2016 Annual Review

Sunset Over Mountains

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the world, first ordered well their own States.

Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.

Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.

Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.

Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.

Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge.

Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.

Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.

Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.

Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.

Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.

Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.

Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.

From “The Great Learning”, China, approximately 500 BCE

A Year of Quiet Victory

Every year, I publish an annual review. I highly recommend it as a practice: reviewing past years is a fantastic way to remember where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and how you’ve grown. (Here are my past reviews for 2015, 2014, and 2013.)

2016 was a year of investing in systems and new skills to improve my personal life and business.

My public output in 2016 was, relatively speaking, small. My private progress on important projects was phenomenal.

Investing In Wellness

First, a follow-up: last year, I wrote about how I found the root cause of a major health problem, and what appeared to be a permanent solution.

Still, I was concerned that the solution would stop working, and I'd once again have to struggle with chronic low energy.

I'm very happy to report that's not the case: I'm in excellent health, excellent spirits, and have had no major health/energy concerns this year.

I'll continue to be vigilant about the matter, and I'm still experimenting to find ways to push my daily energy even higher, but the fix appears to be sustainable long-term, and I'm very grateful I once again have the capacity to invest in major projects.

One of my most important priorities this year has been improving my overall physical fitness, which is the single most effective thing I can do to ensure my short and long-term health and well-being.

I investigated a few different forms of physical exercise, learned a ton, and have since pared down to the effective/efficient activities to keep me happy, healthy, and strong.

As I was writing this review, these topics evolved into dedicated posts. You can find them here:

Building A Robot Army

As I mentioned in a recent post, I decided to work on programming my own online course system this year.

I'm proud to say that the new system is complete, deployed in production across eight websites, and serving several thousand students in a business-critical / profit & loss capacity.

Completing the system feels like getting my "black belt" in web application programming. 1 It's a huge personal achievement: a functioning, complex, fully-featured application that I wrote by myself, by hand, from scratch. It's approximately 7,000 lines of code, and was designed from the beginning to be fast, secure, and easy to maintain.

In order to complete the project, I decided to postpone working on the books I was working on at the beginning of the year. It wasn't an easy decision to make: selling books is how I make my living, and deciding to work on the course system was essentially deciding to postpone publishing a new book.

Even given the severe tradeoff, it was the right decision.

I run my businesses by myself: I don't have employees, and get help from contractors only when there's a well-defined task to complete, like editing a new book or designing a cover. My personal capacity, to a large extent, is the capacity of my business, and I'm not inclined to expand that capacity via hiring out of personal preference. 2

Accordingly, it's in my best interest to create systems that work on my behalf, without requiring my conscious attention or effort. Creating and improving those systems isn't trivial, but it's often the most effective use of my time.

I may not have employees, but I have an army of robots I've created to do my bidding. The end result is the same: an increased capacity for future projects.

This particular system is an excellent example of a Force Multiplier, which will allow me to substantially reduce the amount of investment it takes to produce future online courses.

I've run online courses in the past, and maintenance and support were always two of the most significant chronic issues, requiring hours each week to resolve. By creating my own system, I'm able to avoid most of these issues, and as a result, I'll be able to offer online courses in a sustainable way in the future.

In addition, having full control over the system means I can keep improving it over time. I was also able to invest effort in making the system an easy and enjoyable experience for students, reducing unnecessary ambiguity and making it easy to know what to do next.

I also spent a good bit of time beta testing the system in an existing business to identify bugs and areas for improvement. As a result, I was able to get the experience of acting in a production engineer / CTO-level role as a side benefit, even though I work for myself. 3

I couldn't be happier with the result, and it'll make course development around my work much easier in the decades to come.

Choosing Projects Wisely

That said, completing this project required a substantial majority of my productive effort this year. I'm happy with how it turned out, but also very aware of the cost. 4

One of the trickiest parts of how I run my own business is estimating completion time for each of my active projects, then deciding how and when to work on each. To complicate matters, the vast majority of my work requires research and development, which is uncertain by definition.

Often, what seems like a quick, straightforward project turns into a major undertaking as I learn more about the problem to be solved. There's also the question of order: it's often advantageous to have certain projects completed before working on others.

The Planning Fallacy is very, very real. As deech so eloquently put it:

“I'm a 10x engineer, where x is my original estimate.”

There will always be tension between investing effort in revenue-producing projects, and investing that effort in projects that make future work more efficient or enjoyable. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a reality I'm going to be careful to take into account in the future.

Looking Ahead To 2017

I currently have three books in progress, at various stages of research and drafting:

  • An entrepreneurship book, focused on starting a new business from scratch by yourself, without employees or outside funding.
  • A new productivity book that synthesizes the best techniques from existing systems into a simple, universal method to get more done and focus on your top priorities.
  • A compilation of research on how to live a happy, healthy, and satisfying life that’s chronically overlooked and undervalued because it sounds completely boring.

Now that my programming project is complete, I'm back to research and writing. Expect details on these projects in the months ahead.

I'm also investigating the possibility of projects outside of book publishing. The primary downside of publishing is that it takes months (usually years) of effort to produce something of high quality. 5 That's a significant barrier to producing value on a regular basis.

It's too early to share details at the moment, but I think there may be a few under-explored ways to produce value on a more regular basis in a sustainable way. I'm committed to finishing my work in progress before launching something else, but it's in the back of my mind, and I'm paying close attention to various public experiments to collect information.

All in all, the future is bright and shiny. Thanks for reading, and I wish you a happy, healthy, and fulfilling year to come.

This post has been back-dated to December 31, 2016 for archival purposes.

  1. In the same way that achieving a black belt in martial arts is "the beginning of your training," I still have a long way to go to develop my programming skills, particularly in areas like testing and maintenance. 

  2. I've been in management roles before, and it's not my preferred way to work. I much prefer research, analysis, experimentation, and creating things vs. hiring, delegating, monitoring, and evaluating the work of other people. See Are You an Implementor or an Enabler? for more on this topic. 

  3. I'm planning to keep the system internal-use-only, not create a software business. The system assumes a technical end user, and skips niceties like admin panels in favor of the command line. I know I'll get inquiries anyway, so if you're interested in using the system, feel free to drop me a line. (For calibration, assume a baseline minimum of five figures annually for licensing.) 

  4. My best estimate of the cost of outsourcing this project to a web application development agency is in the range of $100,000 – $200,000, which is also roughly the opportunity cost of doing the development work myself. I learned more and had more fun doing it myself. 

  5. Example: The Personal MBA required ten years of research and two years of drafting and editing to write. Long-form nonfiction is not exactly a process that involves instant gratification. 

Read more essays by Josh Kaufman →

Published: December 31, 2016Last updated: January 16, 2017

Books by Josh Kaufman