Although I have never been a resolution-maker (phony!), I have long-been an annual planner, and since 2014 my efforts have taken an explicitly formal yet evolving shape. Depending on my other priorities and distractions, I typically begin reflecting on my year-past in late December and finish up writing out some thoughts and expectations for the year-coming by mid-January; I then set a calendar reminder to circle back mid-year in June to see how I am doing and recalibrate if necessary. In this way, I have generally made steady progress on a number of annual and life goals over the last three years.
The heart of the process involves the following steps:
- Flick through my calendar for the year-past and review major activities logged therein
- Sit in quiet and dig into memories of significant experiences and other events not captured on the calendar
- Write out an essay-form reflection on these accomplishments and the thoughts and emotions they evoke
- Lay out a new set of goals or achievements to be accomplished in the coming year as a list
- Write a brief summary of the anticipated path to achieving these goals via specific behaviors, processes and routines in the coming year
To this I added last year the “mind-mapping” practice suggested by a friend, wherein one gets out a blank sheet of paper, writes some words for major categories of life activities (I used Relationships, Career, Wealth, Mind/Body (Health) and Travel/Lifestyle) which are encircled and then additional related words are “bubbled” out from each category in a randomized chain of thought. It creates a neat visual representation of your ideas, especially if you use size to emphasize weight of concern, or can find ways to draw linkages between related ideas on disparate categories. It’s also a lot quicker to scan for meaning than an essay. I found combining this practice with my essay writing practice gave me a more complete picture of my yearly accomplishments.
I found listing out what I had done to be therapeutic. One thing I struggle with is giving myself credit for what I accomplish. I always want more and want to do more, and so it’s easy for me to convince myself I haven’t done enough, even when I have done everything on an arbitrary list! Writing it all down creates a volume of evidence that is hard to ignore: all the trips, all the interactions with friends and family, all the meals planned, the workouts at the gym, the money saved and invested, the skills developed, etc. It’s harder to look at that list and conclude “I didn’t get anything done last year!”
Another interesting aspect of this practice is I have a record I can look back on and see:
- how long did it take me to accomplish a particular goal?
- did I remain persistent if I didn’t get it done when I first wanted to?
- did I decide to give up on a goal and if so, why? (did I realize it wasn’t important?)
- what themes exist that are consistent across time with regards to goals I have set?
- how am I “different” or “the same” in what I am trying to accomplish from year to year?
There are some things I have failed to achieve for several years now but which I still desire. There are other things I thought I wanted but decided weren’t important or worth prioritizing at some point along and consciously let them go in order to simplify my life. And there are some things I have been so stupendously efficient with that I’ve made progress each year on another “tier” of related achievements such that I am much farther along in the space of a few years than I would’ve thought when setting out on my first related activity some years ago.
Another reflection and motivation process I considered doing this year was suggested by another friend. Basically, I was to write myself a letter, dated January 1, 2018, which outlined all the different goals I had achieved throughout 2017 with explanations of the processes or routines I used to achieve them. For example, I accomplished X by spending Y minutes every week on Z. The idea is that one can not only consciously envision these tasks as already completed (so you get the sense they can be done) but you have also given yourself the how-to manual you can use to achieve them. It’s like having a crystal ball you didn’t realize you programmed. I really liked this idea and was prepared to implement it.
Somewhere along the line between early December, when I first started outlining my annual review process, and today, nearly at the end of the first month of 2017, I seem to have completely lost my motivation to get any of this done and so I have essentially given up on it!
I have a lot of friends who excel at personal organization, motivation and self-development. Most of these friends now have children of their own, and their reports have been consistent: children will dramatically change your personal productivity. I have to admit I discounted these reports quite a bit. I thought I was even better organized, even more productive, so it wouldn’t affect me, or at least as much or in the ways it affected them.
Simply put, I was wrong. Being extra sleep-deprived has sapped my drive. It’s required me to take more down-time where I do nothing too intense so I can mentally, emotionally and physically recover. Being on-call for my Little Lion has made it harder to focus on activities which require dedicated focus to make progress. In fact, it’s often impossible to even imagine starting such activities lest I get immediately interrupted and feel frustrated in the process. And now and for the foreseeable future, pitching in on tasks the Wolf could normally handle by herself means I divert a significant fraction of “me” time each week toward things other than me. So I am not superman, and my experience here has been quite similar to my friends just as they predicted or said to expect.
But having my Little Lion has also been incredibly motivating in the sense that it’s given me a new, concrete purpose to pursue various activities, from the minute daily upkeep stuff to the big life-planning stuff. And it’s definitely made me more resilient and less prone to complaining or feeling bad for myself; where I couldn’t always see it before, it is now abundantly obvious to me that “no one is coming to the rescue”, and if I don’t do what I have to do, it doesn’t get done and he, the Wolf and myself all suffer for it.
So I don’t think that is what is going on here, though it makes for a convenient and wildly coincidental excuse!
I am still thinking about this so I can’t say anything for sure, but I will take a stab at what I think is going on. I think what’s going on is that I have built a process here that is almost an end unto itself in terms of the energy and investment required to make use of it. It takes too long. It requires too much thought. It encompasses too much potential behavior and activity in the future. It seems to leave little room for spontaneity. It takes away from too much of the “living of life” I’d like to be doing right this very moment. It is, in a word, overwhelming.
This will seem like a tangent but here goes: recently the same friend who was proposing the letter-writing exercise (which is, ironically, probably a dramatic step towards simplifying this process if I did JUST that, rather than adding it to my existing process…) was talking about how he heard Tim Ferriss on one of his podcasts make some remark about how he has kept a nutrition and workout log for himself every single day of his life since he was 16 (or something, I don’t remember… it was a long amount of time). Essentially, Ferriss could pick any day since he was 16 (or whenever!) and tell you exactly what he ate and what workout he did and what weight he managed to lift, if you asked. My friend thought this was an incredible example of discipline, organization and data-gathering.
And truly, it is. But what of it? How is this valuable? What on Earth could Ferriss do with this data besides impress someone like my friend, or scratch some strange “autistic” itch of his with regards to data-fying his own life? How much healthier, more fit, etc., is he than the average health nut or fitness buff because of this practice?
There is a difference between exhaustive and exhausting. I would say this is exhausting. I would say my annual review process has become exhausting. So I can look back at how my goals have changed since 2014. Why besides personal vanity do I think this is valuable? “Oh look at who I was and what I am now!” Some self-help gurus say you should stop comparing yourself to others and only compare yourself to yourself. “Transcend yourself.” If you want to compete, compete against your personal best.
No matter how many times you transcend yourself, you’re still you. You’re still here. Whichever version of yourself you are this very moment, that’s the one you’ve got to work with. You got a leg up on You-Of-A-Year-Ago. Congratulations. One should HOPE one has a leg-up on someone who is a full year behind! What have you done for yourself lately?
I’ve been fighting this battle for a few years now, mostly with myself, and on a number of fronts, this battle of telling myself I should be doing certain things to accomplish certain goals. I tell myself I want to be a “highly productive person”, and I look around and imagine that all HPP have goals, do annual planning routines, etc. Worked fairly well for me up to this point doing it the way I had done it, and I can see people who seem to accomplish even more than I, and I can imagine they’re even more intense about it. So I tell myself to do a little bit more, push a little harder, be a little more consistent. But each effort in that direction seems to be pushing up against my Diminishing Marginal Return boundary, because I am becoming less and less a HPP and more and more a Person-Striving-To-Be-A-HPP in the process.
I’ve been doing this with writing for the last ten years, blogging in particular. I used to write/blog A LOT when I was younger. I felt like I had a lot to say. I really enjoyed hearing myself think. I’d go back and re-read my own material and get a chuckle. Oh, it was good! Then, something happened. I realized a lot of what I was saying had been said before. I realized I wasn’t a professional writer so I was mostly writing for my own amusement. I realized, I had a lot of other stuff I wanted to do besides write my thoughts down somewhere! Writing and blogging slowly became not something I did because I felt motivated and passionate about my writing subject, but a habit I stuck to because I convinced myself it was some integral part of my identity.
My annual planning has taken a similar turn. It is mostly something I am keeping up with to convince myself I am that HPP I think I want to be and can become if only I do things like this. It is not so easy to sit down and do it. It isn’t coming naturally to me. Yes, I am tired right now, but no, I still get a lot of other stuff done despite that, because I want to do those things.
Instead of doing my annual planning process this year, I have decided to write about why I am not doing it. I felt like I needed to give myself permission to let it go, and this is how I chose to do that.