Six months ago I was toiling away at a WeWork in West Village, Manhattan. At the cusp of my 25th birthday, I sat in dim light stringing together disparate thoughts to craft my “life in review”. I distinctly remember staring out into the boundless big city void, the evening streets buzzing with dreamy summer energy. My inner voice told me that even with all the change that had already occurred, my personal lifestyle curve would continue to explode exponentially towards another local maximum. It was right.
This past year was coloured with tones of discovery, creativity, and a predominant feeling of just “figuring things out”. I built a pipeline of online-to-offline friendships. I jumped from a beloved coffee giant into an early-stage technology startup. I grabbed a one-way ticket and moved to the Middle East. I dedicated intentional time to creative pursuits: hacking, designing, writing, storytelling, performing. Words like spontaneity and serendipity dominated my vocabulary. The common thread is that I didn’t really plan for things — I mean how could you really with the global insanity? — but trusting an unknown and unnamed process also brought a fair share of fears, doubts, and pains.
As I carry over this chaotically-curious mindset into the new year, I’m pausing to sit with an important truth: I’ve been in “divergent mode” the entire time. During this divergent period, I strived to broaden my inputs, ideas, and insights. Less was not more, and saying yes became an existential mantra. I invited in travel, career, love, identities, hobbies, communities, and all. Imagine me at a discount casino buffet, loading my plate to the brim and gorging on the supposedly satisfying nourishment.
But as my appetite for novelty and variety starts waning, I want to shift this design model towards convergence. To me, converging is about condensing the number of to-dos and ruthlessly deleting distractions. Converging is about making choices instead of glorifying optionality. Converging is about shifting from conventional success measures to an individual sense of deeper fulfillment. Convergence is focus.
If 2020 was a year of widening possibility and 2021 was a year of welcoming change, then 2022 is the third instalment about witnessing my focus in action.
This piece is a snapshot summary of my new goal system for 2022: The Flywheel of Focus. The flywheel framework is a reference to the early combustion engine, invented to transfer energy into the target vehicle as efficiently as possible. The more force you apply to the flywheel, the faster it spins, and the more energy it multiplies. The same principle is often applied in technology to stoke viral user growth, but my preferred application is around personal growth. We can think about decisions and actions that are self-reinforcing; those that generate momentum for our lifestyles.
Disguised as a new years resolution post, this is my fresh take on directing attention to what really matters to me. As the inimitable internet icon Visa expresses:
I want to see more unconventional applications of technical thinking. I want to see the birth of more purposeful creative projects. I want to see meaningful connections sprout organically, cultivated through a shared love of craft in all shapes and forms. Technically creative, deeply connected. Let’s focus on how I’ve packaged these goals!
A. Information system
My goal-setting process has largely evolved over the years: from a scientific, top-down brainstorm into a more introspective, bottom-up approach. While putting a rigid bullseye on a suite of quantifiable metrics can be effective for accountability, I wanted a better way to capture disconnected ideas and thoughts over the year. The objective: to create a robust time capsule for 2022 planning. With some technical duct-taped Frankensteining, I assembled a latticework of tools that would theoretically help me:
At first glance, this diagram definitely looks cool. In practice, this system sucked. You can probably guess the main design flaw: too many tools. It turned out to be a grossly inefficient, and honestly broken, version of Zettelkasten (a popularized tool for atomic note-taking). The capture was sporadic, while the retrieval was manually taxing. If the whole point of something like Obsidian is to see a robust knowledge graph of your archived content, the important caveat is that you need a high volume of tagged data points and backlinks for this to work. I think there’s a risk of info hazard: over-engineering these poor note systems to a point of breakage. We forget analogue solutions exist and function well: shoutout to pen & paper for always being there.
A note-to-self recommendation: pick one, run with it, and automate wherever possible. I’m probably migrating all my notes into Mem given its blistering speed and charming aesthetic. Can’t wait to play with the SMS and Zapier integrations as well!
Geeking aside, I combed through treasure troves of screenshots, notes, links, quotes, essays, & photos to prime the next step: visualizing key highlights in a mood board.
B. Moodboard design
You might be asking: Sam, who even uses mood boards nowadays? Isn’t Pinterest a dead app? I think inspiration and curation go hand-in-hand — you can only earn the right to play when you have all the puzzle pieces properly laid out. I realized platforms like Pinterest were more about reaching outwards for ideation, but I needed to connect what I already captured and focus inwards. To me, a well-constructed mood board is more than just a decorated collection of beautified stock images. It becomes a composable canvas to uncover patterns and add a multimedia layer to classic goal-setting. As the influencers would say, a mood board can be a mental lookbook of sorts.
Since I already spend a good chunk of my professional life in Figma, it naturally became my playground of choice. I arbitrarily landed on a four-quadrant orientation, which by coincidence morphed the style into something surprisingly structured (i.e. an internal-external split; textual-pictorial spectrum):
Organization is the key tenet here, channeling my inner Marie Kondo on the copious amounts of information & insights distributed across my various digital gardens. Going through this content carousel allowed me to revisit forgotten moments and bite-sized memories, transforming fleeting ideas into fresh perspectives. It’s always interesting to see what captured my attention at certain points of the year; these media are high-signal beacons of imagination that I act on or store for future use.
The verdict for 2021: my attention was scattered with no sense of linearity. But I suppose that’s the way my brain has worked since… forever. This year will be the first time that I deliberately disrupt this flurry of entropy towards a single source of truth. It’s time to hold space for a routine of paying attention to what I pay attention to.
With the mood boards in place, I was ready to extract my focus areas for 2022 (first-order) and distill a series of goals that matched the theme and timing (second-order).
C. Focus framework
I asked a handful of close friends how they would define “focus”, and the majority responded with: choosing one thing that you deem to be most important. Merriam-Webster provides another point-of-view: “directed attention”. In other ways, focus prioritizes the destruction of distraction, choking out the oxygen of things that don’t matter before they poison our mental & emotional spaces. Is there a right answer?
I think there’s merit in all these interpretations, but my framework intentionally prioritizes breadth. Just like how Netflix greases its subscriber-producer flywheel with personalized data, content library, and optimized distribution, I’m also keen to adopt a multi-layer approach, while retaining the principle of focus as tightly as possible.
Two of my favourite online writers in a distant orbit immediately come to mind as inspirations: Patricia Mou and Linus Lee. I love how both of them have a strong sense of who they are and what they care about, and how they maintain depth of thinking despite the breadth in their interests and aspirations. In a subtle way, these thoughtful thinkers influence my nascent mental architecture through a kind of idea osmosis. Here’s the first iteration of my flywheel, framing each theme with various “F words”.
Fitness refers to taking care of myself on all levels as the first line of offence; a health-first peak performance. Fortune describes the engineering of luck and prosperity; being both experientially and financially “rich”. Friendship covers both investing heavily in close connections and tapping into communities that make my soul sing. Freedom anchors the system by directing focus to the personal and professional vision I have for myself. The focus scale slides from foundational to aspirational elements and then loops back again to reinforce itself. Each quadrant reflects a quarterly sequence, adding a time dimension to maintain focus over the year.
Overarching objective: It’s not a perfect model, and I might be sacrificing clarity for lyricality with all of the wacky alliterations. Critically though, this is capital-F ‘Focus’ on my own terms. I’m here to create a virtuous cycle of raising my health capital, financial capital, social capital, and spiritual capital to new heights. The other productive way I perceive my flywheel is an enabling function for what I want to see more of in the world. If there’s one all-encompassing philosophy that remains after the dust settles, stripping away all formal pretence, it has to be this:
“I want to build cool shit with cool people.”
Perhaps I’m positioning this as the ultimate gatekeeper of everything I choose and do. Features, feedback, functions, formulas, fears, futures, feelings, failures. All necessary ingredients to translate this somewhat vague mental model into something that feels more real, more alive — goals that can be communicated and shared across the pond.
D. Goal map 🧭
2,000+ words later and four frameworks later, here are my 2022 goals. As many of you know, I’m a fan of seasonal planning and quarterly OKRs as a health checkup. But I’m adding another twist this year in the form of a pirate’s treasure map. Plotting goals on a map helps gamify the system to an even larger extent. Overall, the most important trick I can implement as a hedge against overcommitment is purposefully saying “no”. Thus, the map is not the territory, but the map is the directional guidepost for focus.
[Mental] I want to build and launch 2 major technical side projects. “Mental fitness” is my goal of staying sharp. Whether I give birth to these children through conventional code or not, this is my route to shipping projects that push me to learn something new while producing something valuable to others.
[Emotional] I want to publish at least 1 weekly writing piece. “Emotional fitness” is my goal of expressing openly. I’m already doing well here by focusing on my personal blog, so if there’s any stretch target here, it would be putting aside fears and sharing my work more widely, as tools for deeper conversations.
[Spiritual] I want to commit to 3 hours of meditative activity each week. “Spiritual fitness” is my goal of striving for internal calm, peace, and love. Meditative activity can be anything from sitting in silence and guided practices to digital detoxes and seaside walks (thank you for your easy access, Bosphorus!).
In both fitness and technology, one concept is pervasive: feedback loops. While these goals form the cornerstone of Q1 and are more aligned to fundamental habit-forming (i.e. building, writing, meditating), they are also meant to be composable lego blocks for 1) my overall approach to life and 2) a supportive bedrock for the balance of 2022.
I didn’t intentionally neglect the physical fitness aspect, but I’ve previously found it hard to manage goals like “run 5 km per day” without biohacking the shit out of my life. I had a similar feeling to building things: I felt stuck more often than not. I think the culprit was falling into a negative feedback loop, mistaking the work required to be really good at building valuable projects for the work required to get started at all.
[Experiential] I want to engage in at least 5 unique experiences each month. This goal is tied to a desire to expand my luck surface area. I’ve kept it a bit vague on purpose to account for different flavours of experiences. My lifestyle structure is set up to account for these possibilities: I’ll be spending a month in Portugal in March, a month in France in April, and a mystery mélange of cities in May.
[Financial] I want to generate 2 new sources of passive income that will add more financial stability. This builds on Q1’s mental fitness, where I stumble on a lucrative sweet spot through content creation, monetizable software, or other ventures. I already invest in crypto, but being proactive in web3 could be a win.
The focus of the Q2 phase is to refine my relationship with “being rich”, and find a way to create more stability when it comes to my livelihood. This means conjuring more luck in a focused manner, whether that means a chance encounter with a star local in Lisbon or Paris or an inconspicuous interaction with an online pen pal.
I’ll admit that “Fortune” is a rather strange word to choose here, but I didn’t want to make this quarter solely finance-focused (partly because my costs will still likely break even with my inflows during my travels). My mood board exercises made me realize that I’ve never made life decisions with financials as the prime motivator. This isn’t to say that I’ve been irresponsible with my earnings and savings — I’m supposed to be a mature adult, after all — but money just hasn’t been a core driver or detractor. On the flip side, I do acknowledge how important having capital reserves is to live fruitfully.
[Social] I want to hold >5 meaningful conversations each week. “Meaningful” can be subjective, but is typically associated with nontrivial conversation topics or dedicated spaces for connection. Originally this goal was about interacting with 10 new individuals per week, but I felt I would be falling into a trap of over-indexing for volume & variety rather than focusing on quality.
[Communal] I want to join a community I’m proud of. I took the complete opposite approach last year, where I dipped my toes into 10+ fellowships / DAOs / programs at any given point, with huge variance in my participation. This will hopefully build on the scaffolding of Q1 emotional & Q2 experiential, nurturing new friendships in artistic spaces like comedy and creative writing.
At first glance, these goals don’t look too difficult to meet consistently. I’ve taken the liberty of adopting a Goldilocks approach —not as stringent as my line-by-line #GOALSEEK 2020 spreadsheet, not as fluffy as my high-level Strategic Pillars in 2021. The crucial component about friendships is that they require lots of emotional energy and directed attention to nurture. That sounds obvious, but for someone who has been solo traveling and seeking stimulus, this goal holds an important weight and urgency.
When it comes to communities, I like that there’s both a culture of creation and an attitude of accountability if I decide to focus on only one or two. Instead of splitting my time and care into a spider web of groups, where efforts become arms-length and half-assed, I want to consciously give and share with people I’m invested in. This means subscribing to an age-old adage: “leave something better than when you found it”.
[Personal] I want to end the year with one capstone creative project, something that will become an essential part of my “life’s work-in-progress”. This extends the narrative of “Sam is building and shipping these neat weekend hustles” to “Sam is working hard towards this one thing with pure conviction”. This goal is part of a longer pathway to unlock true creative independence and strengthen my voice.
[Professional] I want to align on one clear direction for my career in the short term. This goal is in direct reference to the number of equally shiny, equally enticing paths glowing brighter in the distance. Do I want to jump ship to another high-growth startup? Do I give up my soul for the life of a founder? Do I apply to Big Tech for the option to spend more time on creative projects?
[Existential] I want to articulate a one-line vision statement for my life in a clear and truthful way. While I’m an expert at elongating and overcomplicating things to the max, things that are concise and punchy are just as attractive to me. This goal could take shape as part one of my 2022 reflections as well, along with a baked-in reminder to schedule time with my wonderful psychotherapist.
While I’m not in the business of choosing favourites, there’s a soft spot in my heart for the potential that Q4 holds. On closer examination, you’ll see the duality that the Q1 and Q4 goals form, just like a pristine mirror. Specifically, the focus on creative work and spiritual health resurfaces. This is where I want to settle back into a more spiritual vibe, to contemplate how I traversed the outer and inner worlds that I’m privileged to call my homes. Processing the thoughts and emotions, one at a time.
The goals in this part of the flywheel are loftier and overarching, but by no means less measurable. On the contrary, they can be viewed as a cumulative checkpoint that is tied to what happens in the first 9 months of the year. That’s the magic of the focus flywheel: even as the goals reach their curtain call for the quarter, they persist in the background as the cycle spins with more fervour, more vibrancy. From the wise words of the iconic Ferris Bueller: Life moves pretty fast.
Postscript: from wishes to wheels, a sam story ☄️
If you told me a year ago that I'd have pivoted into technology with no prior experience in just a few months, I'd have laughed. If you told me a year ago that I'd be promoting and publishing my own projects & pieces across different channels, I'd be chortling. If you told me a year ago that I would move across the world to live in Turkey, I'd have rolled on the floor. But with my constantly nonlinear life path, I'd have stood back up and seriously considered each scenario. To remind me again:
If 2020 was a year of widening possibility and 2021 was a year of welcoming change, then 2022 is the third instalment about witnessing my focus in action.
Far from being a post-mortem, this piece is yet another widget on the reflective time machine that I've slowly started building for myself. Writing in public has been a powerful practice — it has activated me intellectually and supercharged me emotionally. For that, I'm so grateful for the creative tailwinds carried from 2021.
If you're somehow STILL reading this word vomit, I appreciate you more than you'll ever know. We're all gonna make it. Here's to new saucy shenanigans in 2022.
I wish you focus,
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