How to wrap up 2015 and design an awesome next year

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 19, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

It’s that time of year again—not quite finished, too early for fireworks—and I have a question for you.

How’re you doing?

At this time of year I’m looking at a long list of projects that still need my attention. Sigh.

There’s the new team member we still haven’t found, changes to the web site, advertising not booked, proposals waiting, and my car’s making funny sounds (again). Sound familiar?

Yup, I’m looking backwards, not forward.

Good planning doesn’t happen like gravity—I have to make it happen.

I also know the sorry pitfall of making New Year’s resolutions that I’ll ignore once the streamers are pulled down. No, I want a fresh start—I want to make my year outstanding (damn it!)

Here’s what I do.


Real change only happens when we take stock of where we are at. This is true with finances, health, work, renovations, marriage, old fridges and business plans. To do this I rely on my tried-and-true “Plus/Delta” method. It’s a simple left-hand, right-hand list-making exercise you can crank off in less than 10 minutes (also perfect for kicking off team meetings).

In the left-hand (“Plus”) column make a list of what worked, was improved, is new or changed for the better. In the right-hand (“Delta”) column make a list of what could be improved (start, stop, or change).

Next, I highlight the most strategic items in the “Delta” column to work on. I’m searching for “game changers” that will move the needle, like: staffing, marketing, outsourcing, products and new people to partner with.

This isn’t time to make a tidy list of 84 “nice-to-do” tasks—a long laundry list just promotes procrastination. Ideally, I’m left with 15, or fewer, focus areas.

Next, it’s time to think big.


It’s hard to think big, when surrounded by unfinished work that gnaws at your psyche, shouting “Look at me! I’m not finished.” Researchers call this an “empathy gap”—we have a hard time empathizing with our future self (the one that wants to be strategic and think big) when we have burning needs in the present.

You need to get away.

This time of year I like to escape (with my Plus/Delta list) into nature to think big. This is my chance to get off the To-Do treadmill and ask tough questions about the next 12 months.

Last year I made some decisions about how much I wanted to work (less), the income I wanted to earn (more), and the attention I wanted to give to my wife, Kirsten, my girls, and adventure in my life (more, more, and more). Those were big decisions.

“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” – Alexander Graham Bell

What about you? Are you playing small, hoping for some lottery-ticket-miracle to save you? The trick is to dream big and be realistic. “Contrary to what you’ve heard, big dreams do not characteristically produce high achievement” says Noam Shpancer, Ph.D. “high achievers tend to dream at the middle distance.”

My greatest successes have come from building on what I have, not from miracles.

“Contrary to what you’ve heard, big dreams do not characteristically produce high achievement—high achievers tend to dream at the middle distance.” Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.

Here are some tough-love questions to ask:

  • Looking back 12 months from now, what do I want to be proud of?
  • What have I already started that simply needs more attention?
  • What is getting in my way of living my dreams (and how can I stop it)?
  • Who do I need to reach out to for help?


A while back I wrote about my “1460 goals” —the goals I will accomplish before I turned 60. Sure, you could argue (maybe you are) one birthday is no different from another. Fair enough, but I wanted the motivation to think big and the urgency to accomplish what really matters in my life. So I gave myself 1460 days to get ‘er done.

I wanted the motivation to think big and the urgency to accomplish what really matters in my life.

I divided my “1460 goals” into five buckets: family, health, wealth, giving and exploring. Pretty simple and easy to remember. Each bucket has three or four goals.

I’m now 600 days into my 1460 goals and feeling the pressure. I still have a lots to accomplish, but here’s the deal: I’m better off because I’m counting the days.

What’s the milestone for you?

I think everyone should have three year goals and shorter, one year goals. Given three years anyone can create dramatic change. And one year goals keep us honest.


Before you rush off to make your Plus/Delta lists, I have a warning. Without immediate action little happens. You know that, it’s called getting started.

Call it momentum, inertia, or just common sense, the sooner you open the can and take a step toward your goals the sooner you will achieve them.

It turns out we have an innate need to complete unfinished work. In one study, participants were told they had “unlimited time” to solve a challenging puzzle. But, before they could finish they were interrupted and told the study was complete. Despite this, nearly 90% of participants continued to work on the problem (Kenneth O. McGraw, Department of Psychology, University of Mississippi). They had momentum.

Now it’s your turn. What are you going to do to wrap up the year and prepare for your awesome next year?