the pros and cons of an annual review

Never Mind “Good & Evil” –

Check out the Garden of Reflecting at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL:

The Garden of Reflection Pond at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL
aka: The Garden of Agonizing Introspection, Guilt, & Regret

A friend of mine gave it that latter name when we both visited it along with a group of friends. She and I had both had a rough year, and as we walked through the gardens it was less with a joyful appreciation of the beauty around us and more with the grim attitude of survivors waiting to see what dirty trick life was next going to play on us.

I remember standing, looking at the water, feeling completely weighted down with the many mistakes, betrayals, and misfortunes that had befallen the past year. Frankly, the longer I looked at the still waters and the beautiful green, the more depressed I got. That was probably when I stopped doing the whole “annual review” idea, and actually gave up on goals altogether. I’ve written a bit about the process of coming up with plans and goals before. This is certainly the time of year when such things come to mind – with more apps around than ever to “help you reach that goal” or keep your New Year’s Resolution (only 23% of people actually keep them anyway) or, perhaps more realistically, just try not to mess up next year as much as we did this year.

Can an annual review help with that?

Yes! Of Course It Can!

Chris Guillebeau certainly thinks so. He’s not only written about the process, he also has a spiffy spreadsheet free for downloading and goes through the remarkable and personal process of publishing his own. He is brutally honest – talking frankly about the places where he felt as if he let himself or others down, and also taking credit for the things he accomplished and the efforts he made. If you, like me, feel a sense of “oh, god, why would I want to relive that again,” he has some words of encouragement:

…when I started the process of writing everything down, I was worried. The heaviness and negative feelings I’m about to describe have been weighing on me so much lately that I had almost convinced myself that the whole year was a bust. But no! Once I started reviewing my calendar and writing down these highlights, I was amazed to see so many good things crop up that I had totally forgotten about.

It reminded me of one of the core lessons of the Annual Review: we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a full year.

And of course, the benefit of the past is that you can’t change it. That means there’s absolutely no obligation for you to do anything once you’ve done your review. It won’t change a thing. Sure, you can maybe decide how your present and future will be, and take some actions there…but things in the past? Don’t stress it! There’s literally nothing you can do about it. Being more aware of what you’ve done also makes it easier for you to focus on your new goals as well.

There’s only one problem with the idea that the annual review will help you better achieve your goals:

Successful People Don’t Set Goals

Yep. That’s right, I said it. But it’s also backed up by research. First of all, there’s the work of psychologist Saras Sarasvarthy who interviewed many successful entrepreneurs, trying to find out if razor-focus on goals was their modus operandi. Cited in The Antidote by Oliver Burkemann, “the outlook of Sarasvathy’s interviewees”:

…rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham [goals theorists]. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release…The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur …[is] the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself.

This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

Not only that, but further research shows that focusing on a goal can actual suck the joy out of activities you usually like! If you’re focused on losing those extra pounds, you stop enjoying the actual bike ride. Not to mention that, if you’re like me, you already have too many projects on your plate – a “goal-setting” session is just another opportunity to think of more things you ought to be doing, and then feel bad because rather than do them you’d prefer watching Netflix.

I hear you, I hear you. Believe me, I feel your pain. But I’m going to do the review anyway, and I’ll tell you why:

Not for the Goals

No, in fact, I’m going to deliberately keep myself from setting them. I’m also not going to focus on what goals I had at the beginning of last year compared to where I am now.

Instead, I’m going to do the review with an eye towards on quality: what nurtured my soul? What activities, places, people added to my quality of life? When was I feeling in flow, and when was I scrambling? I believe that a review of the year can help figure out how to bring more of the joy and pleasure of living, rather than just being alive. That’s the purpose of my review.

What about you? Are you a goal setter? Nothing wrong with that – what tools do you use? How about the whole retrospective idea – horrifying? Exciting? Satisfying? Let us know in the comments!

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