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My S.M.A.R.T. Goal Driven 2017

If you are like me, you spend most of your free time wondering how you should be spending your free time. There are limitless ways in which I want to be a better person and enough free hours in each week that — properly allocated — I know I could make significant headway each year.

The question is, given the infinite opportunities for self-improvement, where do you begin? For years, overwhelmed by possibility, I’ve found myself spending a depressing number of hours staring at my phone, mindlessly thumbing through Twitter, anxiously contemplating what I really ought to be doing instead. To deeply want to feel productive while passively participating in the least productive activity man has ever known is a quick path to an absolutely toxic state of mind.

After watching Trump take over America through my phone screen last fall, I decided that 2017 had to be different. It had to be the year I broke free from this cycle of outrage, guilt, boredom, and non-stop anxiety. So I did the unthinkable: I turned to Corporate America, and decided it was time to set myself some S.M.A.R.T. goals.

While the notion of incorporating a corporate acronym into my non-work life seemed truly repulsive, over the years, setting S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific/ Measurable/ Achievable/ Realistic/ Timely, for those of you who have never gone through an HR workshop on this topic and therefore still have your souls intact) has been strangely helpful for me professionally. Who was I to deny something that might help?

So, I set myself nine S.M.A.R.T. goals this year. I am sharing these now not just to be self-indulgent (though I am mentally unwell and welcome your attention), but because I know many of us struggle to navigate the tension between wanting to be better people while fending off the easy, stupid, addicting, & self-loathing accessibility of our phones. As you will see, though I was not nearly universally successful in reaching my goals this year, even in trying and failing, I know for certain that I accomplished more than I would have had these goals not existed at all. So without further ado, here lies my 2017 report card, as well as a few reflections about each goal.

Since these goals probably fall into categories where many of us are striving for self-improvement (golf aside), I wanted to share a few thoughts about my experience in each bucket in case it’s helpful insight for anyone working towards similar ends.

Lose 20 Pounds

My goal this year was to lose 20 pounds, and depending on the day, I lost about 8. Giving myself a B for achieving 40% of my goal probably seems generous, and maybe it is, but if you understood how much I hate working out, you would understand my leniency here.

In 2017, I went to the gym 126 times.

I am aware that for many people, there is nothing especially impressive about someone going to the gym once every 2.89 days (in fact, I’m sure that for many of you, this would be an outright disaster), but considering that from 2010–2014, I probably went to the gym 30 times combined, 126 in one year seems unfathomable to me.

Speaking as factually as possible, I hate everything about exercise. I find it painfully boring. I hate feeling physically strained. I get absolutely no subsequent energy rush. I suspect Nike concocted the notion of the “runner’s high” to sell more shoes, though I don’t yet have a verifiable way to prove this. From the second I step out of the locker room, I count down the 40 minutes until I can return. If exercise didn’t help me live a longer, healthier life, I’d truly never do it.

Given this disposition, going to the gym 126 times is something I’m counting as a complete and total success. (The number would be even higher, but my gym attendance fell off a lot during golf season, which I’ve been told I can’t count as exercise. Whatever.)

If you also hate working out, here are a few things I’ve learned about myself that you might also find useful:

1. Invest in a gym with amenities: If you hate working out, everything is an obstacle to exercise. For years, because I hated going to the gym, I refused to pay for a good one. However, nice gyms do two important things: They enhance my incentive to go by offering activities I actually do like (the sauna), and they remove the inconveniences that make working out even more painful (offering towels and laundry service so you don’t have to carry gym bags all over the city).

2. A bad workout is better than no workout: America is gripped by a triathlon-industrial complex. In a society where we have washing machines and dishwashers and Crock-Pots that have eased the human struggle, we all seem to be rushing to fill the void by signing up for extreme workout challenges. Not me. Not into it. When you listen to workout junkies talk, it’s as if doing anything less than six miles on a treadmill is barely worth the price of gas. When I tell the workout mafia I prefer the elliptical or exercise bike, they look at me cross-eyed before inevitably replying that, “that’s basically not working out at all.” No. You know what’s basically not working out at all? Watching college basketball on my couch. That’s basically not working out at all. For me, I couldn’t get into a sustainable workout routine until I dispelled everyone else’s advice and just embraced the fact that working out in any way is a positive thing.

So, while I came up well short of my goal thanks to consuming bread, pasta, and cheese at roughly 700% of FDA advised levels, I lost weight overall and hugely boosted the consistency of my gym visits, so this is a moderate win for the year.

Save X Number of Dollars

While I’m obviously not going to devote many words to my finances, there are a couple thoughts I think are worth sharing.

First, I’m bad at saving money, not so much because I have extravagant taste or live above my means, but because I hate spending time diagnosing my own spending or managing my finances. For this reason, it was very worthwhile for me to set a specific cash savings goals. It made me feel an extra sense of accountability to engage on a topic I usually resist.

I gave myself a B- here because while I reached my goal, it’s partly (largely) due to the fact that I made more money than I expected, not that I was as disciplined about putting money away as I set out to be.

While this is still an area where I have a long way to go, the one piece of advice I’d share from my year is to try to shield yourself from best-case thinking.

In past years, I have rarely saved money to goal levels because I’m rarely honest with myself about my life’s cost structure, particularly regarding travel. Many months, I spend $500-$1,000 more than I expect, almost always due to a trip I hadn’t factored into my expenses. My reaction has been to mentally treat those trips as unexpected blips that exist outside my “normal” budget.

This year, I traveled 14 out of 52 weekends.

If you’re traveling once a month, it’s on you if you’re surprised by travel expenses. Unless you plan to travel less going forward, you have to view them as a fixed monthly cost, like rent.

Meghan and I picked up a tip to create a separate travel slush fund, and it’s been a game-changer for me. Every week, when I’m at the grocery store, I take out a set amount in actual cash, which I deposit in an adult piggy bank in my bedroom. This bank serves one purpose, to finance travel expenses, and it’s amazing how fast it accumulates. By physically taking the money out of my account, so I can’t in any way see it, allows me to travel as I have in the past, without having a monthly crippling blow to my savings goals. If you’re someone who also travels frequently and struggles to factor your travel expenses into your budget, this is a great route.

Read 10 Books

Reading more fiction is an area where I’m constantly disappointing myself, 2017 being no exception.

Structurally speaking, reading the newspaper every day is an essential feature of my life. Reading the newspaper for 45–90 minutes every morning provides me with an immediate sense of accomplishment to start my day (I assume this is how some people feel about exercise, but those people have a sickness, as far as I’m concerned). I can’t imagine sacrificing the newspaper, but I also know that the hundreds of hours I spend reading it each year largely cannibalizes other reading times.

As such, I came up woefully short of my book reading goal this year, reading the following five books:

· Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance — I know this book elicited mixed (or predominantly negative) feelings among improvisers who saw it as poor shaming and excusing the government’s duty to support and protect citizens, but I loved it. I found his personal story very moving as a memoir of a difficult upbringing, and his social analysis — particularly the way that de-industrialization in the Midwest has created a pervasive sense of meaninglessness — was very prescient. Thoroughly recommend!

· Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders — Possibly the single most imaginative pieces of literature I’ve ever read. One of the few books I’ve finished and wished had been 100 pages longer. The book is bizarre and hilarious and then just rips you open emotionally at the end. Major tears, lots of laughs, absolutely will read again.

· Love, Africa, by Jeffrey Gettleman — I heard the author, who is the former New York Times East Africa bureau chief, interviewed on Pod Save the World, and decided to read the book. While not exactly mind bending prose, the author does a nice job balancing his own personal story against the haywire African politics he has spent most of the last 15 years covering. While I have exactly 1/1000th of this guy’s stomach for risk, I could relate to the sense of ennui that seems to have motivated him to relocate to Nairobi. If you are interested in learning more about Africa (a topic I knew very little about before reading this), I’d recommend.

· The Nix, by Nathan Hill — This is two stories, one set in 1968 and one set in 2011, essentially woven together. The characters are very vivid and the satire of today’s culture — especially obsession with video games — had me nodding my head a lot. But the book probably has 30% more plot elements than required, could lose 100 pages, and ties together a little too neatly. I liked the book a lot, but it’s nearly 800 pages, and I sunk a lot of hours into working through it.

· The Best American Short Stories of 2017 — These are always phenomenal. “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff blew my mind.

I also read a little more than half of “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (which I liked but eventually started to feel highly repetitive), and “London Fields” by Martin Amis (which I find slightly hard to read, but plan to finish).

So, this was a flop for me, and I don’t know the fix. On the one hand, I can certainly find ways to read the newspaper more efficiently (I think I read a variation on the same six paragraphs about Marine Le Pen in the New York Times every day for four straight months last year), but I think there’s no area that suffers more from my addiction to my phone than my fiction reading. During the time I should read fiction to feel inspired and expand my mind before bed, I tend to compulsively refresh my Twitter feed. This means less books finished and more nights falling asleep in a rage panic. More to come.

Publish a Piece in McSweeney’s / Write a New Show

While I did not reach either of these goals, I fairly consciously made the decision to de-prioritize comedy goals this year.

For the last eight years, doing 125+ shows per year (plus another 50 or so rehearsals) has greatly overwhelmed my ability to cultivate any other interests or achieve any other personal goals. While I hope that performing — or at least creating — comedy will be a lifelong endeavor for me in some way, and while I truly struggle to imagine life without comedy, I am increasingly aware of the fact that improv does not save one’s soul, and that my 2010–2016 volume of performances is not going to be sustainable or healthy on a lifelong basis.

Since 2010, I’ve written at least one new sketch show every year, and these are particularly taxing for me. Not only do these require a ton of work, but the anxiety that accompanies memorizing lines and the crippling, weeks long self-doubt of wondering whether any of it is actually funny takes a bigger and bigger toll each year. I love the adrenaline rush that accompanies the performances and their aftermaths, but what it requires to chase that high is getting harder all the time.

So, I chose to focus this year on other things I like/need to do — cooking, golfing, reading, traveling, volunteering, and exercising — in an effort to try to get comedy into a better balance in the matrix of how I allocate my time.

While I am figuring out what writing new shows means for me going forward, the McSweeney’s goal does exist and is important to me, and I have not done well at pursuing it. I submitted only one piece this year, which they rejected (you can read it here, I actually thought it was pretty funny). Next year, I will definitely increase my effort here.

Travel Abroad

This goal doesn’t really match the spirit of the rest of the goals, since it’s something that just required a purchase. In general, you should not be able to just buy your ways to your goals.

But, with travel, in my experience, it’s easy to convince yourself it’s not the right time at work, or it’s not the right time to spend money, or if you just wait, there’ll be a crazy sale on flights.

So, I made it a point in my goals to commit to travelling overseas this year, which Meghan and I did in our trip to London, Paris, and Amsterdam.

A couple notes/thoughts on travel from this year:

· Creating the slush fund I mentioned in the finance section not only improved my ability to save money by more realistically factoring travel expenses into my budget, but it also makes traveling more enjoyable and less anxious. When you’re traveling, the last thing you want to do is constantly think about how much everything is costing, and when you haven’t really prepared yourself for a trip, this is where the brain tends to go. The slush money is like receiving 100 Hanukkahs worth of Visa gift cards right before you leave, so as long as you don’t spend like a lunatic, you’re playing with house money.

· If you haven’t been to a place within the last five years, it’s like going to a new place. Initially, I was skeptical about going to London, Paris and Amsterdam, since I had been to all three before. But, since this was Meghan’s first trip overseas, these three seemed like staples, so we decided to go for it. Being in these cities at 33 was entirely different than being there at 23, and traveling on your own (rather than with parents) exposes the city in an entirely different way. So, if you see an opportunity for travel where your only reservation is having been there before, I found seeing a familiar city in a new light to be extremely rewarding.

· If you’re looking to travel and you’d rather stay in hotels than AirBNBs, I recommend Gate 1 Travel. They’ve got a ton of self-guided tours all of the world, they package flights and hotels at a huge discount, and they give you a lot of latitude to flex your budget up and down depending on what caliber of hotel you’re willing to pay for.

· Overall, I got to visit the following cities this year (excluding work trips), so I felt really good about the amount of travel I was able to do:

o London

o Paris

o Amsterdam

o Boston

o Portland, Maine

o New York

o New Orleans (x2)

o Traverse City, Michigan

o Omaha

o Columbus

o Cleveland (x5)

Volunteer 10 Times

Volunteering more is a perennial goal on which I perennially make zero progress. The lack of hours I give towards volunteering is a cloud of guilt that’s with me all the time.

This year, for the first time, instead of just saying to myself that I’d like to volunteer more, I set a number: 10. For the first six months of the year, while I had sent a few emails inquiring about the opportunity to volunteer, I was sitting at a grand total of zero. In the past, I would have just let my feelings of guilt compound and fester, before swearing that next year would be different. This year, the prospect of having to look at my notebook at the end of the year and see an 0 for 10 mark provided a massive kick in the ass.

For me, I’ve discovered the biggest impediment to volunteering tends to be the logistics of signing up itself. For reasons I don’t totally understand, most non-profits — even ones who rely largely on volunteer labor — make it stupidly difficult to sign up to volunteer. I can never tell where and when volunteer opportunities exist, who I am supposed to email, and where I can enroll online (if at all). It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Luckily I found two great organizations where the sign up is super straight forward: The Nature Conservancy’s Community Stewardship Day with the Chicago Park District, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

For the Nature Conservancy work, every Chicago park is assigned a community leader whose job it is to organize volunteers to come together once (or up to a few times) a month for a 2–3 hours at a time to take on planting, maintenance and beautification projects beyond what the Park District staff can reasonably do themselves. Since Meghan and I are getting at Columbus Park, I’ve gotten involved with the crew that comes together monthly to work on that particular park, but there are opportunities every weekend at parks around the city. Signing up is as simple as a single email.

The Food Depository is a massive operation. In scope and sophistication, its warehouse reminds me of a distribution center for a Fortune 500 company. They serve as a food bank to soup kitchens around the city, and rely heavily on volunteers to help them take massive shipments of food (think 2,000 pound boxes of fruit), break them down into 3–5 pound bags that can be distributed to single families, then re-box those bags to be sent out to facilities all over the area. On any given night, there are probably 100 volunteers on site. It’s a very professional operation, with an easy online sign up, lots of written communication and reminders, and a smooth, organized way of running things once you get there. If you can get down there (not a super convenient location if you live on the north side) and are looking to volunteer more, I recommend it.

While I didn’t reach 10 this year, I am happy that I volunteered more than I had in any past year, and now that I’m in a groove with these two organizations, expect I will volunteer far more frequently this year.

My volunteer engagements in 2017:

1. Saturday, August 26 with Nature Conservancy at Columbus Park — Picked up trash

2. Saturday, September 23 with Nature Conservancy at Columbus Park — Planted a garden

3. Saturday, October 28 with Nature Conservancy at Columbus Park — Mulched 150 trees

4. Saturday, November 18 with Nature Conservancy at WRNP — Collected seeds

5. Wednesday, December 6 at Chicago Food Depository — Packaged rice

6. Tuesday, December 26 at Chicago Food Depository — Packaged pears

Prepare 30 New Recipes

Cooking is something I had dabbled with prior to this year, but this year, dove headfirst into it. My goal was to make 30 new recipes. To qualify, a recipe simply had to be complex or challenging enough that I worked strictly off the recipe. Obviously, I cooked far more frequently than 30 times this year, but didn’t count anything that didn’t require a recipe or was a repeat of something I had made before.

Below is a list of my recipes from this year, with links included where I could find an online recipe. Asterisks for the ones I really loved.

1. Jan. 8 — Rigatoni with oxtail “Sunday Gravy” and sausage from Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites” **

2. Jan. 22 — Tunisian Chicken from NYT Cooking

3. Feb. 14 — Portuguese kale stew from Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites”

4. Feb. 16 — Spaghetti with clams and clam sauce from NYT Cooking

5. Feb. 25 — Gnocchi from Tasty (note: this was a fucking disaster)

6. Mar. 5 — Bolognese from NYT Cooking

7. Mar. 19 — Crepes from NYT Cooking ** (note: sentimental value since this is what I made the morning Meghan and I got engaged)

8. Mar. 26 — Cast iron chicken from Bourdain’s “Appetites”**

9. Apr. 16 — Braised pork shoulder with fried shalltos and pickled cucumbers and onions from Bourdain’s “Appetities” **

10. April 30 — Chicken shawarma from NYT Cooking **

11. May 1 — Spaghetti aglio olio with broccoli from Food Network (note: this one is so easy, it probably is cheating to count it on the list)

12. May 7 — Poulet bascquaise from NYT Cooking

13. May 26 — Steak au poivre from NYT Cooking

14. May 29 — Shakshuka from NYT Cooking**

15. June 17 — New Mexico beef chili from Bourdain’s “Appetites”

16. June 25 — Jim Harrison’s Caribbean stew from NYT Cooking**

17. July 16 — Provencal squid and shrimp stew from NYT Cooking

18. Aug. 5 — Spicy Sichuan noodles from NYT Cooking**

19. Aug. 20 — Slow roasted salmon with blood orange, chiles and fennel from Bon Appetit**

20. Aug. 27 — Homemade marinara from Bon Appetit

21. Sept. 4 — Michael Symon’s meatloaf from Esquire**

22. Sept. 17 — Patty melts from NYT Cooking** (note: I have a borderline religious love of patty melts, so knowing how to make them well — while simple — is very important to me)

23. Oct. 9 — Roast chicken from Bourdain’s “Appetites”

24. Oct. 14 — Breakfast carbonara from NYT Cooking**

25. Oct. 15 — Adult Spaghetti-Os from Bon Appetit

26. Oct. 29 — Beef stew from NYT Cooking

27. Nov. 19 — Choucroute loaf from NYT Cooking

28. Nov. 19 — Cauliflower au gratin from NYT Cooking

29. Dec. 3 — Bits n’ pieces party cheese ball from NYT Cooking**

30. Dec. 4 — Deviled chicken from NYT Cooking**

31. Dec. 17 — Herbed navy bean and sausage stew from NYT Cooking**

32. Dec. 25 — Smashed potatoes with parsley and onion from Alison Roman’s “Dining In”

33. Dec. 31 — Korean fried chicken from Bourdain’s “Appetites”** (note: this is a two day process, so technically finished on 1/1)

This was undoubtedly one of the areas where I felt most accomplished this year.

So much of my motivation to set these goals stemmed from my desire to break free from my phone, and I think what has drawn me to cooking is that no activity separates me from the news and social media to this extent.

To be a successful at-home, amateur chef, I have quickly learned, requires very little skill. It is roughly 30% being highly organized (having a step-by-step game plan for everything that needs to happen to get food on plates over multiple hours), 30% being highly present (I love this, because being present is a terrible struggle for me in every phase of my life), 30% having good taste and knowing what you and your audience are likely to life (truly, as I get older, I realize having good taste is everything), and 10% technical expertise or skill. If you can follow instructions, if you can stay focused, and if you can look at a recipe and have a sense of what it’s going to taste like, you can crush as an at-home cook.

On the technical expertise side, I came into the year with a very low foundation to work from. I did take the time to take a three hour knife skills course at the Chopping Block in Lincoln Square, and this was a phenomenal help. When you know how to chop vegetables quickly and efficiently, everything gets easier: less mess, faster prep, easier ability to stay organized. If you’re interested in trying to cook more, I would recommend this.

Finally: lemon; garlic; yellow onion; parmesan. They’re in everything and make it all taste better.

Make 20 Birdies

If I played golf every day, I don’t think I’d get tired of it. Which is why, in retrospect, it’s hard for me to believe I hardly swung a club for eight years.

Since I got a car and life logistics have allowed for golf to come back, it’s come back in a massive way, and I’m so grateful for it. There is nothing that gives me more peace of mind than being alone very early in the morning on a golf course.

As a golfer, I am exactly OK. I have flashes of good play that can sometimes last two or three weeks, and the wheels usually fall off a couple times a season, but for the most part, I’m a good bet to shoot a score somewhere in the mid to upper 80s on a scorecard loaded with bogeys of every shape and size.

Originally, I wanted to set my goal around lowering my handicap into the single digits, but golf is fun for me, and I wanted my golf goal to be inherently fun. Watching my handicap stubbornly refuse to drop would not have been fun.

But, chasing birdies is fun!

The great part about the nature of this goal is:

1) It’s predicated on volume. The more you play, the chances you have to make birdie. There were a ton of Sunday mornings where at 6am the only thing that got me out of bed was the hopes of stealing a birdie.

2) You don’t have to be playing well to stumble into a birdie. Even bad rounds can pop a birdie from time to time, so it could be a silver lining to a poor outing.

I played a LOT of golf this summer (didn’t chronicle total number of rounds, but had to be in the 60ish range) and made EXACTLY 20 birdies, so this goal was very well calibrated. My birdies are below:

1) Weds, Feb 8 — Stevens Park (Dallas, TX) #7 — Par 3, 115 yards

· ¾ Pitching wedge, 50 ft. bomb

2) Tues, May 9: Deerfield Golf Club #15 — Par 4, 402 yards

· Driver, 8 iron, 3 ft. putt

3) Tues, May 30: Deerfield Golf Club #12 — Par 4, 475 yards

· Driver, 4 iron, 7 ft. putt

4) Fri, June 16: Robert Black Golf Course #1 — Par 5, 490 yards

· 3 iron, 6 iron, 9 iron, 1 ft. putt

5) Mon, June 19: Deerfield Golf Club #4 — Par 4, 390 yards

· Driver, 9 iron, 20 ft. putt

6) Fri, June 23: Deerfield Golf Club #11 — Par 4, 260 yards

· 3 iron, sand wedge, 10 ft. putt

· (note: this hole is a joke and this probably shouldn’t count)

7) Thurs, July 13: Deerfield Golf Course #14 –Par 4, 355 yards

· 3 iron, 7 iron, 25 ft. putt

8) Weds, Aug 2: Deerfield Golf Course #9 — Par 4, 400 yards

· Driver, pitching wedge, 15 ft. putt

9) Sunday, Aug 6: Robert Black Golf Course #2 — Par 3, 135 yards

· Pitching wedge, 10 ft. putt

10) Tues, Aug 15: Deerfield Golf Course #15 — Par 4, 402 yards

· Driver, 8 iron, 4 ft. putt

11) Fri, Aug 18: Robert Black Golf Course #9 — Par 4, 350 yards

· Driver, 3 iron (punch out), sand wedge (canned one from ~80 yards out)

12) Sun, Aug 27, 2017: Harborside Golf Course #17 — Par 3, 155 yards

· 8 iron, 30 ft. putt

13) Mon, Sept 4, 2017: Robert Black Golf Course #6 — Par 4, 320 yards

· Driver, ½ gap wedge, 2 ft. putt

14) Weds, Sept 20, 2017: Robert Black Golf Course #2 — Par 3, 130 yards

· Pitching wedge, 30 ft. putt

15) Thurs, Sept 21, 2017: Ravisloe Country Club #6 — Par 3, 140 yards

· 9 iron, 6 inch putt

· So close to an ace!

16) Thurs, Oct. 5: Ravisloe Country Club #6 — Par 3, 140 yards

· 9 iron, 30 ft. putt

17) Thurs, Oct. 5: Ravisloe Country Club #10 — Par 4, 400 yards

· Driver, pitching wedge, 30 ft. putt

18) Sat, Oct 7: Robert Black Golf Course #5 — Par 4, 320 yards

· Driver, 4 iron (punch out), rescue 5 wood (chip)

19) Sunday, Oct. 9: Robert Black Golf Course #1 — Par 5, 490 yards

· Driver, 8 iron (sand), 8 iron, 1 ft. putt

20) Sunday, Oct. 9: Robert Black Golf Course #2 — Par 3, 135 yards

· Pitching wedge, 10 ft. putt

My biggest takeaways is that your goals should not be punitive or overly obsessed with improvement or edification. They should help you be the kind of person you want to be by encouraging you to do the things that help you feel at peace with yourself. If your goals are only loaded up with mandates to lose weight and pay down debt, you’re probably not activating important parts of who you are, and what you need to feel fully realized. For me, that’s chasing birdies around Chicago for six months a year, and that is time I wouldn’t trade in for anything.

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