A year ago, I quit my job at Google to craft a life instead of making a living.
“Sounds nice, but I have no idea what that means.”
Here’s the long answer.
The short answer - this is my definition of a meaningful life:
And this was my strategy to manifest it:
I’m playing the long game. I have conviction that if I focus on building a solid foundation, I can climb to greater heights and enjoy the journey along the way.
Now that a year has passed, I wanted to reflect on my journey so far.
Right and Wrong
My year in a nutshell: I adopted healthy habits. I started a business. I struggled to do both at the same time.
When I quit, I didn’t have a plan for making money. I just believed that if I built a solid foundation of healthy habits, everything else would follow. Here’s a snippet from early in the year:
What will I do for a living? I have no idea . . . but ultimately I have conviction that my learnings will be valuable to others.
This turned out to be both remarkably prescient and woefully naive.
It was prescient because it played out exactly like that. I spent the first six months adopting new healthy habits. Equipped with a foundation and personal lessons about habit change, I started a business in the following six months.
It was naive because one year isn’t enough to build a foundation or a business. I especially struggled to do both - my healthy habits dropped off when I started the business. That forced me to reset my expectations. There is no such thing as “done” - this is a lifelong journey of continual improvement.
The headstart on the foundation was necessary, but it’s time to work on it in parallel with the business.
Health & Happiness
Goal: Build habits to live a long, lucid and content life.
Strategy: Find the right balance for each habit through experiential understanding.
Result: I found the sweet spots, but couldn’t always stick to them after I started the business.
Experiential understanding is a concept that I adopted from Vipassana. This is an excerpt from my essay about it:
Practical experience is more valuable than abstract theory. The two represent different levels of understanding: intellectual vs experiential. Intellectual understanding is insight derived from critical thinking, while experiential understanding is obtained through direct personal experience. Intellectual understanding alone is not enough; you don’t fully understand anything until you experience it.
Without the experiential understanding of a healthy habit, I couldn’t do a true cost-benefit analysis. How does it improve your life? How much time does it really take? To answer these questions, I chose to experiment with each habit to an extreme for a few months. This gave me a clear picture of the boundaries of my search space. After several rounds of iteration, I ultimately converged on the sweet spot - the appropriate balance between value and effort.
Note: The below may seem obvious to many. I had always “known” about these benefits too, but I didn’t truly understand until I experienced it myself. I can’t stress this enough - there is no substitute for direct personal experience.
Experiment: Attend a 10-day silent meditation course to learn Vipassana.
Result: I was at peace and content. I was more lucid, loving and balanced than ever.
What I learned:
- It’s important to see things as they are, not how you want them to be. Suffering arises from expectations - of yourself, another person or even a situation. But the only thing you can truly control is your reaction.
- Our experiences, emotions and thoughts get buried under the noise of everyday life. Separation from the outside world helped me dig up memories and heal old wounds that I had forgotten existed.
Current status: This is the bedrock of my foundation. The effects were so profound that I am following the prescription of meditating 2 hours a day, without exception. (If it sounds daunting, know that I never meditated more than 15 minutes before the course.) I am more balanced and less reactive, which helps me face the ups and down of life, especially entrepreneurship.
Goal for next year: Maintain the practice.
Experiment: For three months - no refined grains (e.g white rice, white flour), no added sugars, no fried food, no processed ingredients.
Result: My energy levels were constantly high. I felt really good/clean. I slept well.
What I learned:
- Your diet significantly affects how you feel and function. Fried food slows me down, fresh vegetables give me energy.
- Always read the nutrition label - you’ll be surprised what you find! Did you know Sriracha has sugar?
Current status: I don’t have any strict rules, but I subconsciously opt for healthier choices. I rarely eat processed or fried food and my sugar intake is very limited. This doesn’t require any willpower - unhealthy food is unappealing now that I understand its effect on my body.
Goal for next year: Eat more fruits, vegetables and probiotics for vitamins, minerals and gut health. I successfully curbed consumption of unhealthy food, but I still need a more balanced diet.
Experiment: For three months - work out 3x/week to bulk. Eat 125g of protein every day.
Result: It reduced stress and increased mental clarity. I gained 20 pounds of (mostly) muscle in 10 weeks, until the routine got derailed due to injuries.
Current status: I don’t have a consistent habit anymore. Injuries disrupted my flow and I didn’t adapt. I run sometimes, but not regularly - I don’t make the time for it because of the business.
What I learned:
- Setbacks are the norm, not the exception. The obstacle is the way - don’t let it stop you, use it to guide your next action. Example: Injuries are inevitable and you need to adapt instead of waiting to recover.
- Exercise is an investment with immediate returns. It significantly improves stress levels and focus, not to mention the long-term benefits.
- Diet is just as important as exercise. Before this, I had always failed to bulk because I wasn’t eating enough calories and protein. I’m relieved now that I have a proven method. I just have to make the time for it.
Goal for next year: Commit to exercising 3x/week. When dealing with an injury, I’ll substitute the exercise routine instead of just waiting to recover.
Experiment: Have a regular sleep schedule. Sleep at least 8 hours. No naps.
Result: I didn’t stick to this religiously, but I was more productive when I did. I had more time and energy. I also procrastinated less since an established routine prevented rationalization.
Current status: I don’t have a consistent habit. I get 8 hours of sleep, but I don’t have a fixed routine. I occasionally nap, despite my daily post-lunch walk.
What I learned:
- Cycles are virtuous or vicious. Vicious cycles must be nipped in the bud. Virtuous cycles must be activated with urgency. Example: Breaking the sleep cycle has a cascading effect - it can disrupt the whole week.
- Sleep is an avoidance mechanism. I use it to procrastinate on challenging work, but that just prolongs the stress.
- Many factors affect sleep quality. Intoxicants and screen usage before bed reduces it. Exercise improves it.
Goals for next year: Enforce a more consistent sleep schedule using these learnings.
- When the routine breaks, prioritize bringing it back on track.
- Have a screen-free bedtime routine and sleep at the same time every night.
- Fight through the problem instead of procrastinating.
- Experiment with ways to re-energize after lunch.
- Avoid intoxicants altogether.
Experiment: Maintain a regular free-form journal, weekly habit tracker and daily Five Minute Journal.
Result: I didn’t do the free-form journal, but did the rest. The tight feedback loop led to accelerated progress. I learned from my mistakes quickly and put steps in place to avoid them going forward. This was a crucial habit that led to me starting the business (more on this later).
Current status: I maintain a weekly habit tracker where I set habit goals, track their status and reflect on what I learned. I sporadically do the free-form journal. I dropped the Five Minute Journal because it wasn’t useful.
What I learned:
- A tight feedback loop is the key to success - objective reflection followed by intentional action compounds quickly.
- Writing is thinking. By articulating yourself on paper, you gain insight into your thought and behavior patterns.
- Failure is a learning opportunity. By understanding what holds you back, you can put a plan in place to address it.
Goals for next year:
- Maintain the weekly habit tracker.
- Add weekly free-form journaling to process raw emotions and document the journey. This is upstream of the habit tracker - teasing out my deepest desires and fears will inform what habits/actions are necessary.
Goal: Build systems to get the right things done.
Strategy: Use projects to bootstrap effectiveness.
Result: I identified the issues, but not their solutions.
This is how I explained my strategy when I quit:
Since you can’t test a productivity system without tasks, I’m bootstrapping the process by working on several projects. The primary objective is to hone the skill of effectiveness - since it’s a transferable skill, this is the highest leverage work I can do. The added benefit is the success of the project itself.
In the second half of the year, I started a business which became my main project. Since there is always more work to be done, it was a great way to evaluate my effectiveness. It quickly exposed issues with my personal productivity (spoiler: there are a LOT). As I adjusted, it gave me real-time feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I gradually put systems in place to address some issues, but there is still a long way to go. It’s still progress though - you can’t fix what you don’t know.
My reflection is divided into two parts: prioritization and execution.
Result: I have a working system for prioritization, but it’s recently experiencing growing pains.
My system is inspired by GTD. It is a weekly routine to capture tasks, organize them into an up-to-date list of projects and prioritize them for the upcoming week. Having full visibility across dimensions (personal, business, home, etc) lets me keep one eye on what’s important and the other on what’s urgent. This ensures that I’m always moving the ball forward on both short and long-term projects.
Current status: The system worked well until the business ramped up. It isn’t suited for the large volume of tasks coming in now.
What I learned:
- Systems are powerful. Once in place, they are frictionless. They require limited cognitive and time overhead.
- Systems are personal. They are not one-size-fits-all. You can get ideas from books/videos, but you need to just experiment to find what works for you.
- Systems must be dynamic. Needs change and they have to keep up with them.
Goal for next year: Maintain the system to adapt to the growing needs of the business.
Result: I failed to reliably execute on my priorities, but I have a clearer understanding about why.
There are two main causes.
First, I get swamped in busy work. I allot time for each task, but I lack the discipline to enforce it when tasks spill over. (This is a common symptom of perfectionitis.) As a result, I’m always attending to urgent tasks and deferring the important (but not urgent) ones. This is a limiting factor in the long term - it prevents necessary investments for step-change improvements.
Second, I procrastinate when faced with complexity. It isn’t enough to love what you do - hard work is always hard. Passion isn’t a silver bullet. Sometimes my motivation carries me over the hump; other times I have to will my way through. But that isn’t sustainable - willpower is finite and motivation ebbs and flows. When I exhaust both, I escape to my devices for temporary relief.
Current status: I use the Pomodoro Technique with limited success to timebox busy work. I take precautions to prevent procrastination, but I invariably find a way to circumvent my own rules. When I hide the YouTube feed on my computer, I start using it on my phone. When I put my phone in my drawer, I start browsing Reddit on my computer. As I eliminate one problem, I uncover another. But there is light at the end of the tunnel: I have greater awareness of my triggers and as a result, my relapses are shorter and further apart.
What I learned:
- Habits are a double-edged sword. Good habits empower you with effortless action. Bad habits disable you with empty pleasures. Example: Brushing your teeth vs compulsively checking your phone.
- Progress is not linear. It’s two steps forward, one step back. The overall trajectory is more important than a single setback.
- Vices are a reaction to triggers. A greater awareness of your triggers allows you to address the root cause directly instead of just treating the symptoms. Example: I binge YouTube because I want to procrastinate, not because I love it.
Goals for next year:
- Timeblock more effectively by iterating on the Pomodoro Technique and experimenting with alternatives.
- Maximize hours of focused work by iterating on methods that have shown promise: fixed routines, the Pomodoro Technique and adding friction to distractions.
The focus of the first year was on the foundation, but I sprinkled relationships, experiences and impact in to make the process more enjoyable.
I made an active effort to stay in touch with my closest friends, regardless of location. I traveled to meet them in 4 different cities. For those that were too far, I scheduled calls.
Goals for next year:
- Increase breadth. Reconnect with 20 people I haven’t spoken to in a year.
- Spend 30 minutes of quality time with my parents every day. Meals don’t count!
This self-improvement and self-employment journey has been quite the experience itself. I have the freedom to spend my time exactly how I want. I got to focus solely on myself and understand the benefits of healthy habits first-hand. I attended a 10-day silent, off-grid meditation course that had a profound impact on me. I did a 30-day cross-country trip by train with my dad to visit 9 national parks. I started a business and made my first dollars on the internet. I wrote this blog. And along the way, I met a bunch of amazing humans.
Goals for next year:
- Do something new twice a month. I would deprioritize this if it conflicted with maintaining a low burn rate, but that was the wrong trade-off. Life is short - you can always make money later, but you never get your 20s back.
- Prioritize depth over breadth. There is a unique reward in diving deep, e.g what I experienced in just 10 days during Vipassana.
The business has steadily improved users’ lives. It enables them to make consistent progress on their goals through sustained action and reflection.
Goal for next year: Scale it. It creates significant value for users and gives me an opportunity to authentically capture part of it.
Exactly six months after I quit, I started a business to enable habit change. It was born out of the personal lessons that I learned on this journey and it’s heavily inspired by the principles of the Vipassana retreat. I should also mention that it’s a product - not a coaching business.
I’ll expand on it in my future post, but here’s my fundamental thesis: we consume too much and act too little. The secret to self-improvement is not the latest self-help book, but this simple feedback loop: take deliberate action, reflect candidly, repeat. This compounds over time - the tighter the loop, the faster your progress.
Current status: The business is small, but profitable. There are many paying customers that have experienced significant progress using it. I haven’t reached product-market fit, but I am certain that there is a kernel of value - the product just needs to be distilled down to that.
What I learned:
Anyone can change the world. You just have to try. Steve Jobs said it best.
Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
I heard this many years ago, but I finally understand (experientially!) its depth. I put my energy out there and people responded. This gave me a newfound sense of opportunity and optimism. The world feels ready for the taking.
You have to love the process. Entrepreneurship is a grind. There are many ups and downs - it’s a constant process of failure and iteration. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you won’t have the resilience to make it through. (Just like your habits!) Fortunately, I love every moment of it.
Goal for next year: Hit $5,000 in monthly revenue.
This is the way
I am certain that I want to continue. The past year has proven that I’m on the right path. I have never been happier and more fulfilled.
Of course, it’s not all sunshines and rainbows. The journey has been longer and rockier than I originally expected.
My biggest fears:
- This is a glorified vacation. Am I only enjoying this because I have the complete freedom to do whatever I want, including procrastinating in the middle of the day?
- It is not sustainable. Will the business ever be able to support my lifestyle?
- I will be left behind. My peers are accumulating a warchest and I am depleting my wealth. If I fail, will this set me back?
My counterpoints: this is a long journey and I am on the right trajectory. Slow and steady wins the race. The time horizon is not one year, but many. This applies both the foundation and building a business.
It is a risk, but a calculated one. My thought process from when I quit still holds:
My only cost is opportunity cost, while the payoff is an infinitely richer life. I call it an experiment because I acknowledge that perhaps I can’t have it all - maybe I’m idealizing post-work life and I took my previous life for granted. However, even failure would be a minor success. If I ever have to go back to a job, I’ll be able to better cope with it due to a solid foundation of health, happiness and effectiveness. Also, by experiencing both extremes I’ll gain the perspective to strike a better balance and will be immune to the grass is greener syndrome. As far as worst cases go, that’s about as good as it gets - it would have been crazy not to take the leap and see what happens.
To put it another way, what am I going to remember on my deathbed: that I made a living or that I lived a life?
- [Dec 22, 2022] Year 2 Reflection
P.S: You can find more of my thoughts on Twitter @_suketk.