Looking Back to help Plan Ahead

Currently there are a lot of articles and tips circulating the interweb on how to set goals for the year (I’ll be adding my own 2cents on that topic next week). But before we get into goal setting, I’m a big believer in taking a pause this time of year to first look back.

What “looking back” means 

Looking back is a period of active reflection on the previous year where you recall the experiences you had in your professional life, your personal life, among your friends and family members, and with your health.

Why I recommend doing this

Many people reach the holidays and the start of the next year wondering: “where did last year go?” It always feels like it went by so fast, and we find ourselves in this moment struggling to write 2017 instead of 2016 and buying Yoga Cats calendars at the last minute. This feeling can create a barrier to setting goals for the year since it feels unclear what is realistic to expect of ourselves in a 12-month period.

Looking back helps us remember all that we went through in the previous year – both the good and the challenging – so that we can properly celebrate ourselves (which is hugely important to do), acquire a sense of where all that time really went, realize what can and cannot be achieved, and better understand what we’re feeling as we start this new year.

A personal anecdote on when I knew that looking back was important for me to do: I was entering the holidays one year feeling like it had been such a hectic year, and I wasn’t feeling as “settled in” as I wanted to be. I assumed it was due to my lack of meditation practice and beating myself up a bit for letting life slip by. As I sat down to look back over the year, I realized that I had traveled – often internationally – nearly every single month that year. I was not fully aware how much I was “on the go” that year until I sat down and thought about each month. So, it made a lot of sense that I wasn’t feeling settled when every 3-6 weeks I was traveling for at least a week. That helped me cut myself some slack AND it helped me think about what adjustments I wanted to make for the upcoming year.

How to look back

I don’t want to prescribe just one way of looking back since everyone has their own reflection style, but I will outline a very general process. Personally, I’m a writer and I use good old pen and paper to do this. Do this process in a way that feels most natural to you, although I recommend having some kind of note capture device near you in case there are specific things you want to remember.

  1. Give yourself 45-60 minutes to complete this activity (and I know you can find the time to do this once a year!) Be in a space where you can think freely without distraction. I find coffee to be a great companion for this activity.
  2. Determine which categories of life you want to look back on. I generally do 3 major categories: work life, personal life, and social life (for me personal life and social life are different categories, possibly because I’m an introvert). Base these categories on the things that are most important to you: health and fitness, hobbies, dating, experiences, travel, etc.
  3. Pick one of those categories (I almost always start with work life) and walk yourself through your year of experiences, literally starting with January of the previous year, and going through the full year. Some people like to look at an actual calendar to jog their memories, but you can also freestyle it. You don’t need to get into every nitty-gritty detail, but notice which things pop-up along the way – these are very telling signs about what your mind recollects as “milestones” for the year.

    NOTE: Keep this focused on YOU as much as possible. Not on what was going on with the world, with your friends, or even with your immediate family (unless it directly impacted you). Consider this to be pure “me” time.

  4. As you look back, if you remember something you did that you’re proud of, then pause to give yourself credit for it. If you remember something that didn’t go well, then pause to give yourself sympathy AND celebrate the fact that you overcame it and moved on. If there are things you want to do more of, or less of, then take note of those things for when you do your 2017 planning.
  5. Repeat this process for your top 3-4 categories, remembering to take pauses along the way.

Now what?

This activity may not immediately convert into a useful, practical tool, but it should leave you feeling like you have a much better handle on what happened during the previous year (as Jay-Z would say “thank God for granting me this moment of clarity”). Knowing what you did and how you felt during the previous year will help you shape how you want this new year to look – yes, there is a lot we cannot control, but we have more ‘say’ in our lives than we often believe we do. If you felt you traveled more than you wanted to last year, then you can find ways to turn down those requests or pass them to others this year. If you want more time with your friends and family members, then you can be sure to carve out time each month to do that.

Looking back will give you a clearer picture for planning ahead.

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