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#010: The Ultimate Annual Review

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
28 min read
#010: The Ultimate Annual Review

Happy Friday from Stone Ridge, NY. My family and I are spending the week up here, and I’m so excited to be out of the city—there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than up in the Catskills. While I’m on break, I plan to spend hours in the kitchen cooking for my family, play with my kids, finish a book that I had to put down after the baby came, watch some football, and go for a hike.

The holiday season is my favorite time of the year. It symbolizes family, friends, vacation and of course plenty of good food. It’s also a natural time to step back and reflect on what happened this year, and define how we want to focus our energy and time in the year ahead.

So much happens over the course of a year. Lessons learned. Victories. Hardships. Physical changes. Special moments. Personal growth. New relationships. But by the time New Year’s rolls around, we can be so focused on the future that we neglect to understand what’s just happened to us. In fact, as the British playwright Alan Bennet put it in The History Boys, “There is no period so remote as the recent past.”

Just about every employer on the planet has us complete an annual review before year’s end, covering our work performance for the previous year and to set goals to improve in our work the following year. This makes good sense. It’s difficult to know where to head if we don’t know where we’ve been and where we are. But this led me to the question: why don’t we conduct an annual review for the rest of our life? I asked a number of friends and clients, and this is what I heard: when it comes to an annual review of my whole life, we don’t make the time, feel the pressure, or have a blueprint to guide us.

Dating back to 2015, I’ve taken time at the end of the year to conduct a comprehensive annual life review. The process has been not only cathartic but also transformational, illuminating and empowering. In fact, this exercise has helped me identify what’s important, shed what isn’t, and evolve in many ways. As a result, I identified a desire to get sober, leave a job that wasn’t the right fit, and pursue coaching as a new calling.

Several friends began to ask if I could share my annual life review process, so I made a template and began to share it with them privately. It’s had such a profound impact on me and my friends that I wanted to make it available to everyone.

That’s why I created the Ultimate Annual Review in 2018. It’s an actionable blueprint to conduct your own self-paced annual life review. You’ll explore the challenges you faced in the previous year, what you learned, and what you desire in the new year. In other words, you’ll gain a holistic perspective of your life in 2022 and where you want to go in 2023.

The review is broken into six distinct exercises:

  • Moments & Milestones: What were your significant moments, milestones and memories?
  • Reflections & Lessons: What were your lessons and learnings from this year?
  • Current Life Assessment: How satisfied are you in 12 life dimensions?
  • Intentions: What would you like to change and accomplish next year?
  • Goals & Action Plan: What are your goals and immediate next steps?
  • Future Self: What do you want to write to your future self at the end of next year?

For the average person, this process usually takes a few weeks over multiple sessions. I wouldn’t try to breeze through the exercises in one sitting. Make sure you have time to carefully review, internalize and complete the exercises. I recommend blocking out at least three hour-long sessions, especially if you’re busy, because life can get in the way. I typically complete my own annual life review between Christmas and New Year’s. I find this week works well because I’m away from most work distractions and have ample downtime.

I also recommend creating your ideal environment for deep, focused work. Power down your devices. If you are using your computer, I suggest turning off wifi and quitting your web browser—everything you need to know to complete the Review is already in you. Find a comfortable place that you find suitable for creative work. Perhaps you’ll need a pair of headphones and relaxing music. I also recommend having a notebook by your side to take notes, brainstorm and capture anything that comes up during the process. You know yourself better than anyone. Do what it takes to get into the flow.

View this as an investment in yourself and your future. Take your time with the exercises. Be patient. Be genuine. Be bold. Be selfish. Be completely honest with yourself. This is for you. No one else. Like anything in life, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.

Finally, this framework is not meant to be prescriptive. You can move sequentially through the six exercises or just focus on a few. If you don’t feel like answering a question, take a breath and a pause, and then give it a shot. The ones we resist are probably the most important. That said, you’re in charge here. Don’t forget that.

I hope this year’s edition of The Ultimate Annual Review inspires you to take the plunge and go within. I also hope it inspires you to recruit family members or friends. Accountability and support is a powerful force. My wife and I complete this together every December, and we learn so much about each other. You’ll likely be surprised by what you discover about yourself and those in your life.

I can’t promise this framework will reveal the meaning of life or solve your biggest problems. Here’s what I do promise: you’ll end the year with a map of the past, and a compass for the future.

All that said, don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions, comments, or feedback at any point in the process. I would be delighted to hear from you.

May 2023 bring you happiness, fulfillment, and prosperity. Good luck and happy holidays!

Begin your annual review today!

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    🤔 For Contemplation

    Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Every year on Thanksgiving eve or morning, I carve out (pun intended) 30 minutes to make a list of all the things—large and small—that I’m grateful for. I always appreciate what surfaces in this meditation.

    As I think about what I’m thankful for, the first things that come to mind, besides my family, are my readers, this newsletter, and my commitment to writing. I’ve grown so much in 2022 as a writer. It’s a wonderful feeling to revisit what I’ve written this year— sometimes I can’t believe those words were written by me. That’s growth. That’s change.

    So, what are you thankful for this holiday season?

    🌱 Seeds of Change

    Here are five things I’ve been pondering and exploring over the past few weeks. If any resonate, please feel free to forward along to friends.

    🌿 The Paradoxical Theory of Change

    Earlier this year, I caught up with my friend and fellow coach, Warren Liao, and he mentioned “the paradoxical theory of change.” I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, so as soon as our call was over, I searched the web and discovered this excellent and thought provoking white paper written in 1970 by Dr. Arnold Beisser. It turns out what I stumbled upon is “the most frequently referenced article in the body of Gestalt therapy literature.” So what is the Paradoxical Theory of Change? “Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” In other words, when we embrace who we are in the moment, rather than who we want to become, that’s when change can happen. While this was written for therapists, I believe anyone interested in growth and development should read it—as the name suggests, this theory goes against many of our conventional beliefs on change. (5 minutes)

    😴 Why Do We Procrastinate?

    I’m currently writing an essay on resistance to change, so that’s why this article caught my attention when I was pursuing the latest issue of The Local Optimist by Madhappy. If you’re human, you’ve procrastinated at some point in your life. You might even be procrastinating as you read this sentence. You wouldn’t be alone. “An estimated 20% of adults in the United States are chronic procrastinators, even though research shows that high levels of procrastination in the workplace can have negative effects on employment duration and income.” In this article, leading experts weigh in on the effect that procrastination has on the brain, its benefits, and how to curb the habit. Medical News Today. (5 minutes)

    🧠 The Brain Undergoes a Great “Rewiring” After Age 40

    Last month I turned 43, and began to embrace my place in the world as a “young old person.” While I still feel youthful in many respects, I can’t ignore some of the physical changes I’m experiencing, like an occasional gray hair, or the knee and back pain that sidelined me for a few months this spring. It turns out that when we hit 40 not all of the changes we begin to experience will be felt physically. As we enter the fifth decade of our lives, “our brains start to undergo a radical ‘rewiring’ that results in diverse networks becoming more integrated and connected over the ensuing decades, with accompanying effects on cognition.” This is a fascinating article on what happens to the structure and functioning of the brain as we age, some of the reasons behind it, and a few things you can do to “put the networking changes on hold.” Big Think (5 minutes)

    🎵 The Transformative Power of Classical Music

    If you really knew me you’d know that I listen to classical music every time I write. This is a relatively new occurrence for me. In fact, I now stream this music around the house on the weekends and evenings when we’re lounging with the kids. Yes, I’m embracing my inner boomer. Talk about an unexpected change! A few weeks ago, I accidently stumbled upon this 2015 TED Talk given by conductor Benjamin Zander on the “transformative power of classical music.”  Zander makes a compelling and entertaining argument that classical music is for everyone. Furthermore, he helps “us all realize our untapped love for it—and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.” YouTube (20 minutes)

    📎 Limbic Friction

    This tweet storm on “limbic friction” by Charlotte Grysolle resonated because I have a tendency to fidget with pens, paper and toys while I’m in meetings. This is the friction between your limbic system (the emotional and impulsive center) and your prefrontal cortex (the rational, decision making center). According to Charlotte, “You know there’s limbic friction when you’re negotiating with yourself in your head: ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that.’ We all experience this. I know I do. This thread was so helpful for me that I’m beginning to identify “go” and “no go” behaviors to strengthen neural pathways and begin to overcome limbic friction. May it do the same for you.

    2022templateYear End

    Steve Schlafman Twitter

    Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.


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