Before Setting Goals for the New Year, Systematically Review Your Accomplishments

Image of rear-view mirror looking at a plowed field

Every New Year's Day,  I run a “Thinking Day” in the Thinking Lab, to provide coaching for members who are setting goals for the new year. To make sure you set goals from a position of strength, I recommend you systematically review all the past year's accomplishments before deciding what to do next year. 

There are three reasons for this.

First, a systematic review ensures that you keep in mind all areas of your life. Depending on what's happening at home or at work, it may or may not be a good time to set a weight loss goal or a job change goal. If you think about goals for next year from scratch, you will very likely set some goals that are incompatible with continuing projects from this year...without even knowing it.

Second, a thorough review of accomplishments is an important opportunity for celebration and mourning. I recently wrote about the importance of these processes in clarifying and honoring your own values. Once a year, it is worth it to do some emotional work on your long-term goals.

Finally, such a review ensures that you don't get discouraged by goals that take more than a year to achieve. Some of your goals for next year may look suspiciously like your goals from last year. It's easy to drop into self-criticism to explain that. But if you want to really understand the reason you didn't achieve that goal, look at the things you did achieve. What productive actions competed with that goal for your time and attention? That context will mitigate any discouragement, and it will help you adjust the goal to be more realistic in the coming year.

I recommend a two-step process for your review. 

First, the mechanical part: Review your records for the year to make a list of accomplishments. Go through each week in your calendar. Scan through your email archive. Skim your journal. Look for big accomplishments and medium ones. Write them all down. You will be amazed at how much you accomplished. 

Making a big list of completions, including achievements you haven't thought about for months, sets a positive tone for the rest of the review and warms up your mental circuits for thinking more deeply about your achievements. 

Second, the thoughtful part: Answer some questions about the year as a whole:

  • What did I do this year that made a big positive difference in my life? 
  • What accomplishments am I most proud of?
  • What are my biggest regrets?
  • What lessons did I learn this year? 
  • What unfinished business do I have?

I recommend answering each of these questions by doing three minutes of "thinking on paper." (If you haven't learned Thinking on Paper from me, go get the free Thinking Directions Starter Kit, where I teach it.

Answering these questions on paper helps you dig a little deeper into how you feel about your accomplishments. You will trigger some joy and some grief. But mostly, this is a value-gathering mission to help you lay a foundation for the future.

When you have identified the accomplishments that made a big positive difference, take a moment to celebrate them. Give yourself the praise you deserve. You might never hear it from anyone else.

After you celebrate, it will be easier to think about regrets. If you get emotional about what didn't go well this year, give yourself empathy. Mourning the things you regret will help you learn from them, and help you let go of them. Learning from mistakes takes the sting out of them and turns them into a different kind of success story. You're going to need that learning, to ensure you can achieve related goals in the new year.

The last item to review is unfinished business. These are loose ends — things that you feel need to be completed. This is an emotional test, not a logical one. It is very common to hold onto goals that are no longer important or relevant or good uses of your time. You don't need to make a decision now about whether to continue with those projects. For the review, simply look back at what you've done and not done and make peace with the present. 

I recommend that you review the past year at least a day or so before you set goals for the new year. This gives you a chance to mull over what happened and reflect more on your values. It gives you time to complete both celebration and mourning, so you have some closure before starting a new goal-setting process. In next week's article, I'll share my advice on setting goals, especially for people who haven't had success with New Year's goals or resolutions in the past.

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