It’s that time of year…the annual review.
When some of us grab up multiple years of journals, a variety of highlighters, and get just a little emotionally drunk on personal development.
This was the fifth year I left home to complete a thorough reflection of the year behind me, informing the year ahead – in Costa Rica this time.
Of course, I notice mistakes, signs and lessons along the way, but it’s difficult to turn those brief moments of awareness into real change, or to even know what to change in the moment.
My annual solo retreats are non-negotiable.
I’ve made enough giant, regrettable mistakes already, and while I know many more are to come, I want them to be different. I don’t want to continue to fall into the same ruts.
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 they say in climbing).
These pieces come together to allow the walls to fall, one by one, until you’re finally left with total vulnerability.
Just you meeting up with you. No lies, justifications, cover up or filters.
Facing the hard and beautiful truths of you inside your life this past year, and what you need to do going forward to align your way of being just a bit more with your values.
To respond just a bit wiser in times of stress. To create the structures, support and routines that become the foundation of your peace, happiness and fearless pursuit of sensational, eccentric, energizing dreams.
To plant seeds.
I’ve had enough people ask, so I’ve laid out my nerdy process below. At least as it currently stands, because 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.
Em’s Annual Review Process
Step 1. Milestones List
I start with a blank piece of paper and rely on memory: What happened that was notable, good or bad?
Then I go back through my calendar week by week to pull out the events I forgot, and create an actual timeline of dates. One side of the page for the positive experiences, one side for the ick.
Examples could be a memorable trip with my kids, trying something for the first time, a change in jobs, a break-up, etc.
Some years there have been just 15-20 milestones. Others more than 30.
I usually do this step on the plane as I head to my destination. I don’t like having my laptop out for the rest of the process, at least until step 10.
Step 2. Visual Year At-a-Glance
Now that I have a chronological timeline, I make a visual chart of the year.
I’ve done this for three years running and it’s the quickest and most impactful way of standing back to see the big picture of the year behind me, and how it compares to the years prior.
I notice helpful patterns that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up on, like the fact that depressive periods almost always hit in the Fall just before the holidays (go figure).
The process also forces me to thoughtfully rank each experience, giving me the opportunity to notice the abundance in my life, while also sorting through unpleasant 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.
Step 3. Lessons Learned
I usually take a day off to chew on everything churned up in the steps before, and then I reflect on the lessons learned (or re-learned) from this past year.
I journal briefly about each to allow the free-writing process to help with insight, while also documenting that which I will likely need to review (again and again).
Step 4. Review of the 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) chart, life lessons, and goals (really: intentions) that I had set.
I document those intentions again in my current review, but with notations of what was accomplished, what deviated, or what may need to be renewed.
Step 5. Planting a SEED (A Sensational Eccentric Energizing Dream)
What is the struggle for??
This is about possibility, and rooting into the unlimited and surprising nature of life.
Some of my seeds have seemed wildly unrealistic when I planted them, and then came to fruition, or led me to something even better.
Step 6. Inspiring Inquiry
This step is in preparation for meaningful planning, and works to offset some of my suffocating practicality and list-making tendencies.
First, a question snatched from Tim Ferriss:
What might you do to accomplish your 10-year goals in the next 6 months, if you had a gun against your head?
This line of inquiry forces me to reckon with my self-limiting beliefs, and consider instead possibility.
As someone who can easily burn out on the daily grind, free writing on this idea creates the space and energy I need to set needle-moving intentions and then follow-through.
Second, a question I stole from Gary Keller in his wonderful book, The One Thing:
What’s the ONE thing I can do such that everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
A couple examples:
Managing my diabetes and my overall health can become so overwhelming that I lapse into apathy and stop doing what I need to do.
What’s the ONE thing I can do such that diabetes is easier? Intermittent fasting.
When I look back at regrets, a litany of good intentions sprout: to be more patient, to be more forgiving, to be less controlling.
What’s the ONE thing I can do such that living by my values is easier? Meditation.
This question tees me up with just a few, impactful, manageable intentions for the year ahead, rather than an impossible task list from hell.
I also love Sylvia Nibley’s Inquiry Cards for playing further in this headspace.
Step 7. Addition by Subtraction
I can’t make more time. 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.
Where am I am wasting time or energy? What gets in the way?
Frequent offenders: email, social media, dating apps, Netflix, other people’s expectations.
This is my favorite step. The hardest sometimes, but it’s a purge, and it feels good to purge the waste out of my life.
A few years back, I banned the news, and I’ve never looked back. Last year, I hired a lawn service and replaced my house plants with faux versions. Best decision ever.
Step 8. The Year Ahead
First, a theme. A theme is magical. It always finds me.
Three years ago, my theme was Serenity, which turned into yoga teacher training and meditation teacher training.
Two years ago, it was Go Slow, taken from Belize. I had camped out on Caye Caulker for that annual review.
In 2019, 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’s a quote from Debbie Millman, shared in Maria Popova’s beautiful 13 Life-Learnings post: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
Second, a fun stretch goal.
In 2018, I journaled every single day.
In 2019, I meditated nearly every day.
In 2020, I’m going on 52 hikes.
The stretch goal isn’t just for fun, it reflects a “one thing” and capitalizes on the motivation power of a streak. Once you get so far down the line, it becomes harder to stop than to keep going.
For example, hiking is meditative, helps tremendously with blood sugar control, and has intentional discomfort baked right in (resiliency field trip!). It’s the ONE thing I can do to to make overall mental and physical wellness immensely easier.
Finally, we come to traditional, old-fashioned goals.
Just a few simple, measurable intentions rooted in those high impact “one things” that can really move the needle.
I typically address Rest, Nest and Zest (self-care, sanctuary/belonging and adventure), relationships, career, finances, and creativity (making something…anything).
Step 9. Time Slotting
Similar to subtracting in order to add, one must actually allot time to new routines or activities if they are to materialize.
I jot down all 12 months down the side of the page again and then fill in all of the knowns – like my annual December solo retreat, my kids’ birthdays, important anniversaries, major expenses, events and trips.
It’s an at-a-glance view of my commitments for the year ahead, so I can then plug-in the intensive work or writing periods, unscheduled trips, and downtime I need to accomplish my goals.
This year, I also created a structured routine for my day hour-by-hour. I found that the full-time gig this past year was very stabilizing. Plus, several of my intentions require near-daily follow-through.
Step 10. Financial Projections
If you’ve set an audacious travel goal, or you want to simply feel less stressed and more free, then getting and keeping your finances under control is a critical piece to the puzzle.
For me, this looks like a 12-month profit and loss statement projection, a monthly expense budget based on that, and weekly and even daily 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.
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 very 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.
Obviously, I’m a nerd for personal development, so if you have any fun inquiry questions or favorite annual review activities, please share.
This is a process that must fit YOU, with an openness to evolve with your own needs.
You could doodle your review, reflect deeply and then hold onto one phrase or word as a touchstone insight rather than goals, or work with a partner.
There are no rules. Only the possibility of dramatically altering your life experience with even just a slight adjustment in trajectory.
My annual retreat to engage in this process is the ONE thing I can do each year that makes everything else easier or unnecessary.