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What Can One Do in a Year?

One year. Three hundred sixty-five days. Eight thousand seven hundred sixty hours. Seems like a lot of time, right? Where does it go, and what do we do with it all? If you're like me, you might spend the majority of that time sleeping, working, spending time with family and friends, doing chores, and eating, in roughly that order of time consumption. When all is said and done, I have about two hours a day of leisure time that I can do with as I please, although not every day. Maybe 300 days out of the year, let's say, I can do self-driven activities.

I want to make those activities count because 600 hours—or 3,600 10-minute blocks—each year is a precious commodity. I may have more leisure time than the average person with a family, and I'm lucky, if that's true. I certainly appreciate that time, but what should I do with it? I could certainly fill it with mindless entertainment. Six hundred hours of watching TV episodes is about 80-90 episodes (without commercials) in a year, or about 4 to 8 series, depending on the number of episodes per series. That's a lot of GoT and Stranger Things. Or maybe I'm more interested in movies, in which case 300 movies is a lot of movie watching. I'd probably have to start watching some pretty crappy movies to fill all of those slots. Maybe I'd just re-watch the good ones. How about video games. I like to play a good game every now and then. If I did it every night for a year, I could play through my backlog of 15 games by stretching it a bit.

TV and video games are not a great way to spend that time, though. Even though it might be easy, relaxing, and instantly gratifying, it's not satisfying or fulfilling. Looking back on a year of watching TV shows or playing role-playing games would feel distinctly wasteful and stagnant. We can do better. What could we do with that time if we put it to work for personal improvement, giving yourself new super-powers that increase your satisfaction with life? There doesn't seem to be much time for that at work.

Yes, in some ways we do personal improvement at work, developing new skills to put to use for the business and expand our careers. That's all well and good, but I find that it's far more difficult to do personal improvement at work than it seems. For starters, there's a constant stream of other tasks that need to be taken care of. Things come up every day that need our attention. Fires need to be put out. New bugs need to be addressed. New features need to be implemented. It's hard to find long stretches of uninterrupted time to really immerse yourself in acquiring new abilities. Learning on the job can be exciting and fast-paced, but it is fragmented and rushed at best. Plus, there's always the pressure to immediately apply your new skills and show productive results before you feel like you really understand things deeply enough to be competent.

Additionally, these skills we learn at work must, of course, be work-related. What if we want to learn other things in our leisure time? So let's assume personal improvement at work is out for the moment, and 600 hours a year is what we've got to work with. Six hundred precious hours to develop a new ability or pursue a new hobby: at that rate each skill would take a bit over 16 years to master, but that's okay because this is going to be hyper-focused learning and practice. This is our leisure time, remember, and I, for one, am not going to waste it piddling around with stuff in a half-assed way. It's the only time of the day, other than sleeping, where I have more than 20 minutes of continuous, uninterrupted time to focus on one thing. So put down the phone, turn off the TV, close the browser, and start improving yourself. What should you do? I don't know. I'm not you, but here's what I would do:

Write

Why not lead off with what I'm doing right now? Write a blog. It will improve your writing and communication skills, and you'll have to learn new things while doing research to keep your writing honest, fresh, and interesting. I'm not saying my writing is interesting. Most of the time it seems like it's not, but then again, I don't write nearly as much as I could. It takes me about six hours to write and proof a blog post. If I filled all of my free time with writing, I could write 100 blog posts in a year. That's nearly two per week. Considering that I would likely get faster, (if I didn't run out of stuff to write about) I would more likely write 120+ posts per year. A 20% speedup seems reasonable for anything you would practice over a year, so I'll use that as a guideline for the rest of these items. One hundred twenty posts in a year is a lot. At some point I'm sure I would move on to starting my first book.

Read

I don't mean read blog posts or Twitter or the news. You may be writing blog posts, but spending all of your time reading short form stuff on the Internet will rot your brain, just like TV rotted kids' brains 30 years ago. There's always something waiting to rot your brain. You've gotta be super careful about that. No, really. Pick up a book. Start reading it. Finish it. Then find another one and don't stop. I read a fair number of books, and I always enjoy the experience because books still have something that the Internet doesn't. That something is depth. A book can go deeper into a topic than anything else can. Every blog post, online article, or tutorial that I read suffers from the same thing. The treatment of the topic is shallow and cursory. Some are good introductions, but none will take you nearly as far as a book on the topic will. Online books still count as books, of course, and it doesn't matter what form the books take. I read programming books, popular physics books, and fantasy books. At a reading rate of about 20 pages per hour, I could read 30 400-page books in a year. I could chew through my backlog of programming books plus some other topics in three years. That's a lot of knowledge to be gained.

Practice Programming

This item would directly improve skills for my career, but that's okay. There's no rule against using your leisure time to improve your performance on the job. Besides, I love programming. That's why I went into it as a career in the first place. Continuing to practice programming definitely ties in with reading, since much of the more advanced knowledge of good programming is locked up in books, not easily found on the Internet, because the depth required is just too much for the superficial treatment of online articles.

In addition to reading books on algorithms, machine learning, and new languages, practicing programming does involve actually writing programs to get better at coding. Here the internet delivers some excellent resources: exercism.io, projecteuler.net, and programmingpraxis.com are a few of the best examples of sites with practice programming problems. Exercism.io has somewhat easier problems best for getting up to speed in a new language, while the other two have a wide variety of problems from easy to difficult for honing your programming problem solving skills. Assuming it takes an average of 15 minutes to complete a problem (obviously, harder problems could take much longer), one might expect to finish about 2,400 problems in a year! That's enough to wipe out all of the problems on these three sites, but since many of the problems will take longer, maybe getting through all of them in a year is unrealistic. Still, that's a lot of programming practice, and you're sure to upgrade your skills.

Learn an Instrument

I want to learn to play the piano and get better at the guitar. Learning to play an instrument can be challenging, rewarding, and relaxing all at the same time. Picking out soothing arpeggios on a guitar is like a wonder drug for the frazzled mind, and I love tackling a new song and experiencing the satisfaction of it coming together after a few days of practice. How many new songs could one learn in a year? At two hours of practice a day, I think a song a week would be pretty easy, even while practicing previously learned songs to continue to polish and refresh them. That works out to 50+ songs learned in a year, which would get me pretty far into the list of songs I'd like to learn how to play. Along the way I'd learned plenty of new techniques and dramatically improve my playing abilities.

Play Chess

Not just play chess, but get much better at chess. I love this game. The challenge of finding the right strategy, the mental focus required to play a good game, and the intricacies of every position all add up to an extremely deep and constantly rewarding activity. I've already read plenty of books on chess, so I don't need to focus on that. Reading a few books a year would probably be enough. Where I really need to focus to improve is in playing games and doing tactics exercises. It takes about an hour to play and analyze a decent game of chess, so I could do about 1,200 of those in a year, whether it's playing and analyzing my own games, or playing along with classic grandmaster games and trying to predict the right moves.

That's a lot of games in a year, but we also want to fit in tactics training. Much like with programming, there are plenty of great online sites for tactics training: chess.com, lichess.org, and chesscademy.com are a few good ones. Assuming it takes about 2 minutes to solve a tactics puzzle (again, some will take more time, but some will take less and speed will improve over time), and we split time between tactics and games, that ends up being an incredible 9,000 tactics puzzles in a year plus 600 games. Wow. That's a ton of chess improvement potential right there.


Learn More Mathematics


This one may be more specific and possibly anathema to more than a few programmers, but I love math. I always have, ever since I was filling out elementary math workbooks in my free time when I was six years old. I ate up Algebra like it was chocolate chip cookies. I was astonished with the beauty and elegance of Calculus. But none of that is actually what real mathematics is like. Advanced mathematics, the kind you get into for a university degree, is not about calculation. It's about figuring out theorems and writing proofs.

At it's core, mathematics is about symbol manipulation and general problem solving, which is actually pretty much what programming is about, too. Learning more mathematics would certainly involve reading more books, but it would also involve solving lots of problems, which would dramatically slow down the reading rate. Taking the problem solving into account, my reading rate might be more like 5-7 pages per hour instead of 20. That still means about 7-10 books on things like graph theory, logic, and computational theory. The quantity may be less than other types of reading, but the payoff from such deep thinking would be more.

Learn a New Subject

I would pick physics, which is, admittedly, closely related to mathematics, but who cares? It's a subject that I'm intensely interested in, but have not had the time to fully explore, yet. Everything from cosmology to quantum mechanics is fascinating, and it would take a lot of work to get much further into this subject than the popular physics books that I've read have been able to take me. How far could I get in a year? The books are not quite as dense as mathematics books, but they tend to be longer, so I'm probably in the same ballpark of 7-10 books in a year. That many books would easily introduce me to deeper concepts in quantum mechanics, relativity, and spacetime. Progress is likely to feel faster in a new subject, too, because there's more low-hanging fruit to consume.

Build Something New

All of the other ideas were inward facing, but this one is more outward facing. What could you create with 600 hours of dedicated time that you could show to the world? This is not a small side project. I'll bet with 600 hours you could create something pretty significant. It may not be a 40-hour work week, and you may be a team of one, but you won't have the normal daily interruptions and ancillary tasks to deal with. Two hours of dedicated time most nights of the year would result in a surprising amount of progress on a personal project. How much progress is a bit harder to quantitatively gauge than the rest of these ideas, but after a few weeks you'll likely have a pretty good idea of what you can accomplish by the end of a year. That should be the guideline for a year's worth of progress.


Why did we just do all of this? Why go through this mental exercise? What's 30 books read in a year or 600 games of chess and 9,000 tactics puzzles done in a year? First, it's a goal, a target within sight that you can actually shoot for. Then, at the end of a year, it's an accomplishment. Did you meet your goal, surpass it, or fall short? Even if you fell short, you probably learned a ton along the way, and maybe you made adjustments as you learned more about what that personal improvement goal actually requires. Goals shouldn't be rigid pass or fail criteria, but they should still exist. They improve your motivation and give you some landmarks to keep yourself oriented.

Each of these eight things is a lot of work. Would I actually focus on one for a year and see how far I could take it? I'm not sure. It might be an enlightening exercise. Right now I split my leisure time between so many things: reading, writing, programming, chess, and mathematics at the moment, with some movies sprinkled in here and there. Thinking about what I could do in a year if I spent all of my energy on one thing has been fun and instructive. I never knew that I could potentially learn to play 50 new songs in a year. But could I spend one year of personal leisure time on one thing in the hopes of dramatically improving? After all, it's only one year. I don't know; that is an interesting question.