2020 Annual Review

2020 Annual Review

I feel extremely fortunate that 2020 was a good year for me. Especially so considering that it was a tough year for many due to COVID-19 which took over all the news headlines for the better part of the year and spread to all corners of the world including Antarctica.

In this article, I reflect on the highlights of the year – both in my personal as well as professional life, look at the things that I could have done better, and set some goals for 2021. While I wrote this article primarily for myself, to help me reflect on the things I did last year and to get some clarity around what I want to do this year, I decided to publish it as I enjoy reading similar articles by other people and maybe you do too.

So, let’s jump right in.

Highlights of 2020: Personal Life

Initially, I wanted to start by reflecting on the “business and money” part of my life. However, throughout the year, over and over again, I was reminded that the ultimate goal of the former is to allow for the latter to be the way I want it to be. With that in mind, I decided to start by talking about my personal life instead.

Living a Relatively Normal Life In Spite of COVID-19

When I started to write this review, I was sitting on a plane from Vienna to Paris, making my way back to Tokyo after spending the holidays with my family in Slovakia. Seeing the situation in Europe where “hard” lockdowns and other similar strategies are being used for fighting the virus made me appreciate how relatively well Japan has been faring with the pandemic.

Sure, we had a state of emergency for a couple of months – and we have another one now. The stores also run out of toilet paper for a while. Yet, life remained fairly unaffected for my girlfriend and me, and for a relatively large part of the population compared to other countries, I’d say. Most shops, even beyond the essential grocery and drug stores, stayed open most of the time, and eating at restaurants was generally possible too.

In the second half of the year, the government even introduced a campaign subsidizing half of the cost of domestic travel. While that campaign has been canceled due to COVID-19 cases being on the rise again, we managed to take advantage of it a couple of times. I visited Fukuoka for plane spotting for a few days. My girlfriend and I also went to Kanazawa, Yokohama, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, and a couple of other places.

Considering that the situation is getting worse here again and that another state of emergency has been declared, it remains to be seen how things will evolve in this regard.

Kanazawa
Kanazawa station.

Working from Home with My Girlfriend (and from the Airport)

While I’ve been working from home about half of the week for quite some time now, with the COVID-19 situation getting worse in Japan around March or April, I switched to fully working from home. Once Japan declared a state of emergency in April, my girlfriend started working from home as well. It was an enjoyable experience working together for the better part of the year.

Having a home office and my girlfriend being able to work from her desk in our living room or from the kitchen table meant that we didn’t have to be in each other’s way all the time while working. At the same time, we could have lunches together and spend more time together overall.

I felt very fortunate about how the situation played out. Especially knowing how difficult the times were for many people living on their own or with someone else in tiny apartments in (not only) Tokyo.

Toward the end of the year, I also spent a few days here and there working from the Haneda airport observation deck while taking photos of aircraft in between. That was, of course, made possible by the number of flights being reduced due to the pandemic. Otherwise, I’d be stuck to the fence taking photos throughout my stay and not get any work done!

Overall, the lines between “work” and “life” were, in a good sense, quite blurred throughout the year.

Managing to Visit Family in Slovakia Twice

As mentioned above, fortunately, life within Japan was relatively normal for me throughout the year. That said, with entry restrictions in place around the world, I wasn’t really sure when in the year – or whether at all – I’d be able to travel internationally, especially to visit my family in Slovakia.

While the year ended for me with no plane spotting trips or “vacations,” I was luckily able to squeeze in two trips to Slovakia – one in September and another one in December. Besides being able to meet a couple of friends and spend a lot of time with my family, I was also able to spend some time in the beautiful Tatra Mountains and even squeeze in a visit to an aviation museum in Kosice in the east of Slovakia.

With that, even though I flew about 80% fewer miles than I did in 2019 or 2018, all things considered, things turned out much better than I thought they would when the COVID-19 situation started to get serious. I’m especially happy that I managed to continue my tradition of spending Christmas in Europe.

Tatras
Strbske Pleso, a lake in the Tatra Mountains.

Rediscovering the Joy of Pokemon Cards

At the beginning of October, I saw Graham Stephan’s video about him buying a pack of first edition Pokemon cards for over $10,000. Going down into the rabbit hole of similar Pokemon card-related YouTube videos for a couple of hours, I got nostalgic and ended up ordering a box of cards myself.

Not a $10,000 one, of course. Instead, I ordered a box of Tag Bolt, the only set in Japan available at the regular retail price that focuses on the original generation of Pokemon. After an enjoyable hour of opening the 30 packs inside the box, I got hooked again. Since then, I ordered (and bought in person) quite a few more packs.

I also got myself a pair of promo cards: a Charizard and Kanazawa Pikachu. While the Charizard card was offered as a bonus for people that purchased five packs of cards, the Pikachu card was handed out for free at Pokemon Centers around Japan on the day that Kanazawa’s Pokemon Center opened. For free, that is, if you don’t count the time it took me to go to the store in the morning just to be told to get back in the afternoon, then going home, and then going back to the store in the afternoon.

Finally, while visiting my home in Slovakia, I also went through and organized my childhood collection.

All in all, while I don’t collect the cards too “actively,” it is nice to have a new-old little hobby outside of business and aviation to enjoy.

Pokemon Cards
The first booster box of Pokemon cards I ever bought.

Convincing My Girlfriend and Sister to Start Investing Regularly

One of the things I wish I started doing sooner is regularly investing into index funds like I wrote about in this article. While it’s not my primary strategy to build wealth, I take it as an insurance policy should all my other business attempts fail. For many, including those that work regular 9 to 5s–especially for those, actually–I believe it is also the best way to build wealth and become financially secure in the long-term.

As such, I am happy that I managed to convince my girlfriend and my sister to start investing regularly in addition to “just saving.” Attempting to do so–and my sister asking “if it’s that easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?”–reminded me that “not knowing” is oftentimes the biggest barrier for many people when it comes to investing.

The second biggest barrier is skepticism and fear, I believe. People preferring (at best) a one or two percent guaranteed return over some volatility combined with a high likelihood of considerably higher returns. While I understand those concerns and the fact that different people have different preferences and risk tolerance, barely beating inflation “risk-free” instead of putting money at a slight risk and making a real return in the long-term sounds like the biggest risk of them all to me, no matter how much I think about it.

Highlights of 2020: Business Life

With personal stuff out of the way, let’s jump into the business-related things. While I did some interesting client work throughout the year too, I will keep this part focused on my own things.

Growing Content Business

By far the highlight of the business-side of my life in 2020 was being able to grow my websites considerably.

Even though my aviation website, KN Aviation, saw its traffic drop due to COVID-19, the website I wrote about in this case study more than made up for that loss and continued to grow nearly every month. Additionally, I started a brand new site that started to see some early growth toward the end of the year and I started putting effort into a site that I launched a couple of years ago but didn’t work on much.

All in all, 2020 was the first year that my sites recorded over a million sessions combined and generated revenues that one could live on in Japan.

Unfortunately, though, my largest site was hit by a Google algorithm update at the end of the year, and so it remains to be seen how it will perform in 2021. I plan to write an update focusing on the site in July when it will turn two years old. By then, the effect of the algorithm update should be clearer.

Getting Better at Delegation

Without a doubt, the one thing that contributed to the growth of my websites more than anything else was getting better at delegation. While I tried to outsource work including writing, editing, design, and other tasks to freelancers in the past, I always failed to do so, primarily due to my own faults.

Last year, however, I finally managed to put together systems and standard operating procedures that now allow me to smoothly work with a number of writers, an editor, and a virtual assistant on a regular basis. With that, I can “scale my time” by not having to do one of the most time-consuming tasks of running a content business – writing content – as well as a number of other easily-teachable and repetitive tasks.

A lot of the success I finally had with outsourcing can be attributed to The E-Myth Revisited book which talks a lot about building systems, a number of blogs and YouTube channels that gave me inspiration in terms of what exact tools to use and systems to build, and simple experimentation.

If you are looking to start delegating some of your work too, stay tuned as I plan to publish a detailed article about the topic later this year. To be the first one to know once it goes out, subscribe to my newsletter.

Getting Myself Organized Better

Another thing that helped with the growth of my content business but also with the execution of client projects and my productivity overall has the implementation of a number of organizational systems. The three most important things that I implemented in 2020 in this regard include an adapted version of PARA (Tiago Forte’s information organization methodology), a weekly review, and a simple “catch-all” physical notebook.

Starting with the last of those, I use it to plan out each week and day. After trying a number of digital tools, I found that I best work when I simply write the main to-dos on paper each week and each day, and use digital tools only as storage for “someday” items. As for the weekly review, I go through and clean my email inboxes, download folder, desktop, physical notes, and Evernote to be able to start each week with a clean slate. Finally, while I’ve been pretty good with finding files when necessary before, implementing PARA made me even more efficient and organized.

Overall, with these systems, I (almost) always know what I need to be working on and where I can find the pieces of information I need.

Starting the Side Hustles & Stuff Podcast with a Friend

Another thing worth mentioning is that I started a podcast with my friend Yuriy. With both of us having run websites for quite a while and chatting about the topic often, we thought why not record our conversations. We made the decision to start the podcast sometime in May, and in the spirit of “doing beats thinking,” had the name decided within a day or two (the more general Side Hustles & Stuff won over The Slav Hustle referring to our backgrounds), and recorded the first episode shortly after that.

While at this point, the podcast is more of a hobby than a business, I listed it in this section as the conversations on the podcast as well as before and after recording it definitely help me run my business. Our monthly review episodes where we set goals for ourselves are also helpful with accountability.

Last but not least, recording the podcast gives us a chance to try new drinks at some point we started a tradition of introducing our drinks in the first few minutes of each episode. Luckily we both live in Japan where new drinks hit the supermarket shelves all the time.

If you are interested in listening to the podcast, whether for the side hustle-related information or to learn about the different types of drinks one can buy in Japan, you can find it on all the major platforms. You can also visit its (bare-bones) website here.

Side Hustles & Stuff
One of the many drinks I tried while recording the podcast.

Starting an iDeCo Account and Increasing Regular Investments

Lastly, I continued with what I consider to be the two pillars of my personal finance “system:” investing into index funds (primarily S&P 500 but also a number of others) twice a month and tracking my net worth monthly.

For the first three quarters of the year I continued investing regularly into my NISA account (post-tax income with tax-free gains for five years) and I made one investment into individual stocks through my regular taxable account. In the last quarter of the year, I opened an iDeCo (similar to the 401k in the US) account as well. With iDeCo investments being tax-deductible, I did so both to lower my tax base now and to increase the amount I regularly invest.

Overall, I managed to put considerably more money into traditional investments in 2020 than I did in 2018 or 2019.

Things That I Could Have Done Better in 2020

While I am more than content with how 2020 turned out for me, especially considering the global situation, there are certain things that were within my control that I wish I had put more effort into.

Below are the three main ones.

Writing Aviation-Related Content

While I planned to publish at least a couple of posts a month on KN Aviation, I ended up not posting any article for months at a time. The two main reasons were a loss of motivation caused by the drop in traffic after the travel industry came to a halt and me not doing any travel that I could write about most of the year.

In the second half of the year, however, I did a number of trips where I collected material to write about. Even though I wrote some of the articles already, I still have a backlog of about half a dozen articles to write. As for those, I ended up procrastinating writing them, partly because the writing is fairly time-consuming and I was busy with running my other sites and working on client projects.

All that said, I definitely could have worked harder on my aviation blog without negatively affecting any other parts of my business.

Reading Books Regularly, Every Day

In the past, I used to read books whenever I felt like it. While that meant that sometimes I would read three or four in a month, it also meant that there would be months where I would not pick up a book. In early-2020, I started reading for 30 minutes every morning before I turned on my laptop to start working.

Unfortunately, I stopped sticking to that routine toward the end of the year as I got busier with other projects.

As such, even though I managed to read over a dozen books including The Snowball (an 800-page book about Warren Buffet that sat untouched on my bookshelf for years), I didn’t read anywhere near as much as I planned to.

Publishing More on This Blog and Sending Its Newsletter Regularly

Finally, while I didn’t set any specific goals for 2020, I went into the year thinking I would regularly publish content on this blog. In the middle of the year, I also decided to start a newsletter. While I planned to send an email talking about the projects I’m working on, books I’m reading, and my favorite online content each month, I only did so two or three times in the end.

As for articles on this blog, I only published seven even though I was looking to publish at least once a month. My three favorite of those are:

What About 2021?

While the things that I focus on continue to evolve as the years progresses, below are some of the things that I would like to do this year. I split them into four sections.

First, there are three one-off projects that I’d like to get done.

Second, there are a few things that I would like to start and continue doing on a regular basis, and stop doing altogether. Initially, I didn’t think about my goals for 2021 in this way, but I found the framework in Nat Eliason’s annual review a few days ago and thought it made a lot of sense.

One-Off Projects

Implement Profit First: At the end of last year, I read Profit First, a book which explains an accounting system in which you take… Well, the profit first, and then use the leftover for expenses. Having been someone that was aiming to maximize reinvestment (expenses) to minimize taxes and maximize growth potential, the book flipped my view on the topic completely. As such, in the first quarter of the year, I aim to implement the system and start taking a certain percentage out of the business.

Outsource all editing: With no longer writing the content for my websites, the two things that take most of my time are content planning and editing. While I have no plans to outsource the former in the near future (I think proper keyword research is one of the most difficult things to develop guidelines around and outsource), I hope to gradually have the editor that I work with a bit take over all of the article editing. Doing so should free up some time that I can spend on planning more content (and potentially starting a new site) or other higher-value things or more enjoyable things.

Create an aviation book: For a couple of years, I have been planning to turn my aviation stories into a book. After going through the articles I published on KN Aviation and in magazines, I found content for at least a couple of them. This year, I will aim to create the first of those, tentatively named Aozora: Skies of Japan (“aozora” means “blue skies” in Japanese), that will focus on my experiences with Japanese domestic flights. I will print a few copies to give to some friends and family. Depending on whether and how much the traffic on my aviation blog rebounds, I might also try selling it there and potentially doing a proper print run.

Fukuoka
One of the many night photos I was able to take during my trip to Fukuoka.

Continue

… working to live, not the other way around: Going to the airport in the middle of the day because a special aircraft I want to see is coming, taking an hour-long walk on a weekday afternoon, flying to Slovakia to spend time with my family, or visiting Disneyland with my girlfriend on a weekday because it’s less crowded – those are some of the things that generally have the highest priority in my schedule. That is not to say I don’t enjoy working, I do. But I generally try to build my work life around my personal life rather than the other way around, and I aim for it to stay that way in 2021 too.

… walking for at least an hour every day: One of the best habits that I developed in 2020 was taking (almost) daily walks. Not only are walks a good way to get the blood flowing, but they’re also a great time to get some thinking done and, perhaps most importantly, spend some time outdoors (in the sun). With that in mind, I plan on continuing this habit in 2021. More precisely, I’ll aim to walk an average of at least 10,000 steps a day.

… growing content business consistently: Not only do I enjoy working building my sites but I also see them as a great way to generate income that allows for a flexible schedule. As such, while I am not going to set any particular number of articles per blog here, I will definitely continue working on growing my websites by regularly publishing articles. I also plan to start regularly updating older content and possibly launch a new site in the second half of the year.

Start

… following a simple morning routine: For a few months in 2020, I had a simple morning routine where I would wake up around 5:50AM, chug a large cup of water, go for an hour-long walk, and read for 30 minutes before doing anything else. Without a doubt, that was the part of the year when I felt the most productive. Unfortunately, I got out of that routine and only stuck with the walks. I will aim to reintroduce the full routine again by the end of January (although I will not necessarily restart waking up that early).

… having thematic days: Another thing that made me more efficient but that I stopped doing at some point during the year was “thematic days.” In other words, I would designate certain weekdays for certain types of work like client projects, content planning, content planning, and editing. I will attempt to reorganize my schedule in a similar fashion again by the end of January and hopefully stick with it for longer.

… posting on KN Aviation regularly again: While KN Aviation is not my highest-earning blog, it is the website I care the most about. As such, I will aim to restart writing for and publishing on the site regularly again. Besides catching up on the travel reviews that I am already behind on, I will also pick some aviation topics that interest me (history of small Japanese airlines like Oriental Air Bridge, for example), and write deep dives about those.

Stop

… checking stats multiple times a day: Probably my worst habit is checking stats related to my websites multiple times a day. Whether it’s the traffic or Amazon revenues, there is no reason to check those numbers more than once a day or perhaps even less. While I still don’t know how exactly, I hope to get rid of this bad habit sometime in 2021. One of the things I am thinking of doing is using a service that monitors whether my websites are live and accessible and sends a notification if any of them crashes. That way, I’ll have the peace of mind that my websites are up and running and, hopefully, check the stats less often.

… following the news closely: Not being aware of what is going on in the world at all is not good. However, following the news too closely is not good either. At the end of the day, very few stories that I read about in the news affect me directly and even fewer stories are about things that are in my control, things that I can do something about. As such, I will try to minimize the number of times I open the Reuters app as well as the number of times I get baited into clicking a news headline on social media.

Summary

That’s it, my first proper annual review. If you made it all the way down here, thank you. If not, no worries, I did this exercise mainly to reflect on the year and to tie it into some of the things that I hope to get done this year – and writing this article accomplished that purpose.

All in all, I was very fortunate to have had a good 2020. The fact that it was an extremely difficult year for many makes me even more grateful for the way that the year turned out for me.

Here’s to a better 2021!

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