About 7 years ago I did my first year-end review. Visiting my parents in South Carolina for the Christmas holiday, and somewhat unsatisfied with how my previous year had transpired, I found myself wanting something more than my standard set of incredibly vague handwritten resolutions. Somehow, I came across a blog post about the year-end review of somebody named Chris Guillebeau.
All I knew about Chris was that he was a blogger and travel hacker on a quest to see every country around the world. He appeared to have accomplished a lot. And while I wasn’t quite ready to utilize his spreadsheet method, I did create my very first year-end review. I was startled at how far from my original “Resolutions” I ended up. Goals so important to me the previous December, completely faded from memory when pushed aside by, well… life.
Still, I liked how the activity felt. The texture of it. Running my mind over the topography of the past 12 months. There was a comfort in contextualizing where I had started the year versus where I had ended it.
It was a zeroing out of my personal human capital balance sheet.
Since then it has become a tradition for me. Every year just after Christmas I sit in the recliner on my parents’ porch under a heavy blanket and stare into the pitch black silence of the Carolina night. It is there where my brain and body are finally able to come down from whatever heightened and distracted state I have allowed myself to enter.
I let my eyes unfocus as I think about the year I just lived. I type without looking. My stream of consciousness pours out through my fingertips onto the bright white screen, annotating and bucketing my year into themes, frustrations, and successes. While there are things worth celebrating, my focus always ends up being what I want to change for the coming year.
December consistently finds me contemplating ways to purge, organize, eliminate and restart.
I once heard the musician Andrew McMahon say “I have an addiction to starting over.” It resonated deeply with me. I have some sort of perpetual existential ennui that makes me crave new beginnings. When I was in my 20s those beginnings came in the form of new jobs or new girlfriends. But I have worked for myself for the past six years and been with my fiance for the last four. I have put more pressure on smaller activities like haircuts, vacations, and hobbies to provide me with some unnamed sensation of starting fresh.
After several years of annual reviews, I began to feel like I needed a more comprehensive approach. I started titling years with specific mission statements.
2012: The Year of Incredible Focus
2014: No Excuses – Only Thoughtful Action
2015: You Can’t Predict Your Own Success
I created milestones to keep me on track. A once a year review wasn’t enough to get me where I wanted to go. My resolutions became less vague. I made specific goals. I separated them into categories.
I started scheduling time on my calendar to do quarterly reviews. I would spend a couple of hours every three months reviewing the goals I set for myself, tracking my progress, reminding myself what was important, and making a plan for how to stay or get back on track. I was rarely ahead, almost always behind, but it kept me honest. It was a reminder (for a mind that loves distraction) just what I was trying to accomplish.
The complexity and detail for these goals and reviews only grew as time passed.
In 2012 my resolutions were a list of 10 goals.
By 2017 my resolutions were a 90 row, 11 column “Goal Accountability Plan” spreadsheet with quarterly and bi-monthly check-ins.
Suffice to say, things had gotten a little out of hand.
While that spreadsheet allowed me to stay on task with certain very specific goals, it was also a constant reminder of my failings. My inability to sign clients, save money or make time to volunteer. My goals were sometimes unique but often very dependent on each other. I filled in so many of those boxes with “No Change” or “Not possible until X happens first.”
A better title for that spreadsheet would have been “How to remind yourself you keep coming up short over and over again.”
Spreadsheets are great for tracking whats and hows. The why of it all was another story and something I hadn’t really considered. But I wasn’t ready to consider it. That would come later.
The yearly review of 2017 saw me back off considerably. I targeted five goals. I reviewed them every 4 months, changing them as I saw fit. It was a more focused, breathable cadence easier to follow and decidedly less stressful. The need to be wildly productive dissipated as I tried to focus on the wildly important.
Still, I achieved some and missed most.
It is almost time for this year’s review, but it will be different this year. I will be spending Christmas with my fiance’s family which means my yearly retreat to my parents’ porch won’t happen. While the actual location of this activity shouldn’t matter, I feel a bit unmoored. There is something I so deeply value about removing myself from daily life so I can observe it from afar.
So it is fitting I came across an article a couple of weeks ago entitled “Growth Without Goals” which quoted the Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. The second paragraph said:
Man lives by time. Inventing the future has been his favorite game of escape. We think that changes in ourselves can come about in time, that order in ourselves can be built up little by little, added to day by day. But time doesn’t bring order or peace, so we must stop thinking in terms of gradualness. This means that there is no tomorrow for us to be peaceful in. We have to be orderly on the instant.
It was at that point my brain collapsed and I had to stop reading.
The piece advocated letting go of constantly changing goals to focus on daily practices. It made me wonder if it isn’t time to review the efficacy of my own goal setting. To take stock of my approach instead of which goals to set and how rigidly I adhere to them. I know there is more to life than cataloging, codifying and executing. Seven years of whats have led me to ask why for the first time. I don’t yet have an answer.
And I am OK with that.
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