2013 Annual Review - doug neill - the graphic recorder - the year of transition - the year of conquering resistance

2013 Annual Review

2013 Annual Review - doug neill - the graphic recorder - the year of transition - the year of conquering resistance

It took me about a month to put this annual review together. I started in late December, hoping that it would be ready by the new year. But I took my time on it and realized that in addition to reflecting back on 2013 and setting goals for 2014, I also wanted to have a jump start on the new year before making this annual review public. I wanted a few weeks to test out my goals and make sure they weren’t the pie-in-the-sky resolutions that are too easy to make at the beginning of a new year.

This is the longest post I’ve written, so first I’ll give you the abbreviated version:

2013: The Year of Transition (abbreviated)

Highlights: made the complete transition from a teaching career to a career making art, and got to do a bit of traveling to boot.

Struggles: learning how to succeed as an entrepreneur, figuring it out by trial and error (with lots of errors).

2014: The Year of Conquering Resistance (abbreviated)

Goal: To conquer Resistance (with a capital R – see below for details), every damn day.

Jumpstart: new routine, new personal homepage, new writing website.

And now the long version:

2013 Highlights

I am declaring 2013 The Year of Transition. It was in this past year that I decided to pursue a full-time career as a sketchnoter and illustrator. I spent the first half of 2013 substitute teaching. The second half I spent trying to give legs to this new career. I have much work yet to do to, but the highlights from 2013 give me hope that I can make it work:

Professional Highlights

I set up an Etsy shop and sold my first art print! My illustration skills aren’t yet as fine-tuned as my sketchnoting skills, but it was nice to get the ball rolling and start putting up my own art for sale.

I contributed sketchnotes to a number of On Being shows. I discovered that fantastic program via an interview with Seth Godin, which I sketchnoted for fun. My sketch got enough of a response from listeners that they hired me to sketch a number of the episodes that followed. That was a great experience in meeting deadlines and dealing with the pressure of charging money for my creative work – both of which turned out to be harder than I expected!

I completed four successful graphic recording gigs. Prior to this year I had never done any live graphic recording. I have finally lived up to my domain name.

I got involved with the TED community via the Portland-based TEDxConcordiaUPortland event. What started as a small contribution to the 2013 event has led to ongoing involvement – I’m on the planning team for the 2014 event and loving it! It’s fun to see an event like that come together from scratch, and it’s exciting to be one of the volunteers putting it on.

I redesigned my website after learning how to use the Headway WordPress theme (special thanks to Emilie Wapnick for recommending that theme – her Renaissance Business guide helped me do some important long-term planning last year). I created my own sketches for the header and navigation items, and in general attempted to design the site in a way that gels with the work that I am sharing here. I’ve still got some tweaking left to do but I think the new design is a big improvement from the previous one.

I launched a new project – Revolutionary Learning. That project combines two interests of mine: education and entrepreneurship. It is within that space that I will be able to keep a hand in the career that I abandoned (full-time high school teaching) while simultaneously putting my own spin on that field, informed by my experiences learning a new skill (sketchnoting) and documenting my learning process online. After a few months of consistent writing on that site I decided to temporarily step away from it because I was feeling stretched a bit too thin. But it’s gonna make a comeback in 2014 – in podcast form.

I learned how to vectorize my sketches (thank you Sean McCabe!) which has opened up many new opportunities to do things with my art that previously I would not have been able to do.

I learned how to make my own time-lapse illustration videos, and gathered all of the equipment needed to set up my own in-house studio.

Personal Highlights

I spent the month of May in Spain walking The Camino de Santiago. What a spectacular experience that was. Just a few weeks ago I wrote an illustrated essay about it. It was that trip that prompted me to make the leap into full-time sketchnoting and illustration work.

I took a trip up to Canada in June to attend the small but spectacular Campbell Bay Music Festival. It was the only musical festival that I made it to this past summer (I hope to attend more next year), but it was a great one, held on a small but beautiful island on the property of a very generous and musically-talented family. Great down-to-earth people and music, and I got to watch some friends of mine perform there! That trip inspired me to pick up the guitar again and start playing more regularly.

WDS! One year ago I had never heard of The World Domination Summit. Today I can say that the event has changed my life. In early July I not only attended the weekend festival/conference/gathering of awesome people, but I also got to see it from the perspective of a volunteer (a.k.a. Ambassador). Throughout the weekend I was inspired by the other volunteers, by the many attendees I had the pleasure of meeting, and of course, by the wonderful speakers. WDS came a month after I made the decision to jump full time into independent creative work, and the event provided a much-needed boost to my spirits.

In mid-July I went on a family trip to Berkeley, California. Every summer my parents, two brothers, and I go on vacation together. This year we drove down to the Bay Area and spent a week exploring Berkeley and San Francisco. In addition to that valuable family time, I had the chance to explore those two cities by foot. I also got to see what working from the road felt like.

I continued that style of work and travel with a month-long solo road trip in September. From Portland, Oregon I took a northern route all the way to Boulder, Colorado, then a southern route back west to L.A. and then up the coast, landing in Yachats, Oregon just in time to celebrate my grandma’s 99th birthday!

In November I made a temporary move down to Eugene, but I’m planning on moving back up to Portland within the first half of 2014. I’m hooked on that city, for now at least.

2013 Struggles

The struggles that I faced in 2013 seemed equal in weight to the highlights. Trying to figure out what you want to do with your life and then starting to make it happen takes an emotional toll. Most of my struggles were centered around the transition that I made this year from substitute teaching to full-time independent work:

Leaving the structure of a school day was liberating, but also a source of stress. I had the freedom to structure my days however I wanted, and I experimented with a number of different routines, but never found one that stuck. I would come up with a plan that I was excited about, follow it for a week, and then get bored with it or saw a need for a change, so I’d switch it up and try again. That experimentation was valuable, but I spent so much time varying the structure of my days that my creative work suffered because of it.

My motivation was all over the place. Some days I would be really excited about what I was working on, and I would get lots of work done. Other days I wouldn’t be excited at all and it was a struggle to get anything productive done. By the end of the year I realized that I was relying too much on inspiration as a fuel for my work (an issue which I am addressing in 2014, which you’ll be able to read about in my goals below).

I feel so lucky to have earned some income through the graphic recording and sketchnoting work that I have done over the past year, but I am far from having a steady flow of work (and therefore income) to help me pay the bills. There were times when thoughts about the student loan and credit card debt that I still owe overwhelmed me. Worrying about money is no fun. Sometimes that makes me think I should have kept subbing a while longer, but mostly I’m using that debt as a kick in the butt to find ways to start paying it off with work that I’m passionate about.

I started lots of projects, but finished few. I like to have a balance of creative output: some small things that I produce regularly (like sketchnotes, illustrations, etc.) and some bigger, more involved projects that take longer to develop. I have many such longer-term projects in mind, and some of them I started, but I had trouble working on them consistently. The Sketchnote Skill Builder is one example: a fun project that blends my background in teaching and sketchnoting perfectly, but one that I worked on inconsistently. There is no good reason that I didn’t get that done in 2013. But I’m excited to still be working on it, and it’s a project that I am now putting consistent effort into.

Other projects that I started thinking about and working on in 2013: An Educator’s Guide to Sketchnoting, a book documenting my process of transition from teaching to entrepreneurial work, an in-depth course introducing people to sketchnoting, and a manifesto related to the ideas I’ve been sharing at Revolutionary Learning.

Those are all projects that I am both personally excited about and that I think could benefit others. I wasn’t able to follow through with any of them in 2013, but I’ve got the feeling they will all be making a strong comeback in 2014.

Learning how to succeed as an entrepreneur is not easy. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, which is scary but also exciting. I did a lot of floundering in 2013, but the many things that I learned while floundering will help me in 2014.

2014: The Year of Conquering Resistance


When it comes to specific goals for 2014, I have just one: to conquer resistance, every day. I’m speaking of resistance in the way that Steven Pressfield describes it in his book The War of Art – Resistance with a capital R, that internal force that manifests itself in many forms but always has the same intent: to keep you from doing your work. I started reading Pressfield’s book in early December, and it prompted a significant shift in the way I do my work.

As I mentioned in my struggles of 2013, I used to rely too heavily on inspiration in order to show up and get my work done. Now I simply show up at the same time every day and get to work, whether I feel inspired or not. On most days the inspiration is there, but on the days that it’s not I need structure and a solid routine to hold me accountable.

The Plan of Attack

I know that Resistance is a beast that never dies. But it is also a beast that you can conquer each day. And over time you can get better at conquering it. My goal this year is to get better at battling that opponent by focusing on one day at a time. Informed by my many experiments with daily routines in 2013, I have chosen to apply a strict structure to my mornings with a bit more freedom in the afternoons. Here is what my new morning routine looks like:

5:45 Wake up
5:45-6:45 Shower, eat breakfast and drink coffee while I read the paper
6:45-7:15 Morning Pages (stream of consciousness writing as described in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way)
7:15-12:15 Work in 1-hour chunks
12:15-12:45 Email

Let’s talk about how this routine helps me conquer resistance. The shower wakes me up and makes me feel more like a professional – a small boost in confidence and an quick edge over resistance. The breakfast, coffee, and paper are a must – I’ve never been able to skip breakfast, the coffee gets me going, and it’s nice to do a bit of news reading before starting my work day. My morning pages warm me up, preparing me for my upcoming battle again resistance (the war analogy is more helpful than I imagined it would be – resistance is a worthy opponent that needs to be taken seriously). Those morning pages are a space for me to reflect a bit on the previous day, to drain my brain of any concerns or anxieties (which tend to enter my mind the moment I wake up), and to look forward toward the day in from of me.

During the hours from 7:15-12:15 my one concern is kicking resistance’s ass. I work quickly but not rushed, the goal being to outrun my internal critic but not to the point that it results in shoddy work. I break that time into hour-long chunks because I have many different projects running simultaneously, and it feels great to be able to assign a project or a specific task to each hour and know that progress will be made each day. An hour is a short enough period of time that I usually don’t have trouble staying focused, and the task switching at the end of each hour feels good for my brain and body.

Here’s a really important aspect of those hour-long chunks of work time: I plan them out the night before. At the end of each day I sit down and consider what the most pressing next steps in my projects are, and then I write in my planner the task or project that I choose to assign to each hour. That means I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do with my time the next morning. My mind isn’t distracted while I shower, eat breakfast and read the paper, and do some reflecting in my morning pages.  When 7:15 rolls around I don’t have to spend any time or energy figuring out what I’m going to do. I simply look at my planner and get to work.

Note that I also don’t check my email until after that 5-hour work session (sometimes I break that rule if one of the projects I assign myself requires looking back at an email someone sent me). I don’t want resistance to break through in the form of an email that I feel the need to respond to, so I wait until my core work is done, and only then check my email, respond to the ones that will only take a few minutes, and make a note of longer tasks that I can assign to the following morning.

After those five hours of work and a bit of emailing I am more than ready for a break, so that’s a great time to eat lunch as I think about what I want to do for the rest of my day. Typically my afternoons involve a run or a long walk and a visit to a coffee shop. The walks in particular are great opportunities both for a bit of exercise and for new ideas to crop up. In my morning work hours I don’t do a whole lot of idea generation, but rather idea execution – I carry out ideas and put in the work to make them real. The afternoons and evenings (when I am doing more active, social, and non-work related things) are when many ideas crop up without me asking for them. So I make sure to jot them down, and lots of them get executed the very next morning.

My mornings are about showing up to the same place at the same time to do my work; my afternoons are about paying attention to what my body and mind need in order to replenish the energy I spent earlier that day; my evenings are about being social. I like having that flow to each day.

To keep track of how well I am conquering resistance throughout 2014, I am using the condensed calendar in the front of my yearly planner (the same planner in which I write my hour-long work tasks). If I conquer resistance in the morning and successfully complete my 5-hour work session, I put an ‘X’ through that day. If I’m also able to conquer resistance again in the afternoon with some solid work at a coffee shop or significant steps once I’m back at my home office, then I black out that date entirely.

But I’m not as naive as I used to be. This is the time when it’s easy to follow new plans. Hard times will hit, and I’m just hoping that I’ve set up enough structure and accountability to be ready when it does.

Projects for 2014

You now have a pretty good idea of the process by which I plan on conquering resistance. Here are the reasons that I have the desire conquer resistance in the first place:

Sketchnoting and Illustrating

In addition to the regular publishing of new sketchnotes and illustrations, I’m excited to bust out some bigger projects that have been on my mind for a while. The Sketchnote Skill Builder will be the first of those, but I also want to put together a more in-depth intro to sketchnoting course (I’m not sure what form that will take – I’m currently exploring my options). I’m also excited to dig back into some education theory and work on The Educator’s Guide to Sketchnoting.


I’ve finally recognized that writing is something I want to do every day. Here’s where I’ll be sharing my development.

Revolutionary Learning

I started Revolutionary Learning in 2013, but temporarily stepped away from it to get some perspective on what direction I wanted to take it. I’ve decided to continue building from the start of 2014 because it fits so well with everything else that I’m doing online, and it ties in with a previous career (high school teaching) that I’m not willing to abandon in full. The main goal of that project is to encourage people to document their learning online and share their progress with others. I plan to return to that project with a regular podcast and then see where it goes.

You can get to all of my projects from a newly-designed personal home page. The good thing about having all of these projects going on at the same time is that I have so many different ways of conquering resistance. I just pick a project and work on it for a bit, then move to the next. It’s that simple, right? I’ll let you know in a year.


To get new sketchnotes and other visual goodness delivered right to your inbox,

sign up for The Verbal To Visual Newsletter.