Milestones like the new year, birthdays and season changes serve as natural reminders to pause, consider our trajectory, and realign with our intentions. This is a living framework of my own annual sankalpa discovery process.
My favorite holiday is New Year’s. For six years running, this is when I pack up multiple years of journals and a variety of highlighters and head out on an international field trip to reconnect with my internal compass.
For 2021, I headed to Nicaragua. Prior to that I took stock of the year behind me in Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, Bali, Thailand, and Puerto Rico.
My annual solo retreats are non-negotiable.
Of course, we all notice mistakes, signs and opportunities unfolding throughout the year, but it’s difficult to turn those moments of awareness into real change, or to even know what’s shifting on a larger scale in the midst of it all.
Time and space away, in nature, is critical for me to uncover clarity, spot patterns, and sort out fear from intuition.
I found my way into the helping profession because I really believe in our ability to evolve beyond our attachment injuries, trauma, and self-limiting beliefs. All those fancy terms that basically add up to: the past.
This work is worthy of whatever you can invest in it, but it’s far more impactful to give yourself actual distance from your life, to create space for the insight beyond your emotional defenses, to have conversations with yourself while devouring a trail, to meditate in total safety from your to do list, and to “work the problem” (as we say in climbing).
These pieces come together to allow the walls to fall, one by one, until you’re finally left with fearless vulnerability.
Just you meeting up with you. No lies, justifications, cover-up or filters.
This is a time to face the hard and beautiful truths of you inside your life, and what you you wish to call forward to align your way of being just a bit more with your values.
To plant seeds.
I’ve learned from so many others in piecing together my own process, and I share it below for you to steal, change and adapt any aspect to your own unique, evolving realignment.
A tip: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these reviews, it’s to plan for the unexpected and stay open to serendipitous curveballs that take you in an entirely different direction.
My Nerdy Annual Review Process
Step 1. Peaks & Valleys
First, I begin with the Constellation Meditation: with a blank piece of paper in front of me, I ask my memory: What happened that left an impact?
As the memories surface, I jot down a symbol, date or word on the blank paper and continue onward, for at least 10 minutes.
Then, I go back through my calendar week-by-week to pull out the events I forgot, and create a list of these peaks and valleys, in chronological order.
Examples could be a memorable trip with my kids, trying something for the first time, a change in jobs, a car accident or major illness, etc.
Some years there have been just 15-20 pivotal experiences. Others more than 30.
I usually do this step on the plane as I head to my destination.
Step 2. Constellation Chart
Now that I have a chronological timeline, I make a visual chart of the year – my constellation.
Why do I call it a constellation?
When we look back at our experiences, inevitably, a grand design takes shape. In retrospect, that seemingly random introduction to a colleague turns out to lead to a new job, which leads to going back to school for a new degree, which leads to meeting your significant other, which leads to…you get the picture (but only after).
The process forces me to thoughtfully rank each experience, giving me the opportunity to notice the abundance in my life, while also sorting through growth experiences in retrospect.
I write the months down the side of my sheet as my x-axis labels, turn to a landscape orientation, and then plot the most positive experience where it should land toward the top of the sheet, and the least positive near the bottom, filling the rest of the milestones in by comparison.
Once you connect the dots, you’ve got yourself a beautiful visual of your year.
I chart linearly, because it’s easier to compare each year at a glance. But, one can also create a circular chart (example to the right), which is much more visually intriguing.
The constellation chart is a powerful way to stand back to see the big picture of the year behind me; to get out of the weeds.
I notice patterns that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up on, like depressive periods hitting in the Fall just before the holidays (go figure) or the most influential relationships from the past year and where they led me.
Step 3. Lessons Learned
I usually take a day to chew on everything churned up in the steps before; there are always themes to each year that become very clear from the constellation chart. Then, I reflect on the lessons learned (or re-learned).
I journal briefly about each to allow the free-writing process to help with insight. I generally identify 3-5 important takeaways.
Step 4. Prior Year Review
Now that I am intimately aware of what did and did not happen in the year behind me, I turn back to my prior year(s) constellation chart, life lessons, and intentions.
The life lessons in particular always prove to be a significant reminder of how much I’ve changed in just a year, which is important to note as it fuels confidence for the work ahead.
I carry the prior intentions forward into my current review, notating what was accomplished, what deviated, or what may need to be renewed.
Step 5. Open Inquiry
This step is in preparation for meaningful intention-setting, and works to offset some of my suffocating practicality and list-making tendencies.
I open up a giant list of beautiful questions that I add to often and let one grab me. A spark of desire is what I’m looking for. I want to answer that question.
I free-write on the inquiry, repeatedly asking myself: …okay, and what’s the bigger question? The aim is to work my way through the weeds into deeper insight and clean energy (ie. removing the layers of fear, judgment and expectation from my thought process).
I’ve collected dozens of deep questions, but I generally only meditate on 4-5 of them. I stop when no other questions spark an interest.
I also love Sylvia Nibley’s Inquiry Cards for playing further in this headspace.
Step 6. Seeding Intentions
What is the struggle for??
This is about possibility, and rooting into the unlimited and surprising nature of life.
Some of my intentions have seemed wildly unrealistic when I planted them, and then came to fruition, or led me to something even better, so don’t hold back.
Set a few simple intentions. Perhaps include some suggested objectives where indicated.
This is a dance between clearly charting a course ahead, and allowing for the openness necessary to spot a sign or opportunity on the periphery and act on it, rather than rigidly plowing down a list of increasingly outdated goals as I navigate an ever-shifting landscape called life.
Focus areas to consider: self-care, sanctuary/belonging, adventure, relationships, purpose, security, or creativity.
Step 6A. Addition by Subtraction
It’s fruitless to plan to have twice the energy, willpower and follow-through than I have ever had before.
Nope, I must subtract in order to add to my life.
At this point, I consider: What must I release, in order to manifest these aims?
The Pareto Principle inquiry from the list linked above is one I use here every single year.
What 20% is creating 80% of my fulfillment? What 20% is creating 80% of my frustration?
Frequent surface offenders: email, social media, dating apps, Netflix…
Deeper: perfectionism, other people’s expectations, loneliness, FOMO, depression…
This is a favorite step. The hardest sometimes, but it’s a purge, and it feels good to purge that which is no longer serving!
A few years back, I banned the news, and I’ve never looked back. One year, I hired a lawn service and replaced my house plants with faux versions. At one point, I gave up dating for an entire year (so much time liberated!). Another I continue to come back to is limiting leisure screen time to documentaries.
Step 6B: A Real Stretch
I like to ensure one of my intentions is a simple, measurable, fun stretch outside my comfort zone that reflects a “one thing.”
What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
For example, hiking is meditative, helps tremendously with blood sugar control, and has intentional discomfort baked right in (resiliency field trip!). It’s ONE thing I can do to to make overall mental and physical wellness immensely easier.
In 2018, I journaled every day.
For 2019, I meditated nearly every day.
In 2020, I’m aimed for 52 hikes (one per week), and wound up hiking 222 miles on 64 trails.
For 2021, I re-upped that stretch, aiming for a benchmark of 75 hikes and at least 250 total miles. Apparently, hiking makes me happy, because instead I covered 467 miles on 115 walks into the wild.
The stretch intention capitalizes on the power of a streak. Once you get so far down the line, it becomes harder to stop than to keep going.
Step 7: Uncover Your Sankalpa
Sankalpa: A deep, guiding intention formed by the heart and mind
A sankalpa is magical. It always finds me at some point in this process.
The first year, my sankalpa was Serenity, which unexpectedly turned into yoga teacher training and meditation teacher certification.
Several years ago, it was Go Slow, sparked from Belize. I had camped out on Caye Caulker for that annual review where “go slow” is a mantra.
Another year, it was Surrender to Joy, with a focus on letting go of the false perception of control and taking ownership of my attitude.
In 2020, it was a quote from Debbie Millman, shared in Maria Popova’s beautiful 13 Life-Learnings post: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
This past year, my guiding anchor has been Grace, reflecting a pivotal release of past burdens and the new weightless way of being in my relationships that emerged.
Step 8: Financial Projections
If you’ve set an audacious travel goal, or you want to simply feel less stressed and more free, then getting finances working for you is a critical piece to the puzzle.
For me, this looks like a 12-month profit and loss statement projection, a monthly expense budget, and weekly and monthly revenue benchmarks so that I know when I’m on track.
For others, it may be a simple monthly budget with a debt payoff plan (because: freedom) or clear earmarks for savings, like $200/month to the travel envelope to fund that trip to Spain.
Step 9: Immediate Action
I find that when my environment and energy reflects my intentions and values, I become aligned naturally.
This is the power of attraction in reality. What we are focused on, we invite.
Therefore, I want to remain aware of my intentions throughout the year, so I spot synchronicity, say yes to opportunities, and confidently decline distractions.
There are so many ways to take immediate action. Some ideas from my own experiences:
- I start a playlist for my year ahead based on my sankalpa, and continue adding to it throughout the year as songs resonate.
- I often purchase a simple, inexpensive necklace or bracelet that symbolizes my sankalpa, or have it engraved directly. It’s a tangible reminder.
- I customize a monthly calendar template, placing my sankalpa at the top and creating my own area to track measurable intentions (such as hikes, books, or revenue). I keep these printed calendars bedside on a clipboard and fill them in, along with any notable experiences or serendipity at least weekly. A tracking process not only reinforces aligned activities, it draws my attention to emerging signs and patterns and makes the next year’s review much easier!
- The dragonfly came to symbolize grace in 2021, and so I found a small dragonfly that is perched in front of my steering wheel (driving is by far my greatest opportunity to practice grace regularly).
The entire annual review process generally takes me 5-6 days, with around 1-3 hours per day dedicated to working on it directly, typically first thing in the morning with my coffee and right after dinner with a glass of wine. Two different states of mind.
The rest of the time I’m off on adventures that create the space and friction for deeper reflection and insight, such that the process produces meaningful outcomes.
This is a process that must fit YOU, with an openness to evolve with your own needs.
You could doodle your review, craft a vision board, reflect deeply and then hold onto one phrase or word as a touchstone insight rather than specific intentions, and/or work with a partner.
My annual retreat to engage in this process is one thing I do each year that makes everything else easier. If you can get away, even just away from work or other obligations (a stay-cation retreat), I highly recommend it.
There are no rules; only the possibility of dramatically altering your life experience with even just a slight adjustment in trajectory.