Looking Back on a Year

Tomorrow is the first day of the secular New Year and with it comes the inevitable New Year’s Resolutions. While new resolutions have value despite their clichéd weakness, before you make any new resolutions, set any goals or make any plans, let me encourage you to take an in-depth look at the year that is passing.

Since my first year out of college, I have taken a few hours around every new year to sit down and review the previous year. It started because I missed the feedback from school: from kindergarten through graduation – 17 of my then-22 years – I had received quarterly report cards. I always knew how I was doing. I was a good student and most of my grade reports were positive feedback, but there were occasional quarters where the report reinforced what I knew but didn’t want to accept – I needed to make some changes.

More than just missing the feedback, I also had trouble recognizing my successes. I’m an engineer – my natural tendency is to find problems and then try to solve them. But once something is done (usually to “improve” rather than to “fix”) it’s easy to forget about it and become engrossed in the next “problem.”

You don’t need a PhD in Magic to understand what happens when you constantly dwell on the negatives in your life and minimize the positives.

So tomorrow I will continue this practice of looking back at the previous year and I encourage you to do the same. Some years it takes me 30 minutes to do. Those are the years where I’ve kept good journals and have kept my goals in front of me throughout the year. Other years take three or four hours. Those are the years when I got “too busy” to write. They aren’t necessarily the bad years, just the years when I didn’t write. I tend to journal more in bad years.

There are many ways you can do an annual reflection. Over the years my reviews have become less like a report card and more like an annotated diary. This is the format that works best for me.

What did you do last year? Go through your journal, your date book, your on-line calendars, your smartphone calendars, check registers and any other chronological records you have. List everything you did during the year: religious and spiritual events, key dates at work, trips, physical achievements and difficulties, family matters, and milestones of every description. If it brought you pleasure or gave you pain, list it.

What I found when I first started doing these was that I had actually done a lot more than I recognized. In my first year I tended to dwell on the fact that I was unhappy living alone and ignored the major accomplishments of graduating from college, finding a professional job and moving to a new city. In 2010 I tended to dwell on the fact that my job had gotten very stressful and ignored the spiritual work I was doing and the milestone of completing the OBOD Druid Grade. In both cases, the calendar review showed me that in spite of some very real difficulties, I had major accomplishments I needed to recognize.

How did your goals and resolutions go? What did you say you wanted to do at the beginning of last year? How did you do? If you succeeded – in whole or in part – that’s something to celebrate. What did you do well? What did you learn? What techniques or approaches can you apply to other areas of your life?

If you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, ask yourself why? Was it an unrealistic goal to begin with? Was it something you didn’t really want to do but felt like you “should” do? Did something unexpected interfere?

The purpose isn’t to beat yourself up over “failure.” The purpose is to help you do a better job of aligning your goals and plans for the coming year – as the old saying goes, wise people learn from their mistakes.

If the goal was a good one and you didn’t achieve it, what can you do differently next time? “Try harder” isn’t likely to product better results. What new approaches can you try? What new support can you arrange? What new feedback can you get? How can you prepare for the next unplanned interference?

Arrange your goals and activities into major categories. I have six major categories:

  1. Financial – income and expenses, savings and investments. Did I live on a balanced budget? Did I save for contingencies and retirement? How am I doing toward my long-term goals?
  2. Physical – how’s my weight, cholesterol and other measurables? How much did I exercise? Did I do anything noteworthy or have any issues that need to be monitored or addressed?
  3. Professional – how’s my job going? Am I getting the results that make me valuable? Am I maintaining and growing my skill set? Do I need to be looking for something else?
  4. Social – what did I do to form and strengthen my social relationships? I’m a natural introvert and if I don’t make this a priority I’ll spend too much time at home in front of the computer.
  5. Spiritual – how was my daily spiritual practice? What did I learn? Who did I serve? How is my relationship with my gods and goddesses and with others in my spiritual community?
  6. Family – how’s my relationship with my spouse? With my family of blood? With my family of choice?

You may have other categories – these are mine. Over the years I’ve added some and deleted others.

The category review has two purposes. First, it forces you to think about what general areas of life are important to you. What’s not a category is just as important as what is. Second, it lets you see where you’re actually spending your time, money, and energy. If you say your family is the most important thing to you but have a page on Financial, a half page on Professional and two lines on Family, maybe you need to reconsider your priorities – or at least be honest with yourself about what your priorities really are.

What progress did you make toward your long-term goals? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to be five years from now? What are your dreams? What is your True Will? The more clearly you can define these goals the better, but a even if all you have is a vague idea you can still take steps in that general direction.

What did you do toward making those dreams a reality? What progress did you make? Did you learn something that helped you more precisely define what you really want, to more clearly understand why you’re here in this world?

Summary. I find it helpful to summarize the year in a couple sentences, to find the theme that ran through the year, to extract what wisdom I can from it. I know others who think that’s oversimplifying a complex matter, but it helps me close out the old year and get ready for the new year.

Now that you’ve taken a good, hard, in-depth look at the last year, you’re ready to set goals and make resolutions for next year.

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  • That looks like a picture of Alaska!

  • You're very observant! It might be British Columbia – I don't remember exactly where that particular shot was taken. But in either case it's looking back into Alaska.