I feel lost, I always ground myself in knowing that everything that I can do that feels fulfilling actually falls into three categories:

  1. Something accomplished. Solving a hard technical problem, publishing a new piece of writing, or building and publicly sharing something useful. I find that I feel fulfilled when I complete and publish some kind of artifact encapsulating something I learned or wanted to express.
  2. Something crafty. Over the holiday week, I spent quite some time drinking tea, playing my instruments, reading papers, and going for a walk around downtown Manhattan. These don’t really accomplish things, but they make me happy, give me marginal space in my life, and provide some way to fill my time when I’m not gunning to check something off a to-do list.
  3. Something shared. This year, I experimented with hosting small gatherings (ten to thirty friends, coworkers in the field, relative strangers) and came away wanting to refine my approach and host many more. I spent much more time with my friends in the San Francisco Bay Area thanks to the many, many work trips across the country. With some old friends of mine becoming coworkers, I also got to connect much more closely with them. Time spent with the right people is never wasted, and I felt my circle of the people I treasure becoming smaller and closer.

As long as I’m splitting my time somewhat equally among these three things, I’ve felt well. When I try too hard to go super deep on just one, the others take a hit and everything feels thrown off-balance. The last few months have been a process of my learning how to hold these three things at about a constant eighty percent, by my subjective calculus.

I started my 2023 with a few major life transitions. I ended a long-term relationship, and I started a new job after a year of solo exploration. The job meant I was once again living on a salary rather than spending into my savings, but also took away nearly all of the time I had been spending working on my own projects and learnings. Together, these changes forced me to find the right way to spend my time every day from a completely new foundation, and it took me most of the year (until around October, I think) to really feel like I had settled into the right balance of time spent among those three categories I try to nurture.

Of course, I’ve also learned how to spend my time within these three categories better, with more depth. I think I grew a lot as an engineer and communicator, and learned a lot about research in the machine learning domain. I learned to be much more judicious with my time and attention. I think I became much more adept at growing new friendships into deeper ones. But I’ll have chances in the future to write more about those.

Comparing my priorities now to those extensive lists of goals from yesteryears, I get the sense that I’ve learned (and been forced) to travel light. When I go on a trip, I try to pack as little as possible into as few baggages as possible, ideally all in a set that I can carry on my body. Everything’s within reach, and I never have to worry if I’m forgetting something or getting too distracted by the extravagance of wanting too many things. A pared-down list of priorities feels the same. No extravagant ceremony of counting books and flights. No ambitions about becoming X or Y. Just three things that are important. Am I giving them enough time? Simple yes-or-no questions to know if I’m on track. There are some details. I want to write more in 2024, for example; in 2023 between the new job and lots of travel my writing habit collapsed. I want to read more fiction. I want to return to percent-of-income recurring donations. But those are implementation details, and will happen if I focus on the right priorities. (I also think I’m past the point where writing about them on the public web helps me achieve them.)

An expansive collection of ambitions helped me explore the space of possible hobbies and goals, and I think it was helpful for its time. This new mode feels focusing.


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