Goodbye, 2020. Like many, I felt a sense of relief saying those words on New Year's Day.
One family member even ripped up a 2020 paper calendar and threw it into the fire. Cue fire extinguishers.
I put off writing this review for a week or two. The days of 2020 bled into each other, with nothing notable to punctuate the weeks and months, beyond grim news about the virus or elections.
But here we are, with a vaccine in sight. When we’ll get it and if life will return to normality in 2021, is a bigger question.
In this annual review, I'll cover what did and didn't go well during 2020 and what I learnt.
What I Worked On
I spent most of my time working on my main website Become a Writer Today which I set up back in 2014.
It's gone through several iterations since then. At one point, the site focused on productivity and creativity for creatives. For a year or two, it showcased various books I self-published.
These days, the site offers practical writing advice and earns revenue from advertising, affiliate and course sales. I write these articles along with some other freelance writers and the help of an editor.
In 2020, I started two new niche websites, in the health and fitness and food and drinks niches. I created these new sites to test out what I’ve learn building up my main website. Diversify, diversify.
It's too early to share any results from these sites as they're relatively new and don't attract much website traffic yet.
Unlike Become a Writer Today, I'm not writing the content or articles on these new websites. Instead, I plan to commission writers to produce articles focused on low-volume, low-competition keywords, a strategy I learnt from Dykstra of Fat Stacks. I interviewed Jon about this strategy a few months ago.
A few years ago, a writer could attract website visitors via clever headlines and emotional posts. These days, Google algorithm updates mean articles must follow a particular format and target specific keywords to rank in search.
Masters of Facebook traffic don't need to worry so much, but I stopped running Facebooks ads two years ago. That, I am not.
This problem meant I'd to figure out where to put essays, articles like this annual review, as they're not keyword focused or search-optimized unless you’ve a habit of Googling “Bryan Collins annual review”. I also wanted to figure out where to send book readers. Not all of them are interested in writing advice published on Become a Writer Today.
In the end, I started a newsletter here on Substack. I currently attract subscribers from articles I publish on Medium, members of the Become a Writer Today email list, and my books.
In short: A freemium newsletter is an excellent way of earning an income from writing. You'll need a specific topic and way of attracting subscribers though.
After some research, I learnt the two popular newsletter platforms are Ghost and Substack unless you count WordPress plus email marketing software.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it took just five minutes to set up a newsletter on Substack and import a mailing list It's also free to try, but they take cut once you attract subscribers.
Ghost is good too, particularly if you want to build a lightning-fast static-content website. However, it's not free and is probably better for combining a newsletter business with a website. At one point, I even considered migrating Become a Writer Today to Ghost, but it's not quite as powerful as WordPress.
Fun fact: Medium rolled out a newsletter service towards the end of 2020, a sign that Substack is making inroads against its business model.
Plans for 2021
Since 2014, I've self-published books across different genres, including business self-help, creativity and instructional writing. I've also tried writing thrillers and contemporary fiction.
I wanted to tackle a new genre in 2020. Having three kids, I browsed Amazon one day to see what's available for dads and was disappointed by the results. With a few notable exceptions, most parenting books for dads were instructional and bland.
So I started writing a more colorful book about my experiences parenting three kids aimed at new fathers. I planned on publishing it by the end of 2020. That goal went out the window once lockdown hit.
It was hard balancing writing a book about the kids with minding the kids (the irony).
Anyhow, I expect to self-publish this book in the first half of 2021, with an audio version to follow.
What I Learnt
I've meditated for about ten minutes a day, for several years using apps like Headspace and Waking Up. Last January, I enrolled in a Transcendental Meditation course.
This practice involves meditating twice a day for twenty minutes, using a specific mantra. I kept the practice up after the course.
During the spate of lockdowns in Ireland, it was like releasing a mental pressure valve each morning and evening.
The Slipbox or Zettelkästen Method
I've experimented with various research and note-taking systems over the years, including a commonplace book.
They worked to a point, but none presented ideas when I needed them for articles or book chapters.
Early this year, I encountered the concept of a slip box or Zettelkasten. Essentially, it involves writing short notes about topics and ideas rather than clipping or saving said articles and research.
One note, one idea.
Interlink and file each one.
Review and update often.
As a writer, I immediately found this simple system helpful. Nine months later, I've over 1,500 notes and use it regularly to write articles and book chapters.
If you'd like to learn more (including what tools to use), I interviewed Sacha Fast who runs a website about the Zettelkaskten Method.
What Went Well?
During the lockdown, I ran and strength-trained four to six times a week. It helped that I've access to a small home gym in my neighbour's back garden.
I also clocked up a total of 2100 kilometres this year. At one point during the lockdowns, I ran a virtual half-marathon by looping my home town, kind of like a hamster on a wheel.
That's more than I've run in previous years, even when I was training for the Dublin City marathon. I feel like I could run a good race even if none are taking place around these parts.
At the very least, training was a good way of blowing of COVID-19 stress
Although I didn't hit my goal of self-publishing a parenting book this year, I maintained a consistent writing routine.
I published or updated approximately one hundred articles on Become a Writer Today and also mapped out plans for two future non-fiction books (with the help of the Zettelkästen method).
I've also doubled-down on journaling after learning about how humorist David Sedaris uses his daily journal entries to write non-fiction essays and books. His Masterclass is a great course.
I outsourced various parts of my business for the past few years, including accounting, design and technical fixes.
This year, I refined my system for outsourcing even further and have a good workflow with the help of three virtual assistants, an editor and some writers. I also rely on collaboration tools like Trello, Airtable and Google Docs.
I've gotten to the point where I'll ask myself, "Am I the right person to do this?" for almost every task, except for creative writing.
What Didn't Go Well?
The entire year perhaps :)
The Virus… And the Politics That Went With It
Thanks to the coronavirus, 2020 was a nightmare for most people, no matter their location or circumstances. In Ireland, we spent much of the year in various lockdowns.
The messaging around these lockdowns was often mixed, confusing and patronising. At times, it felt like those in charge were attaching a stigma to the virus. I also didn't have much time for those questioning the efficacy of masks, vaccines, social distancing and basic hand hygiene.
I was horrified when one influencer I respected emailed his list with a group picture of his team working side-by-side without masks or social distancing. He said he was opting out of "media fear porn". So no faces masks needed.
Since when is basic science up for debate?
At the start of the year, I entered the New York City Marathon and began raising funds for a charity. Due to take place on November 1st, organizers understandably cancelled that marathon in June. Along with organizers of practically every big sporting event of 2020.
Like most people this year, I also cancelled plans for trips, gatherings with friends and family. The entire year felt as if somebody pressed a giant pause button.
I also faced the challenge of working from home with three kids, including a baby, while the schools were closed. Unlike some people in lockdown, I can't complain of feeling lonely. But it's hard not to get cabin fever when confined to your house or home-town for months.
At the time of writing this article, we're in the most extreme Tier 5 lockdown in Ireland and unable to meet other people or go beyond a five-kilometre radius from where we live.
The prospects of a vaccine roll-outs throughout 2021 is encouraging even if it will take many months unless you live in Israel!
I spent far too much time doom-scrolling about Brexit and the elections on social media and the news. It's an odd thing to obsess about events in another country that you've no control over.
I also checked the coronavirus numbers every day even though the app reporting them presented the wrong type of information, in the wrong way. And that’s before I waded into the politics of the virus and vaccine.
I’ve deleted a lot of these apps off my phone for January of 2021. Let’s see how long that lasts.
Smaller Business Projects
In 2020 year, I signed an expensive six-month contract with a customer rate optimisation agency to work on Become a Writer Today to improve revenue.
That proved to be a waste of money. I realized the agencies was suggesting tweaks and updates to the site that I'd already tried or which were on my list. I don't blame the agency; I didn't do enough due diligence.
Lesson learnt… again.
Best Media Of 2020
In no particular order, I enjoyed these books the most:
Is This Anything by Jerry Seinfeld?
Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
No need to write in and tell me the second two were published years ago :)
It wasn’t a great year for films thanks to the virus; I found Tenet a confusing, showy mess. But Better Call Saul and Normal People were two of the better TV shows I streamed.
I also enjoyed listened to Nick Cave Idiot Prayer (Alone at Alexandra Palace)
Special mention to CNN’s John King’s knowledge of American geography on US election week.
Past Annual Reviews
Partly inspired by James Clear and David Allen, I've written and published an annual review in some form every year since 2015. Previously, I published these on Become a Writer Today. Now, they're here on Substack.