50 things that improved my life in 2020, the year of chaos

The brain is designed to answer questions.

For most of the year, the question I asked was: “How could it get any worse??” I found answers to that. Then, I asked “what made this year good?” I also found answers to that.

My guess is that you could make a list just like this. You can steal some from my personal list of 50 things that improved my life in 2020.

50. Cutting out critically acclaimed films

After 18 months of watching off Best Picture-winning films, Kate and I have turn to a steady diet of Rom Coms this year. We even watched Emily in Paris, awful as it was. Why? Because apparently, awards go to only super depressing work.

Entertainment should make you feel better, not worse.

49. Writing poetry on wine corks

“Poetry” is a stretch here, but I’m still using that word.

Every time we finish off a bottle of wine, I grab a Sharpie and write something that will remind me of the night.

Each note takes me back in time.

48. Kiwis

More potassium than bananas. More vitamin C than oranges. More fiber than cereal. Step aside, kale. Kiwi is the real superfood.

47. Answering Phone Calls

Almost the entire decade BC (before COVID) I avoided phone calls like the plague. Now, they are salve for my soul. Some are productive. Some aren’t. Frankly, I don’t care.

Talking to humans makes you feel human. That’s a good thing.

46. Coach Tony’s Guide to Configuring Your iPhone

Speaking of phones — this guide from Tony Stubblevine might be the only online, long-form piece I’ve ever been patient enough to read.

It’s practical and helpful.

45. Buying More Physical Books and Actively Reading Them.

I tried the Marie Kondo thing. It worked on everything but books. Books give me way more “life-changing magic” than a clean floor anyway.

In addition to just having more books, I read them better. My reading routine now includes a pretty intense annotation method with post-it flags.

Audio books don’t work. Electronic books hurt your eyes. Long live paper.

43. Ephesians 6:12

You probably aren’t supposed to put Bible verses in blog posts anymore, but for me this one is unavoidable. Ephesians 6:12 showed up in my morning devotional on July 3rd, and then was cited in two different books the following day. I believe in coincidences. But I also believe in something more than coincidences.

Here’s the verse:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

To me, that means: “Don’t fight humans. Fight anxiety, depression, hatred, rage, greed, and jealousy.”

42. This AirBnb in Cookeville, TN

My wife and I try to take 4 mini-vacations per year with just the two of us. Although our bigger plans of going to Cumberland Island and Colorado got torpedoed, this cozy little cabin in Cookeville, TN was amazing.

If you live down south in America, this place is worth checking out.

41. Buying flowers

I said I got them for Kate. In reality, it’s just nice to have color in the room when the world is falling apart.

40. My nephews

Generally speaking, America lacks the sort of family connections held in high esteem by other nations. Odd as your family may be, you do only have one of them.

Kids offer perspective. Their version of “my world is falling apart” often has to do with legos. It’s a nice shift.

39. Baths

I take two baths per week. There are no bubbles, but there is one duck. Also, there is a dark rum-scented candle because I am a man.

Good ideas come when you are warm and wet and phone-free.

38. Asking for help on everything

Most of us write blogs — alone. We build businesses — alone. We create a personal brand — alone. We grind and hustle and work — alone.

The lone genius is a lie. Relay teams go further than sprinters.

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one. One is a fiction.”

— Tony Kushner

37. Trello

I was annoyed by Trello the first time I used it. Now, it serves as my ultimate to-do list. If you’re anything like me, you hate structure and project management.

Trello is the best tool I’ve found to keep me organized without costing me obscene amounts of time.

36. Mushroom coffee

Jim from California rolled into our tiny farmer’s market in Tennessee and started selling mushrooms. It was odd.

It didn’t take long for me to realize the guy was a mushroom genius, though. I can’t imagine being so dedicated to fungus. Maybe it’s a hippie thing. Either way, my first flavor of every day is his formula of mushroom powder, espresso, coconut sugar, and cocoa. The health benefits are enormous, and the caffeine mixed with the mushroom is a nice, calm boost (not a spike and crash).

Four Sigmatic offers something similar if you don’t have a local Jim.

35. Socially distanced dinners

April 2nd, 2020 was my wife Kate’s 30th birthday. It was also the day of her grandfather’s funeral. So the day was a tad emotional. Sad and lonely, we set up tables 10 feet apart in our front yard and invited her family over for dinner.

Although we had to shout a little, it was interaction well needed.

For what it’s worth, I’m not thrilled with the term “social distancing.” Physical distancing is required, but humans are naturally social. Denying that instinct hurts.

34. Big Moleskine notebooks

A writer is only as good as his notebooks. I have long been a fan of pocket-sized notebooks because I always wanted to have a handy scrap of paper. The big ones have been a lot of fun. More white space, more room to expand.

I scooped up a pack of these at Marshall’s. They help me think.

33. Chewy pet delivery

Your paycheck probably drops into your account automatically. Your credit card, mortgage, car payment, and possibly utilities fly out of your account automatically. Why not automate other predictable purchases too.

We have 2 (and a half) cats, as well as one dog. If I could get a litter box-emptying service, I might be the happiest man in the universe.

32. Away (The television show)

I called this Netflix show “sad astronauts.” It was a defense mechanism. Hillary Swank has a way of making me tear up.

Certain corners of the Internet can trick you into believing television shows are nothing more than a distraction. Don’t buy into the hype. Like Stan Lee said, entertainment matters, even if only for a moment.

“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end.”

— Stan Lee

31. The Song “Bones” by Maren Morris and Hozier

For the first three months of the year, this is the only song I listened to. I’m not exaggerating. And yes, it has to be the version with Hozier.

I’m weird with songs. I actually believe the lyrics: “When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter…”

30. Nick Wolney (Like… the whole guy)

I don’t know if you can nominate anyone for new writer of the year, but if so, I’m nominating Nick Wolny. Nick is one of those annoying people who is very good at what he does AND super nice. Ugh.

Anyway. Go follow him.

29. Astara

Of the 31 years I’ve spent on this planet, I’ve spent approximately 28 of them broke. Sadly, those three years weren’t in a row. I got a little money, thought “I’m rich,” and then found myself broke again almost immediately.

My goal is to spend the next 31 years not being broke.

Astara is a finance app that’s helping with that. My favorite thing about this app is the “recipes” you can use that round up spare change in your transactions and put them in a savings account. It builds quicker than you’d think.

28. Putting Stickers on Things

You may have noticed that after elementary school, you stop using your hands to make things. You sit and think. This is a shame.

The problem (and the point) of using your hands is that you make imperfect things. At the beginning of the year, my notebooks were sterile and perfect. Now, they’re covered in stickers that make me smile. Some of them are crooked. But that’s kind of nice.

27. Office Depot Highlighters

The ink is perfect. The slide is seamless. The edge is sharp. Every time I hear that squeak across the page, I fall a little more in love.

26. A Logitech webcam

Although this webcam isn’t Logitech’s top-of-the-line, it’s close and relatively affordable. This is what I used to record my writing course with Tim Denning.

It’s worth noting here that although the picture is great, I found the audio is not. The levels blew out pretty easily for me, and I ended up going back to my trusty MV5 Shure for recording sound.

25. The Farewell (Movie)

Awkwafina drops her zany comedic persona from Crazy Rich Asians and plays a stunning and thoughtful role in a movie about telling lies to the elderly. Well, not “lies.” One lie — the grandmother has stage 4 lung cancer. The family lies and tells her she is completely healthy.

This movie was the biggest oversight in the 2019 Best Picture nominations. Please watch it. For me. And Awkwafina.

24. John Mayer’s Instagram

Trust me, I’m the last person who thought I’d be including an Instagram anything on this list. I’m a words person. Twitter is my place.

But when Kate showed me the rock star’s Instagram channel, I couldn’t look away. Even when the world seemed darkest, John found a way to keep everyone upbeat. He’s worth the follow.

(When you watch his “Feu du Bois” highlight, you’ll laugh until you cry).

23. Making emails fun again

This is a little trick I picked up from Michael Thompson. Mike suggests sending four simple emails to these people each week:

  • An old friend
  • A potential mentor
  • Someone you used to work with
  • Someone you can support.

The neat result of this is that your email inbox turns from a pile of spam to a bouquet of delightful memories, unexpected responses, and all-around good vibes.

I made a weekly checklist for each of these four items. Even though I don’t send all four every week, the ones I do send always delight me.

22. Jojo Rabbit (Movie)

How do you direct a comedy about Hilter? Answer: you don the mustache yourself, write a heartfelt screenplay, and pull together one of the most fun movies of the decade.

I’d lost faith in funny films, especially after watching the endless parade of crude frat flicks roll through theaters. Jojo made me laugh and cry.

21. JOMO!

Blogger Anil Dash coined this term in 2012, but embracing the “Joy of Missing Out” has never been more appropriate than this year.

Punt FOMO. Live in JOMO.

20. Publisher Rocket

My self-published books bring in a steady stream of $200-$600 per month. That doesn’t sound like much. But I never have to think about paying my utility bills. The books pay for them.

Publisher Rocket is the tool that makes it possible.

(Yep, that’s an affiliate link)

19. Getting a coach

I spent my entire 20s doing everything alone. It was tiring. Now, I’m planning to spend my 30s never making that mistake again.

If you don’t have cash, try trading services to get a coach by trading services. I’m editing my coach’s essays in exchange for a weekly call.

18. Binaural Beats

Tim Denning also turned me on to this. Binaural beats are a specific type of music designed to promote mental relaxation. If you’re having trouble getting in flow, slap on some headphones, crank up a 3-hour playlist, and allow yourself to dive in.

Here’s one I use:

17. Paying off my credit card debt

Like everyone else, I panicked when the pandemic started to roll around. Even though we had just piled up just enough to knock out the debt, I wanted to clinch every dollar.

Then, all my smart friends reminded me that cash isn’t the only form of wealth. In the meantime, that money was leaking out of the bank thanks to the interest payments anyway.

16. This quote by Eric Thomas

“Sacrifices lead. Gains follow.”

Most self-help is oversimplified, including this quote. Sometimes, you need that. Don’t pick at the nuance. Believe the principle.

Sacrifice. Gain. It can be that easy.

15. Drawing

Drawing is a different form of thinking. It reaches corners of your brain that you don’t normally look in. I use drawing mostly to get un-stuck.

Ps, you don’t have to be good at drawing to draw. You’re not looking to get in a museum here. It’s about accessing your thoughts.

14. Etymology app

The Queen’s Gambit features a great scene where one character confesses to another:

“I don’t love chess… I can’t be obsessed enough to win it all.”

I was convicted. I want to be the best writer, but I haven’t been obsessed enough. I’m trying to fix that now by understanding etymology — the meaning and history of words.

If you’re a writer, you might enjoy doing the same.

13. Eating Sauerkraut for breakfast

Fermented foods are incredible for your digestion. I get mine in as soon as possible.

12. Rescuing a kitten

I didn’t want this kitten. I didn’t need more responsibility. But she found us, broken and sick. We couldn’t leave her in the cold.

Caring for something can reveal a different side of you. Ask any parent.

Plus — I mean. Just look at her.

11. iPhone shortcuts

I’m not an Apple junkie, so I think most of the shortcuts on a recent update are useless. 2 of them have been incredibly helpful for my Pomodoro workflow.

  • The work shortcut turns my phone on do not disturb and sets a 25-minute timer.
  • The break shortcut turns off do not disturb and sets a five minute timer.

Both are surprisingly effective.

(See this post for instructions on setting them up)

10. Being convinced that bike locks should be illegal

I see mental health as a scale.

When you’ve got a lot of bad going on, it helps to intentionally place good on the other side of the scale. That means I’ve watched more stand-up comedy on YouTube this year than any other.

This is the set that stood out.

9. Buying a desktop computer

Worse, a Dell desktop. So long, hipster status.

But as the weeks passed with my new machine, I realized something beautiful — I couldn’t carry my work machine from the office to the living room. Work stayed where it needed to.

It’s probably much cooler to walk around your house without a Macbook glued to your hip. It sure is freeing without one, though.

8. Limits to Growth (Book)

It’s common to have an opinion without the knowledge to back it up.

Limits to Growth is a massive, complicated work about protecting the environment. Reading it took me forever. But I wanted the science behind something I felt was a problem.

It’s hard and boring to find research to validate or disprove your opinions, but it’s the right thing to do.

7. Responding to people via video

The body must move. The throat must speak. The mouth must smile.

But the temptation of the age is to sit silently behind your screen and pummel people with text as you karate chop your keyboard. Bump that. Make a video. It’s quicker, more fun, and people remember you are a person instead of a profile picture.

6. Austin Kleon’s Books (All of Them)

Much of the Internet is horrible. And then there is Austin Kleon. He’s a bright light in the darkness, a voice of sanity in a world of loud, angry people.

Get all of his books today. Get them signed.

You won’t be disappointed.

5. Hiring a Bookkeeper

Just imagine — you finally get the chance to start your own business. You’re making a little money. You can see the light at the end of a long, corporate tunnel. You daydream about never returning to the cubical.

Then, you get a letter from the IRS. Your business is no longer a legal entity.

What happened? What’d you miss? Who did you forget to pay? What forms did you forget to file? More importantly — how in the world are you supposed to fix this problem?

A good bookkeeper can answer all those questions. My guy is Alexander Hubenthal. He’s saved me from more than one money-induced panic attack.

4. Running

I started running on January 1, 2020, on a whim. It turned out to be a dynamite coping mechanism through a global pandemic, my own termination, and a wobbly election.

These things made the journey much easier:

3. Getting fired

My company dumped me in July.

I spent 1 day in shock, 2 days in fury, and 3 days on the terrace of my local coffee shop drinking Monkey Mochas. Bananas have healing powers. Not really, but the whipped cream buzz helped.

It’s worth noting the only thing that saved me was this Internet writing thing.

There is a group of people who will say following your passion is bad advice. That’s garbage. When you use the margins of your life to chase what you care about, you meet other people who care about that same thing.

Those are the exact people who can help you get where you want to go the next time your career takes an unexpected bump.

2. My marriage

I hesitated to add this because it isn’t a terribly practical recommendation and because I didn’t get married this year. Still, Kate has been the most stabilizing human in my life these 11 months of 2020. Without her, I’m pretty lost.

A marriage gone wrong can be hell. But a marriage going right can be heaven.

1. This Could Be Our Future

Yancey Strickler’s book is an absolute gamechanger. What if, 50 years from now, we lived in a fairer society with real innovation (not just another platform with “stories!”).

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this might be the most important book of the century. If you look at the business world and see something wrong, read this book. It will give you the vocabulary and logic to argue your case.

Please note that I gave my wife the silver medal in hopes that you will read this.

Final thoughts

Optimism is a choice. Hope is an action. Love is a verb. Positivity is a mindset. None of these things happen by default. They take attention and effort, no matter how miserable the year.

Do yourself a favor. No matter how grim the scenario, look for the good.

The bad will always be there, but it doesn’t have to rule.

This article first appeared on Medium.