Personal Year in Review: 2020

Welcome to my first (formal) year review. I’ve been doing this informally for a while, but this year decided to tidy it up and share in public.

I’ll be up-front: This was written primarily as (i) a prompt for self-reflection and (ii) to record my current thinking for future reference. It may not the most engaging post to the average observer (so I’d consider reading about my alternative YouTube algorithm or reasons to do coding projects if you’re looking for some more actionable takeaways).

📋 What makes a good yearly review?

I thought a bit about the ‘optimal’ structure for this yearly review. James Clear uses “What went well? — what didn’t go well? — what am I working towards?”. NessLabs applies similar question across nine different domains of life.

In the end, I used the above as question-prompts, but then just wrote my thoughts in each of my own life domains. Specifically, I reflected on:

  • Learning in public / content creation
  • Being a doctor and a data scientist
  • Finances
  • Learning goals
  • Learning Spanish
  • Knowledge management
  • Friends
  • Fitness

To try and make this more actionable, I then went through at the end and added a summary of plans for 2021 to each section.

📣 Learning in public

This year, I decided to make sharing and learning in public a priority. I’m in a transition period (as a doctor diving into machine learning and data science) and decided to share my thoughts and experiences, plus educational content.

I reflected on mediums through which to do this at the end of last year, and opted to commit to a sharing a blog/email and YouTube video every week. I experimented with different format types, and towards the end of the year started to find my groove. (I also played around with Twitter.)

I saw a slow-and-steady growth rate that gradually increased. For example, my YouTube went from around 0 -> ~600 subscribers in the first 8 months, but from ~600 -> ~2,000 subscribers in the final 4 months. My newsletter subscribers followed a similar pattern. I put this down to consistency, which is the oft echoed advice. A few of my blogs went ‘viral’ which was cool to see.

Much cooler than the numbers, in my opinion, were the side benefits. I met some cool people, got some job opportunities and had interesting conversations. I get regular emails (like the one below) from people who’ve found my content helpful which always adds a spring to my step.

It’s been really cool foraying into this world of ‘content creation’. I’ve had fun, built some new skills and I believe I have pretty good insight now into what it would take to successfully build a large audience.

After some reflection, however, I’ve decided that ultimately this isn’t my top priority. So in 2021, I’m going to take the gas off the pedal: I’m not going to commit to writing any blogs or making any videos. I’ll only do so when I feel a genuine desire or excitement to share something which is both interesting to me and helpful to others.

Sometimes less is more, and I’m planning to free up some mental space to dive deeper into certain areas.

In 2021: I will commit to not committing to sharing any content… 🙃 and also focus down my consumption to a few narrow domains.

👨‍⚕️ Professional: from doctor to data scientist

This was a great year for me professionally. I was able to secure my first full-time data science role in a tough job market (mid-way through a global pandemic) and threw myself head-first into the roll.

The most exciting part for me has been expanding my technical capabilities with far less effort than was required before. Before the job, I had to devise my own projects and actively seek feedback. This was fun, but always required a level of intrinsic motivation. Now, I’m in an environment where I have (i) real-world projects, (ii) accountability to deliver work and (iii) a network of people to give technical support. The quality of the code I write now is way above what it was six months ago.

The biggest challenge I expect to face in 2021 is trying to resolve my dual identity as both a data scientist and doctor. I’m deeply interested in both, and there’s not a clear path for me to combine them. I feel that if I move away from data science, it will be hard to go back as I won’t be seen as a ‘serious’ data scientist. Likewise, I feel if I spend too much time out of clinical training, that I won’t be seen as a ‘proper’ doctor. 2021 feels like a crunch-time for me to decide what path I’ll take forward.

In 2021: I will formally define the niche I want to occupy, and the route I’ll take to get there.

🔬 Making medical research accessible

It’s been really fun to see ExplainThisPaper develop and grow organically. What started out as a tweet brought myself, Stu and Mustafa together to work on making medical research papers accessible.

I’m really happy with how things are going; with the appearance of the site, with the people we’ve brought on board to contribute and the future vision for the project.

I can’t share too much more here — partly because we’re still figuring it out, and partly because it’s proprietary ;)

In 2021: We’ll build the site to 50 summaries by June, continue building the site aesthetics and functionality, and iteratively update our plan as the year unfolds.

💵 Financial

My financial security has grown a reasonable amount this year which, in the global context, I’m very grateful for. The hard work of re-training in data science has paid off as I now have different options for income. At present, I’m focussed on my full-time job, but I have regular opportunities to freelance in both data science and as a doctor. Dual-training as I have done seems like a fairly extreme approach to ‘hedging your bets’ career-wise 😋, but has its advantages if you’re willing to go that length.

This year I bought my first house, in London. The extra 2 rooms and garden, compared to where I was previously living, definitely feels like a worthwhile investment for the on-going restrictions. It’s a bit further out of London, but I can’t see this being a major issue in the near-future.

I made a moderate amount of ‘side-income’ from the internet this year. I’d estimate somewhere between £2,000 and £3,000. This is a relatively insignificant amount when compared to yearly earnings in a full-time job, but I think more significant is shift from “someone who’s never made money on the internet” to “someone who’s made money on the internet”.

I’m still a long way off where I want to be financially, however, so increasing earning ability and smart saving will be in focus for 2021.

In 2021: I’ll continue to allocate my savings intelligently, and look to further diversify sources of income, with a focus on adding value to others.

🤓 Learning goals

I set myself some fairly ambitious learning goals for each month this year. This included deep dives into technical topics like reinforcement learning, natural language processing and bioinformatics, as well as technical abilities like distributed computing, data visualisation and front-end development.

Looking back, I tried to cover too many different areas and was always going to struggle to go into sufficient depth. I adapted and prioritised as the year went on, and ended up focussing a lot on skills that are directly relevant to my current job (such as distributed computing and data visualisation).

Because I love to learn (#LifeLongLearning), I often get excited and decide I want to learn everything. Also, there are many areas of medicine where I can see machine learning having a big impact. I feel I’m at a slightly awkward point where I have enough knowledge to see how machine learning can be applied but not yet enough to clearly prioritise which areas are best for the future and for me to work in.

A priority in 2021 will be to find my area of deep focus, where I can strive to have my impact. This is one driving factor behind me saying no to a lot of things (like content creation). This year will be an important one for deciding future directions.

In 2021: I will define a new set of learning goals, with associated priorities, with a particular focus on things with potential real-world practical application.

🇪🇸 Learning Spanish

Another big learning goal for me this year was to get to B1-level (ie. intermediate) Spanish. I had done no previous Spanish study, although my wife is Venezuelan, so I’d picked up occasional words.

I’m really happy with the progress I made on this. I started in May with the fantastic free Language Transfer course and then took a formal course between October and December. I’m confident that I’m now at an intermediate/upper B1 level, although due to COVID the December exam I’d planned (to formally assess this) was cancelled.

As well as Language Transfer, I found Nathaniel Drew’s approach helpful: of creating a central document with (i) common words and (ii) verb conjugations. Alongside that, I’ve been watching a lot of Spanish shows and reading Spanish books. I read the book Ultralearning around June which also inspired much of my approach.

In 2021: I won’t take any more classes until at least June 2021, but will keep consuming TV, news and books in Spanish.

🧠 Knowledge management

I experimented with various different systems for managing my learning this year. After consuming Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain content, I set up a system in Evernote which I’ve enjoyed. I also played around with Notion and Roam. But by-and-far the software that has me most excited is Obsidian. I love the fact that it’s built on locally-stored files, and the networked-thinking visualisation is beautiful.

Right now, I’m planning to make a full switch to Obsidian over the course of 2021, and build out a second brain of networked thought. Perhaps by the end of the year, my knowledge graph will reach the level of this guy:

In 2021: I will gradually shift my existing notes over into Obsidian, build up a network of linked notes and thoughts, and continually improve how I interact with my digital knowledge


On the whole, this has been a really sad year. If I try and recall fond memories with friends from the year, it feels like there are relatively few. It’s been a big reminder for me to make the most of time with friends.

I’m often pretty bad at making time to share with friends. My default is to organise my work, and let social stuff happen through chance encounters or scheduled events. However, this doesn’t work when there are no chance encounters or scheduled events. So there have been too many occasions this year where weeks have flown by before I realise I haven’t spoken with a close friend.

In this coming year, I’m going to be more intentional with maintaining friendships. As somebody who’s mind works best with systems, I’m planning the an approach along the lines of: defining who I want to keep in touch with and with what frequency, then setting up digitised reminders to do so. This might seem like an unromantic approach to a traditionally spontaneous domain, but I feel this is what the current situation calls for (and may serve me better in the long-run).

In 2021: I will clearly define who my close friends are and make a commitment to proactively keep up with them.

👟 Fitness

I ended 2019 on a good run of consistency, which culminated with several personal-best lifts with the UCL Powerlifting Club. Annoyingly, I can’t find my record of the exact numbers. I remember hitting 5 x 105kg on the bench press, but not too sure on squat and deadlift. (Tracking these in a more structured way would be helpful in future.)

Unsurprisingly, COVID impacted this run of consistency. I took it as a signal to switch to another type of workout, and switched my focus to body weight and metabolic work. I bought some kettlebells and had a good workout routine for a few months.

But after accidentally cutting my right hand and getting an infection, I had to break from workouts long enough to lose the habit. I’ve been looking into building a gym in the back garden, but this would take at least a month and I don’t want to keep putting things off.

This is the longest I’ve been without consistent exercise in many years, and I’m starting to feel the impact on general wellbeing. I feel notably more prone to lethargy, feel generally more stressed and am getting more aches and pains in my joints.

So my current plan is to sign up for gym membership, and gradually build up the habit: 1x/week for Jan, 2x/week for Feb and 3x/week for March. Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll set up a home alternative. [post-edit: we’ve just gone back into lockdown in London, due to a new coronavirus variant, so this may be easier said than done].

In 2021: I will re-build my consistency (as detailed above), and end the year with a fully-functioning gym independent of outside conditions (ie. some sort of home gym set-up).

🤔 Final thoughts

2020’s been an atypical year for everyone. I’ve found it tough, but am also counting my blessings as I know many others will be having an even tougher time. In times of struggle, there is opportunity and I’ve been looking for that this year.

My main highlights were getting my data science job, sharing with my family and getting messages from people who’ve found my content helpful.

The top negatives have been less time with friends, less exercise and spending too much time on social media.

I have some goals for 2021, but I’ll keep them to myself for the time-being. Hopefully I can tell you all about them in my 2021 annual review…