2019 Focus: End Of Year Review

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). I’ve posted a few updates throughout the year (quarter year, half year & three quarters) and now is the time to do a final review.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

Self Grade: 9/10

2019 was my best year ever for executing a yearly focus. Part of this is certainly due to everything I have learned from having mixed results in the past. I kept my challenge, habit, exemplar and bucket list item all tightly nested with a topic that I was getting plenty of time to think about from everyday life anyhow. That resulted in a nice synergy – never before would I have thought I would use Nelson Mandela as motivation to help me press forward while running around a volcano by myself at 4am, but here we are.

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

Self Grade: 8/10

In December I went out in the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park and fasted for 48 hours. I wrote some thoughts on that experience here. Funny enough, the picture that I decided to use last January is from Joshua Tree, even though I originally had planned to do this closer to Seattle.

I am only giving myself 8/10 for two reasons. First, my total fasting time was exactly 48 hours and wilderness time was ~42. That was the bare minimum of what I had hoped to accomplish. My leaving was mostly due to scheduling issues and not inability to continue so I don’t feel like I got as close to my max as perhaps I wanted. The second reason, which likely resulted from that first, is I didn’t get quite into the headspace that I wanted to. I’m not sure if it just takes me longer to get there now because I have more in my head or if I’m unwilling to go there, but I don’t feel like I quite did it.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

Self Grade: 8/10

I ended up averaging 1.98 hours per week of digital entertainment, just slightly under my goal of 2 hours. I stayed under my target amount (which varied by quarter) on 37 of the 52 weeks.

I had been making great progress into the summer but saw a bit of a regression this winter. Some of that is expected seasonal patterns. I had originally hoped to maintain my low summer levels of digital entertainment as winter set in, but ended up relaxing my target a bit as reality kicked in. Even with that, I can tell I regressed a little more towards the end of the year. I had a plane ride where I watched shows I didn’t even care about and I signed up for Disney+ which got me hooked on one show I hadn’t planned on (The Mandalorian).

Here are the results from Q4. In the beginning of 2019 I had planned on having Q4 have a 2 hour per week target, but after a successful summer I decided to shoot for one hour. After the first few weeks, I decided two revert to the original 2 hour plan – mainly due to the reality of long, dark, cold days (and Baby Yoda).

Here is the full year’s worth of data, including the average line, which finished at just under two hours.

 

Related to this, in 2018 I had tracked a secret goal that I wrote about before and after to reduce the ratio of consumptive vs productive entertainment activities.

Previously in 2017 & 2018 my ratios were 1:2.5 & 1:3.95.

In 2019 the ratio changed to

Books read: 8.5
Books listened to: 0
Significant blog posts written: 5
Total Productive: 13.5

Movies watched: 24
Video Games Played: .5
Graphic Novels Read: 6
TV Show Seasons Watched: 2
Consumptive Total: 32.5

Ratio – 1:2.4

So this is forward progress.

Interestingly, the consumptive number was actually down a lot from the previous years, and I read more books than either of those years. The thing that hurt me was not writing as many blog posts. It turns out but I didn’t read as much as I had those years. If I had written three more blog posts, my ratio would have dropped to under 1:2. I think that means my weighting is a bit off as I can usually write a blog post in a night or two where as reading a book often takes me a few weeks to get through.

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

Self Grade: 9/10

This year I learned a good bit about Mandela and in July I published my exemplar review for him.

One of the things I learned from him was the ability to remain engaged in a debate but to let time, rather than talking, win it.

I’ve gotten a chance to put this into practice a few times at work. One recent & unannounced project is near to my area of expertise and it was originally heading in a direction that would have resulted in a lot of extra work for my team and frustration for customers. I didn’t own this decision and due to the number of things on my plate, wasn’t able to devote a major portion of my time to it to help steer it.

Instead I was clear about my top concerns and a better solution. I periodically communicated that 1:1 to the right people, even when it seemed like the critical mass of people involved were spinning a bit. The end result (so far, we’ll see for sure when it finally goes live) is essentially what I was pushing for. Getting there took much less of my effort than being deeply engaged would have though, which was the big win.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

Self Grade: 9/10

Sometimes you achieve something because you put in the hard work preparing for it. Sometimes you achieve something because you’re stupid and stubborn and just keep pushing through pain. My run around Mt. Rainier was the latter.

Despite encounters with a mountain lion, two bears and a sprained ankle, I managed to complete the ~93 mile run, self-supported in under 48 hours. It wasn’t pretty, but it counts. Read the adventure report here.

As a bonus bucket list item, also appropriate to the long-suffering theme, I rode my bike around Mt. Rainier. The one day 150 mile ride, called RAMROD was something I’d had my eye on for a while and when a few coworkers signed up, I decided to join them. Read the ride report here.

Fast in the Wilderness: Complete

This year as part of my Yearly Focus I challenged myself to fast in the wilderness for an extended period of time. On December 10-12, 2019 I did so and thus completed the challenge. Here is the writeup.

Purpose

This challenge fit into this year’s theme of long-suffering both in that I would be suffering a bit as I sat there hungry and that the time away would be a good time to clear my head and think about the goals I was willing to suffer for over the coming years.

I challenged myself to walk into the backcountry, find a comfortable spot and sit there for an extended period of time, on the order of 2-3 days, without food, any entertainment, company, etc. Just me, my clothing, a tent, some water and a few ‘break glass’ emergency items.

Fasting in the wilderness is a tradition that crosses cultures and goes back a long time. It is used as a right of passage and also as preparation for big undertakings. Putting my evolutionary biologist lens on for a second, I think it creates a situation that taps back into some deeply buried survival instincts that our ancestors required. My theory is that given two early humans, both hungry and wandering the wilderness, the one that was able to kick into a hyper-focused mode is the one more likely to survive and reproduce.

When you put yourself in a situation like that, your mind and body drop a whole lot of peripheral activity in order to help you survive. When you do it in a controlled way, there is something powerful you can tap into.

Location

I ended up going down to Joshua Tree National Park in California and hiking out into the backcountry. I had originally planned to do this last summer up in the mountains of Washington, but logistics didn’t work out. As I got closer to the end of the year, the weather turned cold and wet in the Pacific Northwest and I knew my only shot at doing this safely in 2019 was somewhere warm. Thankfully there is California.

Gear

My goal was to increase the silence & long-suffering by bringing as little as possible while also managing risk and being respectful of the national park. In a risk free environment I might have only brought water, but to hedge the risk of the backcountry I also brought a few emergency items like a knife.

Because I was in a U.S. National Park, there are a few rules I had to follow – where to camp, where to go to the bathroom, not to have fires and not to collect water. If I were trying to test my survival skills, I could certainly have brought even less gear and made use of my Tracker School skills, but I don’t think that would have added to the experience and it might have actually taken away from it by distracting me. So I brought my trowel, TP, a sleeping bag and ~7 liters of water.

I also brought a light sleeping pad and tarp, more so to protect my gear. It isn’t that I couldn’t have done without them, I just didn’t feel that skipping them added to the purpose.

Recap

Tuesday morning I had breakfast – that would be my last meal until Thursday breakfast. Before lunch I started the three hour drive out to the park. By the time I arrived, I was quite hungry, and I hadn’t even started yet.

The first evening I didn’t do much, I found a good spot to setup and explored the surrounding area to make sure I knew which animals would be around that night. As the sun set around 5pm, the temperature dropped and I got into my bag. I love how easy it is to fall asleep outside in the dark when you have no distractions. Sometime late that night I woke up, having gotten what was a usual amount of sleep for me. A pack of coyotes yipped somewhere not too far away – but not close enough that I was concerned. I’m pretty sure I could take a coyote hand to hand if I had to. Rattlesnakes were the real concern and it was too cold for them to be out.

Wednesday was a full day of solitude outside. In fact, from the time I left my car until the time I got back I didn’t see another human. Various times when I was up on some rocks I saw cars in the distance, but I wasn’t within eyeshot of a human for ~40 hours. If it weren’t from the constant stream of aircraft coming from LAX, I wouldn’t have known if an ‘everyone disappeared and you’re the last human left’ type thing happened.

Surprisingly I didn’t feel hungry on Wednesday. Around late morning I decided to go for a walk. In the desert you can just pick something tall and walk towards it and you’ll eventually get there. There weren’t any trails, but periodically I’d see signs of past humans; a cairn, some climbing hardware, a few rocks lined up in a pattern.

In retrospect I’m not sure if that walk was beneficial. I figured it would deplete my glycogen stores a bit faster, so I’d be in more of a fasted state, but it also gave me something to think about. I don’t do well sitting still and usually do my best thinking while running, so I’m a bit torn as to whether this made things easier for me because they were more comfortable or whether it made it easier to think in a good way.

I watched the sunset from on top of a boulder. Sitting still for an hour as a murder of crows circled overhead trying to decide which one would be the first to check if I were food yet.

I got into my bag early again, it was getting cold, into the 40s by then, and the constant light wind was enough that getting low and insulated was a good idea. I had an hour of so of stars before the full moon rose that cloudless night.

After sleeping for some time, I woke up to the moon high overhead and the eeriest glow all around me. Bright enough to see, but still dark enough, it was quite a trip. I climbed up on a big rock and sat for an hour or so, looking out over the landscape, listening to owls and coyotes.

Eventually I got back in my bag and slept until I eventually caught the first glimpses of light coming up from the east. I again climbed my rock and watched in slow motion as the sky changed colors for an hour. It would have made a nice picture, but you’ll just have to believe me, because I didn’t have a camera or phone on this trip.

Eventually I walked back to my car and found it was still a bit shy of 48 hours from when I last ate, so I waited a bit longer. I’m pretty sure I’ve gone 24 hours without eating before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone 48. Perhaps I did under medical care after having my tonsils or wisdom teeth removed.

My first bites of a stale granola bar made it apparent how heightened my sense of smell and taste were. Perhaps magnified in an attempt to zero in on some food, or perhaps just reset from no recent experiences to create diminishing returns.

I suppose easing back into food would be a good idea, but I only had a few hours left in California, so I scarfed down a big breakfast, followed by some carne asada for lunch before getting a surf session in. There was surprisingly little impact from the whole thing.

Some Thoughts

This whole trip was surprisingly uneventful when I think about it. I used to think surviving a weekend in the wilderness with nothing but a knife would be a really cool challenge, but now I realize that if it is pretty warm and you have a water source, it is really a non event.

If the duration were longer, eventually you’d need a food source and shelter, but, were it legal, there were a few rabbits I’m pretty sure I could have speared, there was plenty to burn to cook it on and there were lots of caves I could have used as shelter – assuming there weren’t existing inhabitants I had to fend off. I bet I could do a month or so out there with nothing but my clothes, a knife and a lighter. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to test that idea for a while though.

I have a really hard time not doing anything. While having no alone time to think usually results in a lot of stress for me, having too much time without action does too. I’m not sure if in this case 48 hours was just not enough time to get me really unplugged, given the amount I have to process through. I didn’t get anywhere near the point of needing to pain a face on a volleyball for company. In some ways, it felt much more like sitting on a beach at a resort sipping a fancy drink with an umbrella than I had imagined it would.

I suppose when you take on challenges, if they are far enough removed from things you’ve done before, it is more likely that the difficulty of the goal will be uncalibrated from what is possible. I thought in this case 2-3 days would be long enough based on the fact that I usually can’t make it from lunch until dinner without getting lightheaded or having a snack – but in this case I don’t think it was. I don’t think finding more time for something like this is in my immediate future, so I suspect I’ll need to continue to find more intense and short duration challenges.

2019 Focus: Half Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

It occurs to me that the nature of suffering is deeply related to how much one cares about the task. One hundred miles walked for a purpose can feel shorter than a single aimless mile.

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

I’ve done some reading on wilderness fasting and vision quests. The concept seems shared by many seemingly divergent walks of life but it generally includes some common elements; alone, undistracted, hungry and unprotected.

I’ve secured backcountry permits for two different mid-week excursions this summer and will pick one based on how the weather and my schedule shakes out.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

This quarter was a bit of a regression, despite the bar being raised. I decreased my weekly target from 3 hours to 2 hours. Despite that my average went from 137 minutes per week up to 180. This was mostly due to three particularly screen-timey weeks – I did manage to stay under the threshold in 9 out of 12 weeks, but those three really pushed it over.

Of the three weeks that racked up a lot of minutes – one was a trip in which I watched a number of things with the people I was visiting and a whole lot on the plane ride back. I should have slept on that plane ride, which would have minimized the impact. The other week was a bit of an outlier, the newest Avengers movie came out and not wanting the surprises spoiled, I saw it on opening weekend. That movie by itself was over my weekly target but I also watched Captain Marvel, the previous movie in the series the night before in order to catch up. The third big outlier week was one in which I had the flu and was out of commission for ~10 days. I’m actually surprised I kept my total as low as I did during that time, usually sick time results in a lot of screen time but I tried to sleep and read more this time.

Reading, boardgames & LEGO have continued to be my favorite non-digital entertainment. I’ve read 4.5 books this year, played 46 boardgames & sorted through a few thousand pieces in order to re-assemble sets for my kids to play with (I’ve built a few of them myself as well).

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

I recently finished Mandela’s biography and watched the movie based on it. I still need to complete my exemplar review but feel hesitant to do it without first reading a biography of him. I found his autobiography was so humble and un-antagonistic that it forced me to read between the lines to get towards the truth. I’d love to hear the thoughts of a historian that is willing to boast on Mandela’s behalf when necessary and condemn his flaws with equal strength.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

I’ve been getting a bit nervous lately. This is a really big run, I’m not at all prepared for it and the dates are getting closer.

I started thinking back to a 20 mile hike I did last year that wore me out pretty good. I’m pretty confident I could do double that much, but I have no idea how I’ll do 5x that much. I’m going to need to go to a place of exhaustion I’ve never been before.

I’ve broken in the shoes I’m going to wear and collected the gear I’ll need so I could start to do some training runs with the actual weight I’ll be carrying for the run. I’ve also done enough research that I feel like I’m not just winging it – which is probably best when trying to run 93 miles in the wilderness, alone, without sleeping.

At this point I am fairly confident that there is a 0% chance this will be an uneventful run. It should make for a good run report at the least.