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Navigating the Annual Review

Cargo Boat in San Francisco, CA

A ship's captain doesn't spend time staring at the ocean behind him; where the ship is going is a lot more important than where its been. If the captain is preoccupied with what's behind him, he won't see the obstacles ahead in time to change course.

But that doesn't mean he ignores where he has been. He keeps his focus on what's ahead but also maintains the ship's log and refers to it when he needs to look back.

Annual reviews work much the same way. We shouldn't dwell on our prior failures and successes in life but we should keep a running log of where we've been.

By recording our goals and then reviewing what happened, we gain valuable insight into how we respond to changing conditions of life. Every year we get a little better at navigating the ocean of existence and adjusting our course for the future.

I've been publishing annual reviews and announcing my new years resolutions on this blog since 2003. Until last year the process of the annual review and planning hasn't changed.

Each year I would list several things that I hoped to accomplish and then at the end of that year I would publish a post describing which of the goals I reached and which fell by the wayside.

It was a failed system. Every year the majority of my goals would go untouched. I was doing annual reviews and planning, but I wasn't reviewing my reviewing and planning system!

When I finally implemented a new system last year, the new system turned out to be just as ineffective as the old one -- it was too complicated for my needs. But at least now I'm learning and trying new things.

What's important when trying new things is that we adopt what works and leave behind what doesn't. That's basically what annual reviews are all about: Looking at what did and didn't work and then adjusting course for the next year.

Just as a ship under power won't stop moving just because an obstacle appears, time won't stop and let us decide what to do with our lives. We need to take an active role, anticipate obstacles, and plan the journey. We need to think about where we're going and make decisions about how we're going to get there.

This Thursday, I will publish my review of 2010 and share what I've learned over the past year. I'll also share the navigation and planning skills that have worked for me and explain how I will use those to help guide me through next year.

If you do an annual review and/or planning, what does that process look like?

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  1. Excellent metaphor in the ship and her captain, Raam. Annual review is a good opportunity to take stock and look at the larger direction of your life; but to make any headway one needs to review progress on a far more regular basis (e.g. monthly).

    I do it by listing the major areas of my life; deciding on the most important changes I want to see in each area; deciding on the relative importance of those things and then allocating time on a weekly basis to further them. I don’t so much worry about planning out all the action steps. More about identifying a few habits and time to practice them (like how many focused hours per week).

    I think goal setting is an ideal place to practice minimalism and pair it down to the really high impact, essential things. Otherwise it’s easy to get over committed and end up spinning your wheels.

    • I totally agree Lach. I do daily and weekly reviews myself, because I’ve found that, at least for me, monthly and quarterly reviews leave me too much time in between to get off track. The annual review is a nice way to adjust course and take the 30,000-foot perspective to see where my life is going. πŸ™‚

      I also use a similar method as you for listing things based on areas of my life. I’ll be writing more about that process when I publish my 2011 planning post on Monday.

  2. Hi Raam,
    I approach this process far different from most. My basic philosophy is unfolding..I prep my area and allow for experiences to happen as they are placed within a natural cycle. I do live on a boat, and I’ve recently had the insight that the way I navigate on sea and in life is the same. I prep, I set a course, then I honor the current and wind pattern as I adjust my sails.
    For the new year, I do not set resolutions. I do create a ‘dream’ book of all of the experiences I would like to have from small (try this new food) to large–create a new business–and all in between. I find that sometimes the items listed such as go to the circus, are not literal, but rather figurative as in have more fun..I also find that when I allow for unfolding I am experiencing far beyond what my limited mind can ask for…magnificent!
    I also do not conduct a formal review because I review as I live. When I sail, I am Aware at all times of the depth of the water, speed of the wind, all that is in my scope affecting my ship; just as when I “live” I am aware of all that is in my scope affecting me. I release as I move forward. So that at any moment, I am very much Aware of the moment I am in and the direction I am heading. And I am prepped enough to follow the wind patterns if I choose adventure or to stay on my course. I do my best to release expectation and allow for experience…

    • Hi Joy,

      Thank you so much for sharing! I love how so much of the way you look at life can be compared to the way you sail.

      I also stopped focusing so much on new years resolutions and began shifting towards a more “dream” oriented approach. In fact, at the beginning of this year I mixed a bit of both methods for “planning” 2010 and in retrospect the only one that actually worked was the dream approach. (I will be writing more about that on Thursday.)

      You said that you don’t conduct a formal review because you review as you live. I’d like to hear your thoughts on my take. Continuing with the sailing analogy, I would consider my annual review akin to deciding where I’m going to sail to next. When you’re docked, I doubt you set sail without first deciding where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, right?

      That’s basically what I see as the yearly review — a chance to spend some extra time to think about where we’re going and make decisions about where we’d like to go next. I don’t think that means we need to conform to those decisions, but I think at least some direction, even if we end up not using it, is better than none at all. What do you think?

      • Hi Raam,
        To answer your question..I truly live (and sail) by unfolding. Let me use the sailing analogy to explain. When I am docked, I am prepping the boat for any circumstance…more importantly, I am also enjoying the boat as she is in her slip in whatever capacity I may πŸ™‚ When I decide to sail, I set the general intent..let’s say a certain cove at my backyard island. My overall intent is to sail and to enjoy it.. the actual destination is not my goal.
        So, I start out. Perhaps the current is stronger one way, perhaps the wind dies down so I have to motor to get where I want to me the motor is a ‘struggle’, a sign I am resisting the natural flow. I am an excellent sailor so I know I *can* work the sails and use the motor to insist upon arriving at my destination. So I may choose to embrace struggle and motor, or I may choose to embrace unfolding and set my sails knowing I am prepped for anything and allow nature to dictate my destination.
        In sailing and in life, I choose unfolding. I live by my senses and allow my heart to lead. Am I wandering aimlessly about? No, I have a general intent to allow for unfolding and to love fully along the way..
        And, this is what happens when I allow for unfolding..I often arrive at my original destination and it is wonder filled and fun..but most often I arrive at a destination I had no idea existed and it is more beauty filled, more awe-some than I could have imagined or asked for! In life, that could mean a more fulfilling relationship, abundance in a place I may create from, an experience that enriches my life and allows me to share more fully. I do manifest, but I never call to myself specific anything..I call to myself the overall experience for my senses.
        I understand my way is completely different from most. It is best experienced rather than explained. Your way is amazing, and I love to ‘watch’ as you process..I am so appreciatve for all that you share..
        My PS would be: I do pick a theme word kind of as my tiller and this year is “embrace simplicity”..

        • Thank you for elaborating, Joy! I love hearing other perspectives. I love what you said about living by your senses and allowing your heart to lead. I’ve been doing a lot more of that over the past year and it has taken me to some incredible places!

          I think truly allowing our heart to lead requires an absolute release from attachment. If we’re attached to goals, ideas, or even dreams, we’ll be less likely to listen when our heart tells us to do something else. Before I decided to change my lifestyle and leave for India late last year, I had been listening to that voice inside my head that was telling me to play it safe… to make use of the great job I had available and continue putting things off until the time was right. I finally realized that the time is right when I decide the time is right! πŸ™‚

    • This is really beautifully said, Joy. Ultimately what we’re talking about is awareness of ones self: at its best it is a continual, in the moment process. You don’t need a formalised, structured process to do that. You can do it with your intuition. In fact, that’s a higher, more powerful level on which to be guided in my opinion. I’m finding my experience of life is drawing me ever closer to the way of intuition and feeling rather than the way of structure and logic.

  3. I have a higher level map that I review whenever I feel
    unsure or anxious about that horizon. Usually something has come up
    in life that changes the plan, or perhaps I have done a few of the
    bigger things and need more. Either way, a subtle stress feeling
    signals the need to review and adapt. The map lists the 4-5 focus
    areas of the period and below them the areas of interest (a layer
    above defined action projects). As an example, at the moment the
    Awesome Foundation is a focus area and the area of interest within
    that is getting it started in Melbourne with a diverse group of
    interesting people – I want each member to not know everyone else.
    Another area of interest there is to explore the existing
    philanthropy world to see how that is changing. I have found that
    reviews based on a calendar are only useful as reminders, but are
    impractical for me to get things done. When I feel subtly stressed
    there is a problem at a horizon of focus whether it is what am I
    doing this afternoon though to what am I doing on the planet this
    lifetime. The more awareness I have, the faster I can adapt and get
    on with life.

    • Hey Ross,

      I love the idea of using stress to signal the need to review and adapt. I’m curious if you ever find yourself reviewing and adapting things at the high level (the focus areas). When you’re feeling unsure or anxious, do you return to the focus areas, the areas of interest, the actions, or all of them?

      I find that sometimes things in my life change so quickly that the very things that were most important at the high level need to be changed or discarded altogether. For example, at the start of this year “travel the world” was the most important thing. Then half-way though, it began shifting to “help the world”. Travel became less important than finding some way to help improve humanity (a lofty goal, no doubt, but still one that heavily influences all my other decisions).

      That need for constant review is why I’m planning to stick with a weekly review of all levels during 2011. Instead of passively checking in and seeing how I’m doing with my goals, I’m going to reevaluate and make micro-adjustments to my course on a weekly basis.

      • On a daily basis I’ll look at actions for today, on a roughly weekly basis I’ll review actions and projects in areas, then maybe monthly or so go higher. Basically review as much as you need to to regain that clarity. Sometimes it will be a simple daily list and sometimes it will be all the way to the top. However far you feel you need to go to the horizon πŸ™‚

        • That makes sense. πŸ™‚ It will be interesting to see how reviewing all levels of my goals on a weekly basis affects my focus. On one hand I think it will be good to constantly maintain awareness of all levels, but on the other hand it might lead to scattered efforts and a feeling of trying to tackle a mountain in one step. Maybe I’ll also do a quarterly review of my weekly review process just to reevaluate its usefulness.

          • Haha just review it as often as you feel you need to – don’t try to force a schedule. It’s much simpler that way πŸ™‚

          • But what happens when we “forget” that we need to review it? Habits are useful to keep us in check, but once the habits have been formed, you’re right — there is no need for a schedule. I think the weekly review habit I’m forming will work wonders for keeping me on track and adjusting course when needed. πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Raam,
    Nice boating analogy! Your visitor Joy who commented above must really be able to relate to it since she said she lives on a boat. I lived on a boat once for a month it sure is a different experience since I love to walk and there was not much space to do so.

    In terms of goal setting, I have also used a lot of failing goal setting strategies over the years. Now I have found that the best and most effective way for me to start each day is to review and rewrite my core goals. I have six separate goals I work on daily without stress but with focus. If you are interested I wrote about this process in several parts of my blog. The most recent article is posted at

    I look forward to find out what you learned worked for you.

    All the best,

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for sharing your process! It sounds very similar to what I plan to use for 2011. Instead of reviewing my goals on a monthly or quarterly basis, I’m going to review them weekly and daily. I think reminding ourselves what our core goals are every day and then asking ourselves what we can do today to work towards them is an excellent way to make progress.

  5. Dear Raam,
    This all is so complicated. first make a list, then ensure that you review your review. i much prefer Sandra’s approach of taking just one phrase or word.Then you just remind ourself n you are on your way. But that’s just my view.
    the metaphor of the ship was real good

    • Hi Varuni,

      This actually isn’t the process that I’m going to use going forward. One thing I adopted at the beginning of this year was the use of a theme. Each year I think about what one word best describes what I want to accomplish. This year was the Year of Transition. πŸ™‚ I really love Sandra’s one-word approach, but at this point in my life — with so many roads and paths before me — I feel the need to be a little more elaborate.

      I’m greatly simplifying my approach to reviews and planning for 2010/2011. This post was just describing how complicated my previous approaches were and why it’s important to learn from past failures and try new things. I think it’s dangerous to settle into a rut and accept a specific method just because it has worked for us once or twice. I think we should always be experimenting and trying new things!

  6. Raam,

    This is such an interesting area of discussion – what really helps us move forward and change? I love working with one word; even one word has so many implications.

    On a practical level though, I like JD Meier’s approach, which he calls Getting Results the Agile Way. It centers around the idea of choosing three goals for the year, the month, the week, the day. For some reason three is a manageable and achievable number.

    Mostly, I’m working with one word and more in a flow.

    Can’t wait to see your review. I’m sure you have some great approaches and tips.

    • Hi Sandra,

      The one word approach is definitely appealing… especially because of its simplicity! I looked over the Getting Results the Agile Way and I like the Plan, Do, Review methodology (thank you for the link!). I’ve been adopting principals from the Getting Things Done (GTD) method for over a year now, slowly refining the process to work with my lifestyle.

      I think that as Joy was saying in an earlier comment, intuition plays a huge part in the process and that we need to experiment and tweak methods until we find something that works for us. I like things semi-structured, but extremely flexible and agile. πŸ™‚

      I’ll definitely be talking more about the approach I’m adopting for 2011 in one of my next posts.

  7. Hi Raam, I did a mind map a few years ago with my hopes and dreams for the future is a link to my post about it in more detail

    At the start of last year I chose 10 things off it that I wanted to achieve -I also re-visit it throughout the year to keep on target. I will be doing this again this year too. I like your idea of a weekly review though, I will try this next year. I’m looking forward to reading about your 2010 review – I’m sure it will be really helpful to us all. Thanks for sharing this with us Raam, best wishes for 2011 x

    • Hi Debbie,

      Mind maps can be really powerful. I’ve used them for other things and had amazing results. I’ve never used one to map out my hopes and dreams, but that should be an interesting experiment! Have you heard of FreeMind? It’s a really good piece of free mind mapping software. There is a slight learning curve, but it’s amazing once you get the hang of it!

      Thank you so much for reading Debbie. I wish you all the best for 2011! πŸ™‚

  8. Raam, Great post! I love the navigating analogy you used. It begs the question regarding if you have your hands on the helm fully engaged looking ahead charting a course…but never seeming to get there…ever, why? If it were really on a ship, someone might say to the one at the helm “step aside as you don’t seem to know how to sail a ship, you keep going in circles.” In this situation any normal person would step aside and let someone who knows how to navigate take control. Navigating a ship is like navigating our lives. In a ship it’s pretty clear that the man at the helm didn’t know how to navigate, as he was going in circles and didn’t even know it. How easy is it for us to do the same thing in our lives, to keep going in circles thinking we must be making some headway. I know I’ve been there many times(more times than I can count). But is it really a sign of weakness to hand over the “helm” to someone who knows how to navigate and get us to the place we want to go to…or is it true wisdom? Thanks Raam for your inspiring post.

    • Thanks for the comment, John! Great point about needing to recognize when we’re going in circles. I noticed that with my previous system of setting yearly goals and then reviewing them… I was going through the motions but they weren’t getting me anywhere (90% of the goals I had set never got finished). A year ago I decided to change that and for the first time in my life, I feel like I’ve actually accomplished the majority of the things I set out to do (more about that on Thursday!).

    • πŸ™‚ This is why feedback and right people who empower us to look within AND without are so important…

      because it’s easy to get lost in the sea of the mind.

  9. Hi Raam, this is a timely subject for me as I’m thinking about what I want to do with my year and how to accomplish that. I’ve never had much luck with resolutions as they are too vague. I think this year I’m going to use a combination of Sandra’s one word idea, and a goals book. I think that’s a great idea to check in with yourself weekly, as it’s so easy to let a month or two go by and realize you haven’t even started something! I think I’m a little too comfortable just drifting where life takes me as things are good, so I don’t want to wake up at 50 and realize I didn’t make progress on my dreams.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I know what you mean by letting a month or two go by without starting something! That’s why I think doing a weekly review of all our yearly goals will help remind us what we should be doing. And I think if our ambitions change and our goals are no longer relevant, we should update them to reflect the changes (almost like doing another new years resolutions list!).


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