TCW #043 | A non-woo, quick & effective annual reflection process
History repeats itself more frequently when we don't take time to reflect, grow, and respond. Taking one hour to reflect on your year sets you up for a more deliberate approach to your future.
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Perhaps the most lasting learning I took from my graduate program in computer science was the importance of metacognition, the cognitive process of reflection.
I learned about metacognition in the context of teaching machines to reflect, learn, and evolve to emulate sentience.
AI and ML models learn by reflecting on what they did and what results they achieved. Just like humans.
It’s metacognition, to some extent, that makes ChatGPT so capable of evolving its approach and responses and delighting us with its “intelligence.”
In the past, I used to set my annual goals every year based on what I wanted to achieve. I set these goals in a silo, often without reflecting on what worked or didn’t work the previous year.
After learning about the power of metacognition, I took a step back and completely redesigned the way I set my annual goals.
My annual goal-setting process starts with an in-depth assessment of the current year. I look backward before I look forward.
This annual reflection process is what I want to share with you all today, just in time for Thanksgiving and the holidays that grant us time to reflect on where we’re at and how we got here.
Let’s dive in.
The science of reflection
According to a 2001 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people who reflect on their past experiences are more likely to be happy and satisfied with their lives.
The study found that reflection can help people:
make sense of their experiences
learn from their mistakes
develop a more positive outlook on life
(who wouldn’t want all of those things?!)
study: "Reflection and Self-Awareness: Self-Insight Can Promote Happiness and Well-Being" by David M. Wegner, Geoffrey J. Brewer, and Brian T. Petty. Published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2001.
And the benefits apply to any frequency of reflection. Some people reflect in real-time, others once a day/week/month, and others start with a simple annual reflection to take stock of their year and set themselves up mentally and spiritually for the next year.
Starting with an annual reflection might be the perfect place for many of you.
Here’s how mine goes:
Step one: assess your overall sense of balance
In the book Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans introduce the concept of a "life compass" as a tool for assessing one's overall sense of balance. The idea is that you can take stock of how balanced your life is across these dimensions, and rebalance if needed.
The life compass consists of eight dimensions:
I focus on the first four dimensions for my annual reflection: Love, Play, Work, and Health.
Every year I rate how “full” my tank is for each dimension. I do this in a visual format so I can see the problem areas clearly.
Step two: remind yourself it wasn’t all sour lemons (or rainbows) with the Journey Line
I adopted this practice from Bea Kim, a life coach. She uses the concept of a "journey line" to help her clients reflect on their past, present, and future. The journey line is a simple visual tool that helps you see, all in one plot:
Your starting point
Your current location
Creating one is fairly simple. You just start with a one-sided cartesian graph. Label the y-axis Highs (+) and Lows (-). The x-axis is the timeline of events. Drop dots for specific life events, and label them. At the end, connect it all with a line. The line will reflect your emotional journey through the year.
Here’s an example of a year with a lot of highs and lows for me, where I lost my last living grandparents, founded a startup, and got married in the same year.
I create a journey line for the year to remind me that there are usually as many highs as lows, even though realists like me often feel the lows more strongly than the highs.
For me, the journey line exercise gives me a more balanced perspective on the major events in the year.
Step three: 11 simple reflection questions
I ask myself eleven simple questions to reflect on the year:
What sentence, word, or phrase sums up your year?
What appreciation/gratitude do you have of yourself and others?
Knowing all that you know now, what words of advice would you go back to tell yourself on January 1st?
What did you learn about yourself this year?
What went really well?
What surprised me?
Favorite day, moment, or experience?
New self discovery?
What conclusion did you reach this year?
Once I’ve done these three “looking back” reflections, I shift into “what I want the future to look like” mode:
Step four: six prompts for next year
This is the “manifestation” section of my reflection process.
I have six one-word prompts. For each, I respond to with a simple phrase or sentence. The goal is to tell myself one thing I want to:
…in the coming year. It’s about building a positive vision for the coming year and getting myself hyped for the work that will be required to make those things happen.
I keep my prompts short and visceral and I force small spacing so my responses will be short. Doing so pushes me to respond with something that isn’t overly designed or considered. I always write what first comes to mind.
Step five: ten experiences in the next five years
In this step, I take the manifestation forward five years.
I start by writing what age I will be at that time. Writing a date is just a date, but I find that writing my future age is a hearty reminder of my mortality and the ticking time bomb that is our lifespan.
This section is the one where I try to be brutally honest with myself.
What ten experiences do I need, expect, or want to have in the next five years? This section tends to be perhaps the most clarifying of all. It was by doing this section a couple of years ago that I realized I was ready to start trying to build a family 🤗
Metacognition is the simplest way to build self-reinforcing growth loops into your life experience.
Taking one hour to reflect on your year gives your brain the chance to reframe, rewire, learn, and improve from whatever this year has thrown at you, and it sets you up for a better approach to tackling whatever next year has in store for you as well.
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” - Thomas Paine
Give it a try and let me know what you think!
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