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2016 Year in Review, on Goal-Setting, and Plans for 2017

02 January 2017 18:25 EST under
Lengthy Reads, Life

In a single semicolon-separated list of independent clauses: 2016 was shit (except when it wasn't); set smarter goals; get a preview of my plans for 2017.

2016 Year in Review

If you want a review of 2016 as it concerns the state of the little space-rock we all call home, look no further than this image:

"Look ma, it's 2016!"

But this is a review of my own 2016, as it concerns the state of my musical goals. Most of the details of it all are available here in my most recent blog post. As a bonus, it covers the non-shit parts of 2016 quite nicely. If you don't want to read all that, here's a quick recap:

A shorter, more accurate list might look something like this:

"Look ma, it's Dave's 2016 musical goals."

Work schedule for the past few months aside, I could have kept composing at either of the full-size keyboards we have at the house. I could have figured out a way to rig at least one of them to allow me to keep the stream going. I could even have recorded works digitally and uploaded them to YouTube and then simply rerecorded them when I got the piano back. I did not. I did not do any of those things.

Do you know what I did, instead? Mostly played Heroes of the Storm. "Eh, the piano's gone and the keyboard's super uncomfortable to write at. I'll just play Heroes with my friends for four hours, instead." "Oh, I don't have any good ideas right now. I'll just play Heroes with my friends for four hours, instead." It was, in a word, pathetic. Perhaps more accurately, though, it was easy. It's so easy, after a stressful or particularly long work day, to fall into the habit of pissing the entire evening away online with friends. And for a lot of people, that's okay. You do your job, you have your leisure time, you rinse, you repeat.

Not so for me. It could be -- I have a fairly lucrative day-job -- if not for the nagging feeling in the back of my mind, every second of every day, that little voice, gently singing, "Hey, fuck-wit. get your shit together and stop fueling the dumpster-fire that is your life with mid-tier Heroes of the Storm play." I've become rather adroit at ignoring it. It's starting to get to me, though, maybe because I turned thirty this year and I'm becoming more aware of the fact that spending another thirty years doing something I don't really love may be less than ideal.

I recorded one two-minute arrangement fourteen months ago and haven't recorded a damn thing since. There are no words to describe such depths of inaction. Why is this the case? The answer is simple: I'm horrible at setting goals.


I've always been ambivalent about New Year's resolutions. On one hand, time flows continuously, wholly indifferent to humans' attempts to impose order onto it by dividing it into discrete units, and waiting until January first to focus on self-improvement just seems like an excuse to continue self-stagnation. On the other hand, these discrete subdivisions of time allow us to set ourselves up for spectacular repeated failure with the utmost precision.

How We Set Shitty Goals

Setting goals is good. January first is a reasonably good day on which to set them, if we must be bound to such a concept. I'm no psychologist, but I am writing on the internet, so I'm certainly as qualified as one. That's just the power of the cyber. I think our approach to goal-setting is innately flawed, for three reasons: we set unsustainable goals, we set vague goals, and we set frivolous goals.

Unsustainable goals are easy to identify. "I'm going to work out six days a week." "I'm going to practice the cello four hours a day." "I'm going to eat only a delicious Wendy's Baconator Triple for lunch every day." These are terrible goals, yet the ones we seem to be the most likely to set. Maybe it's because something about waking up on January first, a crisp, fresh 2017 (or whatever year) stretching out ahead, is empowering.

"It's time to get my life back in order," you say to yourself over a cup of Keurig-brewed coffee, which you haven't made in six months because you couldn't justify the exorbitant cost of K-cups, preferring to wait until an unsuspecting relative was foolish enough to buy you a couple boxes of them for Christmas, and which you would best describe as "potable." You look at your wall calendar, proudly displaying "April 2016," the last time you had anything going on that you deemed worthy of the simplest organizational effort.

"Now this deserves a spot on the old wall calendar."

Does this sound like the New Year's Day of a person who's ready to quit cold-turkey a lifestyle in which major milestones are marked by the completion of PS4 games with 50% or more of the trophies obtained? There is no way in Hell this person's weeks will suddenly see him or her hitting the gym six times, or magically procuring twenty hours for cello practice. You're always one illness, stressful work day, or "sorry, we aren't serving the Baconator right now" away from hard failure.

Our culture relentlessly praises ambition, but ambition runs away from us very quickly. One minute, you're playing with your band in the dark corner of an empty coffee shop, and the next you're spending more time fantasizing about playing a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden than you are actually practicing. Think of ambition like Scotch: if you drink your whole glass in one gulp, you're going to have a bad time; however, if you take lots of tiny sips, it'll still be fucking awful, but you'll maybe get through it without vomiting. The slippery slope of ambition is what causes us to go from "I don't work out at all right now" to "I'm going to start working out this year" to "I'll see some incredible results if I work out six days a week" to "Fuck running today; I only ate four donuts for breakfast."

Vague goals differ from unsustainable goals in that there's no way to get them off the ground in the first place. "I'm going to lose weight." "I'm going to practice cello more." "I'm going to surprise people more." These are equally terrible goals.

Wanting to lose weight is admirable (if necessary), but it offers no plan for doing so. You could lose a leg in an unfortunate Baconator-eating accident and potentially drop a whole bunch of weight in one go, in the unlikely scenario that one of your legs weighs more than a Baconator. Does that count as success? If you practiced cello for a combined ninety minutes in 2016, you could play for two hours on January 01, 2017, and technically have met your goal while actually accomplishing very little. What does it even mean to "surprise" people more? Are you going to give them larger-than-expected Amazon gift cards for birthdays and Christmases? Are you going to eat their children? This could really go any direction. Vague goals make for vague results.

And if you think my description of vague goals is hyperbolic, consider that it took me about 30 seconds of searching through my Facebook friends' New Year's posts to find this:

(All remotely personal information blacked out.)

I very much like and greatly admire this person, but these goals are a recipe for failure.

Finally, frivolous goals are one-off experiences that are better placed on a bucket list than tied to a specific year, and usually express head-in-the-clouds desires, rather than an intention to form habits. "I want to go ice-skating with a stranger on a frozen lake at 3 AM." "I want to go to Europe and find the perfect little cafe and spend all day people-watching." "I want to find a girl who loves me enough to fill the body of a cello with Wendy's Baconator Triples and present it to me during a picnic while we're hiking on a trail nobody else knows about."

This is the kind of faux-romantic, hipstery bullshit that cripplingly lonely people imagine less lonely people do, when, in reality, we too just spend most nights playing with our smartphones in bed until we pass out. Listen, the truth is, if you meet a stranger at 3 AM near a frozen lake who has ice skates on him/her, he/she probably just wants to stab you and hide your body under the ice. And if you think people-watching doesn't lose its luster after the seventh straight hour, well, you're right: people-watching is great, and so is Europe. You should go. I went twice last year. Loved it. That's still a stupid goal to set for yourself, though. Frivolous goals don't work because you can't pre-plan your memories.

How to Set Less Shitty Goals

So how do we set better goals? How do we take unsustainable, vague, and frivolous goals and make them into something workable? The answer in every case is that all of our goals should be to form maintainable habits.

"I'm going to work out six days a week." No you aren't. Not unless you've been successfully maintaining a fairly rigorous workout schedule for awhile already, in which case a goal like this is largely worthless to you, anyway. This goal is unsustainable, leaves no breathing room for failure, and provides no specifics about timing.

How about this? "I'm going to get into the habit of working out at least three times a week: Monday morning, Tuesday evening, and Thursday morning, and I'll track my progress in a planner/on my calendar/in a spreadsheet/whatever." Three days a week is much more sustainable than six, the "at least" qualifier gives you room to do more if you want to, you have preferred days and times laid out, and you have a physical means of looking at your progress in terms of record-keeping.

"I want to go to Europe and find the perfect little cafe and spend all day people-watching." Drop the cafe thing, drop the people-watching thing, and focus on the Europe thing. Traveling to Europe is a completely reasonable goal. Pick a city, pick a hotel/hostel, do a little research on costs, and set yourself a goal to form a habit: "I will set aside $N from each paycheck into an 'I'm Going to Europe!' fund so that I can have enough money to take a trip in September." If, while you're there, you wanna dance all night and then climb a mountain and watch the sun rise while you build a chipmunk a nest out of purple flower petals while an ice-skate-wearing stranger sings Jack Johnson songs to you, more power to you.

It should be easy to extrapolate this technique to any Baconator-consumption-related goals you may have.

I don't have a witty caption. I just mentioned Baconators
about a thousand times, so I figured I owed you one.
Also it was time for an image to break things up.

Finally, set fewer goals. More goals means more points of failure, which means more opportunities for the whole thing to come crashing down. Most of us have a day-job. Most of us will be fired from that day-job if we don't, you know, do it. Boom. There go a ton of hours, immediately. Commuting. Family obligations. Grocery-shopping. House-cleaning. Bill-paying. Shit-taking. Dog-walking. Meal-cooking. Sitting on your ass on the couch for a few hours every now and then so you don't collapse from the stress of it all. There go more hours. All of a sudden, the window for goal-pursuing looks a lot smaller, right? Pick a small handful of goals that are truly important to you, and focus on those.

So what's the point of this excessively long blog post about goal-setting? Well...

Plans for 2017

My 2016 goals -- which did exist -- were complete garbage. "I'm really gonna focus on my music this year." Yeah, that turned out great. I don't even remember what the rest were, but I probably ate at least one Baconator last year, so if I had a goal not to do that, it was a bust, too. The one thing that did go well was that I made pretty solid progress on learning Carl Vine's first piano sonata, which I'll likely be playing in a concert in July.

I've written enough already, so I'll just get right down to it. Here's the 2017 plan. Since time is the biggest factor in pursuing goals, I've decided to treat it as a currency, and have divided my six goals into two categories: time-purchasing goals, and time-spending goals.

Time-Purchasing Goals

These are the two most crucial goals, because they enable the success of my other goals.

  1. I will work my software development job no more than twenty-five hours each week in 2017.
  2. I will no longer play online games with friends on weekdays before 9 PM (at which point it's too late to play the piano in my apartment building).

Time-Spending Goals

The rest involve habit-forming:

  1. I will record one unrecorded short/easy work or complete writing one new short/easy work at least three times per month.
  2. I will record one unrecorded long/difficult work or complete writing one new long/difficult work at least once per month.
  3. I will stream at least twice every week: Monday and Wednesday evenings will be the preferred times, with Thursday and Friday evenings being alternate or additional times as needed/possible.
  4. I will post to this blog at least once per week, even if it's just a tiny bit of fluff.

That's it. This actually begins in February, possibly sooner. I'm in Chicago right now, celebrating a belated Christmas with Kate's family, and when I return home, the piano needs a tuning and a voicing/regulation pass. The rest of January will likely be spent finishing up work obligations, but I'm already beginning to cut back on the hours, and once I'm back behind the keyboard, the twenty-five-hour limit goes into hard effect.

I'll see you soon, folks. Set smarter goals, and have a great 2017.