2014 Behind-The-Curtain Review: Data, Results, and Lessons From My Best Year

Let’s get right to it.

2014 was, unequivocally, the best year I’ve ever had building College Info Geek.

The site grew massively (most growth goals were shattered), I brought on two amazing team members, and many goals were crossed off of my Impossible List.

In this post, I’m going to dig into the goals I set for myself in 2014, how I started building strong habits to achieve them, and actually show you the results of those efforts.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the machinery behind College Info Geek, which includes several things that readers specifically asked for.

You’ll also find some details on what I learned this year and who inspired me. Enjoy!

Becoming a Professional

If you take a look at the Archives, you’ll noticed something: From January until July of this year (and even further back), I never published more than 5 posts in any given month.

Now look at the last few months; starting in August, I steadily increased my output each month. This month, I finished the year strong by publishing 13 pieces of content.

These weren’t just blog posts, either; a podcast episode was published consistently each Monday, and 3 of the month’s posts were videos – each of which takes me at least 7-8 hours to produce.

How did I increase my output so much in the latter half of 2014? Three ways, mainly:

  1. I put myself on a publishing schedule with strict deadlines
  2. I started planning content ahead of time instead of writing whatever came to mind
  3. I purposefully build success spirals to gradually increase my ability to get things done

At some point during the year, I started listening to the seanwes podcast, which is hosted by Sean McCabe, an awesomely prolific hand lettering artist/online business expert. During one of his episodes, he said something to the effect of:

“My readers expect new content at specific times each week, so I make sure it gets published at those times. No matter what goes on in my life, I stick to a schedule and deliver it.”

Until I listened to that episode, I never had a specific publishing schedule. Sure, I had vague ideas about wanting to “publish at least 2 things per week,” but I never defined when I’d publish those things or held myself to that number.

As a result, I’d just wait around until I was inspired to write something. For podcasts, I wouldn’t record until a certain guest caught my eye. Episodes were sporadic.

I might have appeared to be a professional blogger/podcaster on the outside, but in terms of honing my craft, I was an amateur. Here’s something the writer James Clear said that really struck me this year:

“Amateurs wait until they’re inspired to create. Professionals do it on a strict schedule.

After listening to that episode of Sean’s podcast, I decided to become a professional. As I said earlier, I started planning content ahead of time – I looked at my post ideas in Evernote, picked the ones I wanted to write next, and scheduled them out on Google Calendar.

I also defined a publishing schedule that I wanted to stick to each week:

  • Mondays: Podcast episodes
  • Tuesdays: Blog posts
  • Thursdays: Videos and the email newsletter

Now, I didn’t adopt this exact schedule right away, and I haven’t been 100% perfect about it even in this month. However, what I did do was build success spirals – successes that build strong habits and inspire me to do more the next time around.

The archives show the pattern of those spirals: I published 6 pieces of content in August and kept moving closer to my target schedule. This month, I was just one post shy of publishing on every scheduled day – and that was due to Christmas (spending time with family is a good thing).

One other thing that helped me to get on this regular schedule was Beeminder. I’ve talked about it before, but essentially Beeminder is a goal-tracking tool that will charge you money if you slack off. I’ve been tracking my publishing efforts since July, and you can now see how effective it’s been:

Beeminder

Goal-Setting and Growth

Besides my desire to get onto a strict schedule of creating new things in 2014, I also set a lot of other goals. With respect to CIG, the biggest goal I focused on was growth.

During 2013 and the first half of 2014, the site’s readership didn’t grow much. It stayed pretty constant, which was enough to support me – but that’s no way to do things, is it?

In September, I decided to sit down and get serious about expanding CIG’s readership. I did something I’ve never done before; I wrote down several key metrics and noted:

  • Where the site currently was
  • Where I wanted to be by years’ end

Here are the results of that deliberate goal-setting:

My growth goals and results

Out of the 7 metrics I wrote down goals for, I met those goals for 5 of them. Not only were those 5 goals met, but most of them were smashed.

Before this year, I was always too afraid to set specific goals for growth that included deadlines. I held the same beliefs many other content creators have – you can’t predict which posts will go viral, growth is slow, blah blah blah…

Now, however, I understand the truth behind the Equal Odds Rule (which I’ve made a video on; I’ll link to it here when it goes live on Thursday):

“Those who create things that have the most impact are also the ones who create things that have the least impact, because success is largely a result of trying enough times.

While it’s true that you often can’t predict the specific things you create that’ll be successful, the mere fact of publishing more consistently increases the chances that a few of them them will be.

That’s what happened for me. While not everything I created this year did amazingly well, a few things did. And they drove massive growth – but I realize that I probably wouldn’t have made those successful things if I hadn’t been on a schedule.

What other goals did I achieve in 2014? Here’s a sampling of the things I crossed off my Impossible List:

  • Did 15 pull-ups in a single set – same with chin-ups
  • Designed a WordPress theme from scratch
  • Helped break a world record
  • Attended several huge events
  • Launched a regular YouTube show and published 10 videos (I finished 2014 with 13, actually)

In addition, I made tons of progress on several other goals. I’m well on my way to achieving my goal of beating every 9/10-level song in DDR Extreme on Doubles mode (here’s an old video of one song, though I’ve come a long, long way since those bar-holding days).

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades - Thomas FrankAlso, as of today, I’m about 95% done with my first book! My draft contains just of 18,000 words, and I’ll be finishing up the final chapters tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve had a goal of writing a book for a long while now, so it’s awesome to be so close to the finish line.

By the way, that book is called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less), and I’m releasing it for free next week. Want a copy for yourself? You can sign up to get one right here.

The Year of the Habit

This year, I got deadly serious about forming habits. I kicked off January with an article on using if-then logic to build habits, but once the end of the summer rolled around, I made a huge effort to actually build all the habits I’d only wished I’d had before.

I learned a lot about habits this year, mainly from reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a fantastic book and will easily earn a spot on my essential reads page when I get time to update it, but one concept from the book I want to highlight here is the idea of keystone habits.

From my detailed notes on the book (one of the habits I created in 2014 was to read actively and take notes on the books I go through):

“Keystone habits create ‘small wins’ which help other habits flourish by creating new structures.”

My keystone habit was waking up early every morning.

As you may have seen, I developed a foolproof hack that forces me to get up at the time I specify – due to that, I’ve been able to drag myself out of bed at 5:50 a.m. every single weekday since July.

At this point, though, I’m not really dragging myself out of bed – that habit now causes me to spring out of bed and jump right into an efficient morning routine. Each morning, I now perform a routine of 12 different habits including:

  • Reading for 15 minutes and taking notes
  • Going for a 1-mile walk while listening to a podcast
  • Making a healthy breakfast
  • Doing the 7-Minute Workout
  • Meditating for 3 minutes
  • Planning my day in detail

These habits, in turn, builds my success spirals even further and propel me into the day’s work with vigor.

Before I adopted this routine, I’d often wake up and browse Reddit before trying to force myself to work. Now, I finish my reading right around 8 a.m. and immediately start my day’s planned work.

There’s a tool that’s helped me to build these strong habits and stick with them, and that tool is HabitRPG. Seriously, I can’t thank the hardworking devs behind this site enough for what they’ve helped me do with my habits.

HabitRPG

HabitRPG’s smart mix of streaks, RPG elements, and the party system have all helped to keep me very accountable. Without it, I certainly wouldn’t have:

  • Written 500 words a day
  • Done 40 pull-ups a day
  • Taken cold showers every day
  • Drank 44 oz. of water every day (I like my coffee)

It’s also helped bring many College Info Geek readers together, which is awesome. I created a CIG guild in HabitRPG a while back, and as of today we’re up to 73 members! If you’re interested in trying it out, we’d love to have you join as well.

Diving Into Video

full-setup

One of the biggest things that happened this year was the addition of the YouTube channel to CIG.

I’d wanted to do regular videos for a while, but I was always paralyzed by a lack of video production knowledge, a bit of shyness, and my awful perfectionism. While I’d made plenty of videos before (my brother and I started a YouTube channel back in 2006 and made a lot of stupid stuff), I’d never done structured videos that covered the same kind of topics I was blogging about.

Back in September, I threw that perfectionism to the wind. I set up my camera and tripod, lit myself with nothing but a reading lamp, and talked to the lens for about 8 minutes.

Then, I tried my hand at using Premiere Pro. I threw in a few graphics, created a simple end card after studying the ones used by some of my favorite YouTubers like JonTron, and finally published my first regular video.

It did ok. I realized I messed up the sound, and since I didn’t make any cuts, it was overly lengthy. Still, I made it and put it up for the world to see.

After that, I committed to doing more. I did butt-loads of research and watched every video in the Wistia Library. I build my own budget lighting kit out of stuff from Lowe’s, started teaching myself new editing techniques in Premiere, and rounded out 2014 with 13 videos on my channel (plus one thank-you video that I don’t really count).

Here’s what happened: I got way better at video. Also, it turned out to be a huge boost to what I was already doing on College Info Geek. As you saw from the stats above, CIG videos are currently getting viewed almost 25,000 times a month, and we’re nearing 3,000 subscribers.

Much of that growth is due to this particular video on defeating the, “I don’t feel like it,” mindset:

…and making this video has actually kept me consistently motivated to get over my own lack of motivation since I made it.

Creating these videos has been a ton of fun, and I’ll be continuing to make one every week in 2015!

I also had the opportunity to write about all the video techniques I’d learned over on the Fizzle blog in a post called How to Produce Great Videos for Under $1,000. If you’re curious about my process or the gear I use, check it out.

Redesigning College Info Geek

In addition to building the YouTube channel and writing my book, the other huge project I took on in 2014 was finally redesigning College Info Geek – and making it completely responsive and mobile-friendly.

If you haven’t been reading for long, here’s what CIG looked like before March of this year:

Old CIG

While I was proud of that design, it was getting dated and didn’t look good on smartphones at all. Also, the site was growing, and the design didn’t focus on the goals I had for my content.

So, for the first time, I decided to do a redesign completely from scratch. Since starting CIG, all my past redesigns had simply been pre-made themes I’d bought and made lots of tweaks to.

This time, I started out in Photoshop and designed every single element in a several giant mock-ups before even touching code.

After getting my design somewhat nailed down, I did something else I’d never really done before – I let someone else help me build the theme.

I’ve been coding for the web since I was 12, and I even worked for my school’s web development department as a sophomore. Given enough time, I probably could have taught myself how to code responsive CSS and built the theme on my own.

However, I realized that entrepreneurs who want to be successful need to focus. I was already writing posts, creating podcasts, dealing with email and social media, etc – trying to learn a bunch of new coding techniques and building a theme on top of all that wouldn’t have been very efficient.

So I decided to hire my roommate Martin Boehme to do all the coding – and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I essentially paid Martin to leave his campus I.T. job that he wasn’t enjoying, and in return he did a stellar job coding the theme that now runs College Info Geek.

We put a ton of work into the theme, as evidenced by our Trello board for the project (the “Done” list has well over 100 cards in it):

Trello

All that work paid off, though; we ended up with an incredibly well-designed site. Most websites that get responsive redesigns end up with lots of little details that get overlooked – pop-up boxes that aren’t responsive and break the design, bad menu designs that don’t scale down well, etc.

We took all of that into account, and you won’t find many broken things on CIG apart from a few specialized posts that haven’t been updated. Test it if you like – there’s even smart coding that hides the last element in the floating sidebar if your browser window isn’t tall enough to show it.

Out of any singular project I’ve ever worked on, it’s easily the largest and probably the one I’m most proud of.

Much of that success is due to Martin’s amazing coding skills and ability to work around my perfectionist brain, so I’ve got to give him a major shout-out! You should check out his blog Powlyglot if you’ve got some time and like learning languages.

Building a Team!

I’ve always been a very do-it-yourself kind of person. If I want something done and I don’t know how to do it, I go out and teach myself. Due to that trait, I’ve learned how to do a lot of things that have helped to make this site successful.

One of my weaknesses, however, has always been my inability to delegate some of those things in order to really focus on only a few.

Hiring Martin was the first step in the right direction, but he was working on a one-off project that I wasn’t obligated to release before any particular deadline. I was able to nitpick at my heart’s content before we launched.

When I traveled down to Dallas this year for the Podcast Movement conference, however, I was repeatedly told that I needed to consider hiring people to take care of certain things.

Doing so was hard, but I’m happy to say that I overcame my perfectionism this year and brought on two awesome team members! And now I’ll officially introduce them:

lauraLaura Fiebert

Laura is my podcast guest-booker extraordinaire. She helps me find guests for the CIG Podcast and develop new show ideas, contacts those guests, and gets them prepped for interviews.

Going into 2015, she’ll also be helping me get booked to speak at universities all around the U.S.

Laura also runs her own podcast called The Jug Hug Show (girl talk) and helps with guest booking at Listen, Money Matters, which was founded by her husband Andrew (which is how I met her).

megMeg Soro

Meg does everything else related to podcasts that doesn’t involve actually talking. After I interview guests and record my intros, Meg edits the audio files, uploads them to our server, and writes the show notes for each episode.

As a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, Meg has experience in pretty much every Adobe product I could ever need her to mess around with. She also runs her own design blog called Design Vocation.

As CIG continues to grow, I may have even more opportunities for ambitious students and budding entrepreneurs to get involved in 2015, so keep your eyes on the newsletter for more details 😉

Learning in 2014

2014 was my first full year out of college. That’s right – no school. Score!

One of my biggest fears as a student, though, was that I’d graduate and “rest on my laurels” – that is, become comfortable and stop learning. I’m happy to say that didn’t happen at all in 2014.

A lot of my learning came through hands-on experiences this year – I learned the ins and outs of Premiere Pro and how to set up video lighting through building my YouTube channel, for example. I also learned a ton about design and UI/UX through working on the CIG redesign and studying tons of other blogs for inspiration.

However, I also learned a lot from books. I finished 20 books in 2014, and I’m currently working my way through four more (I have a bad habit of starting new ones all the time…) Here’s I’ll share the top 5 non-fiction books that I’d recommend you check out as well.

  1. The Power of Habit – an insanely useful look at how most of our behaviors are governed by habits, how you can build new habits, and how you can start to change old ones. Essential reading for everyone.
  2. So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport’s amazing book on why you should focus on building skills and honing your craft rather than worrying about “following your passion.” All students should read this.
  3. The Motivation Hacker – One nerdy dude’s journey to challenge the notion of limited willpower. Through this book, I got introduced to both Beeminder and the concept of success spirals. I loved it, and it’s nice and short.
  4. Fluent in 3 Months – Benny Lewis guides you through the steps you should take in order to learn any language. I love how this book focused first on how to commit to learning and dispelled many of the excuses people commonly use for why they’re “not good at learning languages.”
  5. A History of the World in 6 Glasses – I love “small” histories that tackle individual topics or objects. This book was a really interesting look at the origins of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. If nothing else, it’ll make you a more interesting conversationalist at mealtimes.

Adventures and Travels

In both 2012 and 2013, I crossed the ocean and explored Japan. This year, I didn’t leave the country; however, a lot of travel still happened. In total, I took 11 trips.

Business trips:

  • FU Weekend
  • Camp Nerd Fitness – finally got to meet my friend Steve Kamb in person!
  • Podcast Movement
  • World Domination Summit

Personal/fun trips:

  • Door County, WI for a Renaissance faire
  • New York City
  • Northern Minnesota to hang out on a lake with friends
  • RAGBRAI – rode about 130 miles this year!
  • Anime Iowa
  • Disney Land for Anna’s birthday
  • House on the Rock

Some highlights!

Getting ready to break the yoga chain world record at World Domination Summit in Portland:

worldrecord

Hanging with TR in New York:

tr

Visiting the House on the Rock on a whim after reading American Gods – it was easily the weirdest place I’ve ever been to:

whale

Meeting Alice and the Mad Hatter with Anna:

disney

Exploring the grounds with new friends at Camp Nerd Fitness and trying not to be turned into a zombie:

nerdfitness

My Biggest Influences in 2014

Just as much of the actual content on this site was shaped by Martin and the CIG team in 2014, much of what came out of my own head was shaped by the people I look up to.

Here are some of the people I started following and learning from this year – thanks for all the inspiration, guys!

  • Chase Reeves, co-founder of Fizzle – Chase’s design work on Smart Passive Income and Nerd Fitness was a huge inspiration for the CIG redesign
  • Sean McCabe of seanwes – Sean’s advice to publish on a schedule helped spur the amazing growth we experienced this year. In addition, his launch of seanwes tv helped keep me motivated to make videos regularly.
  • Caddicarus – one of the many YouTube game reviewers I started following this year. Caddy’s videos inspired me to push the envelope with my own video editing, which is why you see lots of graphics and effects in my videos instead of just a talking head.
  • Satchbag – another gaming YouTuber whose amazing editing and design work also inspired my videos.
  • Andrew Fiebert and Matt Giovanisci – I met these two when I started following Listen Money Matters back in May and have become great friends with both of them. Andrew’s inspired me to dig more into the data behind CIG and to automate my finances, and Matt’s inspired me to be even more creative with my work (and he’s taught me a ton about audio and video)

Again, these are just a few of the many people I met and learned from in 2014. There are plenty more I’m indebted to for ideas, inspiration, and actual help – and as always, I encourage you to keep actively meeting new people in your own life!

The Pants-to-No-Pants Ratio

My friend Bobby Adamson is dying to know how much time I spent working without pants this year:

pants

Apologies to your imagination, Bobby. I just like wearing pants.

Onward!

That about does it for this year’s review!

Hopefully you enjoyed seeing all the lessons and data from 2014 – I think the progress I made in habit-building and goal-setting in particular might prove useful to you going forward. I know I’ll be continuing both of these myself!

I’ve got a ton planned for 2015, including (as I mentioned before) potential ways for you to get involved with CIG. Keep your eyes peeled!

Some things you can do for now:

Lastly, I want to give a HUGE GIANT THANK-YOU to you, dear reader – your support and feedback is what keeps me motivated. Thank you as well to anyone and everyone who helped me, worked with me, taught me, and inspired me in 2014!

Image: Camp NF photo by Will Byington

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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2 Comments on "2014 Behind-The-Curtain Review: Data, Results, and Lessons From My Best Year"

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Mark

JonTron is the best!

Love all the detail and helpful advice you give here.

Think I’ll be adding the 7-minute workout to my daily schedule. I’ve been doing 15 minutes of yoga for about 25 days now and I’ve been throwing in a 2-minute jog every time I walk the dog (got injured going too extreme too soon with a weight lifting program, so I’m going to try easing into it this time).

And after hearing you talk about it for the 100th time, I’ve finally signed up for Beeminder.

Here is to an awesome 2015.

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