So how was your year?
If you’re like most people, that’s not the easiest question to answer. We often feel like we’re only as good as our latest project, and everyone’s work has moments where you’re up — and then you’re down. And studies consistently show that we’re famously bad judges of our impact on the world around us.
So how can we credibly take stock, look over our performance subjectively and extract the right learning from the past year in order to chart a better course ahead?
Here are a few ways that have worked for me to reflect on my progress from the last 12 months, for your use in charting your course in the coming year.
- Set up a few appointments with yourself. I find it helpful to take at least a few sessions to gather my experiences and synthesize the learning from them. If I try to review everything in one go, I can get fatigued and rush through the analysis, which is my favorite part. So I schedule 3 different times to sit down and do the work needed to get value from the year. If I need more, I’ll take more.
- Go over the results of the year. If I’ve actually set goals for the year, I’ll want to look at what progress I made towards those goals. And hopefully I’ve got a clear set of leading and lagging metrics to examine. That will help me a lot, but I’ll be honest. Sometimes I’ve only had a fuzzy idea about what I was trying to accomplish in a given year, and we all struggle from time to time in getting focused and intentional about where we want to be in 12 months. So, even if I don’t have a rock-solid goal to measure up to, I’ll go back over what I call “the evidence.” I’ll look through my performance reviews, my notes about progress on projects and initiatives, and even my Sent Items box in my email, looking for larger deliverables, issues, concerns, and conversations I had over the last 12 months. I don’t try to read every item, but just re-familiarize myself with what I was dealing with, and how I drove things forward (or didn’t). While I’m reviewing all this material, I’ll keep a legal pad nearby and jot down topics and thoughts on one side, and facts and statistics on the other. Things like: “larger time spent ‘selling’ the idea than anticipated” on one side and “35 ideas generated by cross-functional team across 5 company units” on the other.
- Pull out the learning. The fun bit for me is always the “So What” portion of the work. I like to see what themes the work has been teaching me over the year, what strengths I brought to bear, and what barriers I found myself facing. I’ll start broadly, like separating personal items and challenges from work ones (even though they might come together again later), or interpersonal issues from working style concerns — like trouble I might have had with a particular colleague, versus some issues I had with procrastination around a specific project earlier in the year. And I’ll ask myself a ton of questions, like “what is at the root of this barrier or tension?” “How could things have gone differently, but why didn’t they?” “How could I have better leveraged my own strengths or the strengths of my team in this case?” and “What about this interaction went incredibly well?” I might not even know the answers to all the questions, but I’ll write them down, and posit possible answers that I can challenge later. At this point, I consider that there are no bad ideas, just untested ones. It probably sounds ridiculous, but at some point, I’ll start to feel like I’m pretending to be Oprah, interviewing myself about my progress, and imagining all the positive, thoughtful ways that she would analyze my situation and illuminate for me what has really been blocking my way forward. One time, I discovered that I was not connecting with some people in some situations because I was concerned about showing vulnerability — I felt I had to hide any weakness, even though it was really holding me back from leading my team. After I feel like I’ve got a good view on what issues or development skills I might be struggling with, then it’s time to face the music and try it out on someone else who knows me well.
- Review your findings with a friend or coach. Get some time with someone who you trust to help you parse through what you’ve learned. Don’t be afraid to open up and tell them what you think, and above all, be prepared to hear that you may have missed the mark. It’s not easy to take aim at ourselves, because we have so many clever ways that we can rationalize our own behavior. Ask your friend or coach to challenge your thinking and help you make sure you’ve gotten down to core issues that are able to be described and considered. If you don’t get specific here, then it will be hard to move to the next step and take action on them.
- Make plans to attack anew. OK, so last year may have had some set-backs, but what’s important is how you respond, right? So take some time to think through how to put your new knowledge into practice in the next few months, to set you back on track to where you want to go. I start by deciding if I need a specific, actionable goal to meet (which I generally do), and so I put together a few options for the goal and see which ones I respond best to. I want something big enough for me to feel like it’s worth fighting for, but achievable and feasible enough not to set off alarms about impending failure. Last year, I decided to attack my fear of starting new endeavors without a full background of data to start with, i.e., learn how to make better decisions and act on imperfect data, and to trust myself that I can course-correct in time to succeed anyway. But don’t just stop at the goals, and instead think about concrete ways to leverage your strengths to make progress and succeed at each milestone on the way. Make sure you can see a relatively clear path to follow that can get you there, even if some points along the way may require a little faith to reach.
Whatever your goals, I hope you’ll take some time now at the end of the year to reflect on where you’ve been, and where you’re going. I think that all of life is a journey, and we’re all just trying to find our way through together.
So enjoy the ride!
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