Reflecting Back on the Year Ahead – 11 Ways to Make Your Reflection Session Pay Off

As ever, with the approach of the New Year, there is talk of reflection.  Extracting the lessons-learned from the past year and using them as we look forward is a great path to continued growth.  But few are the people who will actually sit down and do it.  One reason may be that there is no owner’s manual to guide the process.  With that in mind, here are some ideas for how to go about reflecting on the year gone by so that the year ahead is as good as we can make it.

Reflecting Back on the Year Ahead

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A Place to Think

In my den, I used to have a pair of very nice chairs.  They were hand-made out of cherry by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania.  They were a simple but elegant complement to my desk.  With a small table and lamp between them, they looked great. 

I hated them.

As good as they looked, they were uncomfortable after about five minutes; I never used them.  For my birthday recently, my wife bought me a nice recliner to replace the chairs.  I like it a lot better, and use it all the time.  It has become my “reading” chair, or at times, my “thinking” chair.  Away from my computer screens, there’s a place for my notebook, a lamp, and a coaster for my coffee mug.

Yesterday I sat in it and did some reflecting on the past year.  Since that’s something many people talk about when this time of year rolls around, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to go about it.

Reflecting – Get Ready

Change the scenery.  We are products of our environment more than we suspect.  Visual cues cause us to think and act in certain ways that have become habit over the years.  That’s why stay-cations are hard – that mess in the garage is always in the back of our minds.  When we open the fridge, we automatically reach for certain things.  In front of the computer, there are specific sites we always check.  To help break out of any mental rut so we can think more clearly, choose a place out of the normal to do the reflecting.  Without the usual cues, we will be able to think more freely.

Remove distractions.   You know the drill here – if you set up shop in the living room where the kids are playing video games, the spouse wants to talk about that thing we were supposed to do, and the dog keeps dropping a slobbery tennis ball in our lap, reflection is going to be an exercise in futility.  Perhaps we’ll end up reflecting next year on how we should have chosen a quieter place this year. 

Find a place to unplug, and close the door.

Use paper and pen.  A couple reasons for this.  First – to get away from the screen and keyboard.  For many, these tools are near at hand all the time, and can impact how we think.  Resist the impulse to Google an answer, or check social media for what other people think:  reflecting is about what we think. 

Second, the act of writing with pen or pencil is different from what many of us do on a daily basis.  This approach to capturing thoughts can help signal thinking differently, too. 

And third, it’s concrete.  Whatever we write doesn’t disappear when we hit the off button or slip the phone back into a pocket.  Writing is a physical act that results in a tangible artifact.  If we are drawing lessons from the past or setting our sights on the future, doing them in pen will make them all the more real.  Lessons-learned should not disappear when the battery dies.

Reflecting – Get Started

Now that we’re in our “thinking chair,” here are some ideas for how to get started.

Compare.  One simple way is to list the goals we set for ourselves this time last year, and then write about how it worked out.  For places we fell short, write objectively about the causes and what we might do differently if given a second chance.  For things that went well, write down the keys to success. 

Make lists.  Less formal than bringing out last year’s dream sheet can be to just draw a line down the middle of the paper.  On the left side, list the successes – what went well, what are we proud of, what good-news-story about the year would we share with a friend we hadn’t seen in a while?  What did we do that made it turn out that way?

Use the right side of the page to list the “challenges” we faced.  Some of them may have been out of our control.  Perhaps there was a world-wide pandemic that complicated work, travel, or family plans.  Other challenges may have been our own fault – we didn’t practice the violin every day like we planned, or spend two hours a week with Mandarin flash cards, or do the dishes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Write about what to do differently in the coming year to improve.  Focus on the things we can control, despite the things that remain out of our control.

Write the story.  For a third idea, Lauren Geall of Stylist suggests simply imagining the past year as a story, and writing about it that way.  As with all good tales, the main character has motivations and aspirations, and there are challenges along the way that threaten the outcome.  As the protagonist, we can write about how we coped with what went wrong, found ways to get beyond adversity, and learned from the experience to become stronger.  Write the positives into the plan for the next chapter.

Get a narrator.  As a variant of the story idea, and to help with gaining an outside perspective, think about how the year’s story would sound if narrated by someone else.  We can imagine Morgan Freeman talking about how we made it out the door to run three days a week and how that helped us complete a half-marathon.  Or hear the deep voice of that person who narrates all the movie trailers as he describes a challenge we faced: 

In a world where a global pandemic brought fear and division, Jacob Smith found a way to keep it all together…

Ask Questions.  As another way to approach reflecting, Donald Latumahina suggests listing a lot of questions in four different domains of our lives.  Here are the areas he suggests, and a few questions I came up with to prime the pump.

  • Material – Have we been able to reduce debt, add to savings, and spend wisely? What is the next career step, and how are we progressing towards it?  Are we in control of our possessions, or are they in control of us?
  • Spiritual – Do we feel fulfilled? Why or why not? Whatever our belief set, how well are we practicing its precepts?  What about meditation or reflective reading?  What would our obituary say if it only covered the past year – what reasons have we given others to say we were a good person?
  • Physical – What do we do to stay healthy? How often do we exercise, and is that adequate?  How could we be more active even without a formal program?  Is the food we eat helping or hurting our efforts to reach fitness goals, or to lead a healthy life?  Do we get enough sleep?
  • Social – How would we rate the quality of our key relationships with spouse, family, and friends? What could we do to improve them?  Have we made new friends in the past year?  How well did we stay connected to old ones?  Do all our friends look just like us, or could we stand to have a little more variety in interests, background, and culture?

Reflecting – The Takeaway

There is no officially approved way to reflect, but we can set ourselves up for success if we do it in a new place, free from distraction, and with a ready pen and an open mind.

Choose an approach that feels comfortable, and get started.  The simple act of sitting down and beginning the process sets us apart.  One survey found that 95% of people think they are self-aware, but only 10-15% of them truly are.  

And from a leadership perspective, over time, teams tend to mimic the actions and attitudes of their leaders.  If we are not happy with what we see on our teams, the first person we should sit down and have a candid talk with is ourselves.

Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. – Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet

Three final thoughts here:

Notice the little things.  Often, it’s not the hail-Mary pass but the slow and steady plodding that lead to our eventual success.  We should note what those reliable but unspectacular actions were, and how they have paid off, so we are more inclined to repeat them.

Capitalize on the lessons.  All this reflecting is nothing more than a pointless navel lint inspection exercise unless we apply what we learn to our actions in the future.  For areas that are important to us, plan to do more of the good things and less of the bad things.  Write down specifically what they are, in the active voice:  “I will continue to eat the way a healthy person eats because that’s how I lost weight this past year.”

Show some gratitude.  No great achievement is done alone, nor do we overcome adversity without help.  As part of our reflection, we should list the people who have helped along the way.  And if we really mean it, we should also send them a nice note of thanks.  In pen.

The point of reflecting on the past is so that we can make the future a better place to be.  Maybe the best way to start the new year is by thanking the people who helped us get through the old one.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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