Start the day with intention and finish it with reflection

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that I needed more intentionality in my day. I was basically reacting to whatever came across my path all day long, and that’s not how I usually do things. Baby crying? Take care of him. Feeling hungry? Eat something. Toys lying scattered on the floor? Tidy up. Package delivered? Open it. Feeling tired? Sleep.

Now, I’m over-simplifying things. I had certain things scheduled such as going to the gym three times a week (ah, the good times when the gym was open…) and going for a walk with William in the stroller every afternoon. But mostly my days felt like a random sequence of events.

There’s technically nothing wrong with having a day full of random events except that it made me feel like I didn’t have a purpose and wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my time.

I felt this very clearly when William was taking a nap and I finally had an hour or so to myself. What should I do? There were so many things I wanted to do! I’d start one thing, only to remember something else and then something else. I was running around like a headless chicken, half-finishing a couple of things, only to hear my baby crying and drop everything to attend to him.

That’s when I instituted the Daily Morning Practice and the Daily Evening Practice. As you might imagine, I don’t have tons of time for these, so they’re short and sweet. I’ve kept to them every day since! These practices are so powerful and at the same time so easy, and they are exactly what I need.

Start the day with My Top 5

Every morning, while having breakfast, I take out my little notebook (it has a llama/alpaca and a sloth on the cover! It’s awesome!). I start by writing the date. That’s important in itself because sometimes I remember there was something planned for today or perhaps I recall it’s someone’s birthday. Then, I check my calendar and my tasks for today. Jacob and I often do this together because we need to coordinate things.

The notebook in which I do my morning and evening practice.

Then, I write down my Top 5. These are the main five things I’d like to do today, and they’re usually very, very simple. These days, I always include “exercise” (during this staycation, I’ve been exercising for about 30 minutes every day), “walk” (I take our baby for a walk every day–we both benefit from the fresh air and sunshine), and “take care of William.” This last one can be fifty tasks on its own and it will happen for sure every day, but I like to include it anyway. I was falling into the trap of taking for granted all the stuff I do for William, and then I was wondering why I’m not very productive on top of that. I had to remind myself that taking care of him is a big job, and the fact that I’m accomplishing it every day is already productive. That’s why I include it in my Top 5 every day.

The other 2 tasks vary day-to-day: they may be something like “write a blog post,” “do the financial review,” or “tidy up the bedroom.” I make sure they’re not impossibly big tasks; it’s really important to keep these manageable. At the same time, it’s nice to be slightly ambitious because it makes me feel energetic and inspired about the day.

Set an intention

I also set an intention for the day. It’s something that I want to remember throughout the day and let it guide my thoughts and behavior.

These days, my intention often is to “be kind.” It’s super simple, but it encompasses so much. If I’m feeling frustrated, remember that I don’t need to take it out on someone else (usually Jacob, my husband, since he’s around all the time). If someone is being not-so-nice to me, give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they’re having a hard time. If my baby is crying, that’s not a reason to get annoyed; he (probably) genuinely needs me.

Complete the day with reflection…

At the end of the day, I open up my notebook again and look at my Top 5. I check off the things I’ve completed and maybe add an extra task or two that I’ve managed to do. This shows me how much I’ve accomplished in that day even if it doesn’t feel that way (if the day was chaotic, went differently from expected, etc.).

Then, I write down a take-away message. These are one or two sentences about something I’ve learned that day or a conclusion I’ve come to. Sometimes it’s linked to the intention I set in the morning, and other times it’s completely separate.

These take-away messages can be profound (e.g., “changing my perspective changes everything”) or practical (e.g., “sleeping one hour more in the morning does wonders for my energy”).

Here is a sample entry from my notebook.

…and gratitude

I also write down five things I’m grateful for that day. I know that five sounds like a lot, but once I start thinking about things to be grateful for, many come to mind. It’s a wonderful way to reflect on and complete the day.

By taking a few minutes for these practices every day, I feel that I’m much more focused and intentional while going about my day. I still respond to the circumstances that come about, but I keep in mind what’s important and what I’d like to do that day. In the end, I don’t think it makes me much more productive, but it makes all the difference in my attitude. At the end of the day, I don’t need to be more productive to be happy; rather, I need to be content with what I’ve accomplished and be happy with what I already have.

The Joy of the Annual Review

One of my favorite events of the year just took place: Are you thinking of New Year’s Eve? Well, you almost got it…

My eternal love goes to the Annual Review. This is the wonderful time of year when I look back on the year that just passed and then look forward to the year that is to come. It’s a time for reflection on the recent past and crafting of the future.

The structure of the Annual Review

The Annual Review consists of three main parts:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What would I like for next year?

Reflect on the past year

I make a list for each point. Often we forget many of the things we did over the course of a year, so I remind myself of what has happened over the past 12 months. I look through my calendar and at the outputs of my Monthly Reviews. I also look at my list of goals for 2018 which resulted from my previous Annual Review.

For instance, some things that went well for me this year were:

  • Publication of my first paper (yay!)
  • Completed a Dutch course
  • Completed three strength training programs
  • Completed my 2019 Reading Challenge
  • Got engaged (yay!!!)

There are also things that didn’t go so well for me, for example:

  • Didn’t meditate consistently every day (went off track sometimes)
  • Got stressed and didn’t see things in perspective at times

I should note that I add to both lists as I think of stuff. It’s helpful to first think about things that went well and then about things that didn’t go so well, but it’s also fine to add things to either list as they come up in your mind. After all, it’s an organic process.

Reflection is just like fireworks: glamorous and awesome.
Photo by
Javon Swaby from Pexels

Plan the upcoming year

Then, I move on to planning the upcoming year. Again, I look at the calendar and think about what I will do when, approximately, and how the year would unfold. Most importantly, I think about what I’d like to focus on at different times throughout the year (e.g., different work projects, quality time with family, skill development, or travel).

I make a list of the things I’d like to accomplish during the upcoming year. My list for 2019 contains, among others:

  • Write a paper for my second project (now completed)
  • Begin third project (new)
  • Give bootcamp on Personal Organization
  • Play the piano at least 3 times per week
  • Meditate every day, even if only for 1 minute
  • Get married!

Review your list once a month

Once you make your list, make sure you review it often, around once per month. I do this as a part of my Monthly Review, but you could also do it if you put your list above your desk or on your fridge door. In this way, you will come back to the goals you set for yourself, and they will actually be useful.

The first time I did an Annual Review (in 2014), I made a to do list for 2015, and guess when I looked at it? At my 2015 Annual Review. Needless to say, that wasn’t super useful. While I had accomplished many of the items on it, I had completely forgotten about others. That’s why I recommend checking the list more often.

Reflect and plan based on priorities

As a part of my Annual Review, I consider my priorities. I reflect on the extent to which I’ve acted according to my priorities during the past year. In thinking about the upcoming year, I consider what actions I can introduce or adapt to in order to better fit my priorities.

By breaking things down like this, you get much more concrete insights because the priorities are the different categories, or themes, of your life. If you wonder, “What would I like to improve next year?” this question may be too vague to prompt any meaningful insight. But if you ask, “How would I like to connect with my family more next year?” you may get much more specific, and thus useful, answers.

Concluding remarks

Reflect together with a friend

As an extra bonus, ask a close friend or significant other to join you in your Annual Review quest. While I’ve done this by myself in the past, this year I did it together with my fiancee. This turned out to be a lot of fun! We asked each other questions and in many ways enriched each other’s reflection and idea generation. It was very pleasant and eye-opening to reflect on the past year together with someone else.

Resources

I’m very grateful for information on the Annual Review by James Clear and Chris Guillebeau. Check out how they do their annual reviews for some slightly different implementations. James also includes a section called “What have I learned [from the past year]?” and Chris shares a cool spreadsheet where he tracks his progress towards his goals as the year progresses.

Until next year, my dear Annual Review…

And this is it for the annual review. While I wish I could do it more often because I enjoy this time of reflection so much, the annual review takes place once per year by definition. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with mediocre Weekly Reviews and slightly special Monthly Reviews… *sigh*

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to know more, you can check out my description of my Review System.

So, did you try to Annual Review? What insights did you reach? What are you planning for next year? And, most importantly, did you enjoy it?
Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.