The Benefits of Looking Back and Looking Forward

a rear view mirror of a car on a road

For more than a decade, each year, I’ve been meeting with two friends to do a “look back/look forward” exercise.

Sometimes we break this exercise into two meetings; this year, we did both parts in the same meeting.

How do we conduct this “look back/look forward” exercise?

  • Meet in person, if possible
  • Have a pad of good paper and good markers at hand
  • Bring look back/look forward pages from previous years

Look back/look forward materials

I find this exercise extraordinarily valuable, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I’d do it on my own. It takes several hours, a lot of hard thinking and soul-searching; I’m not sure I’d carve out the time to do it year after year if I wasn’t doing it with friends. Accountability!

Because the three of us do it together, we don’t forget to do it, and we make time for it. Also, we take time to talk about our insights and observations, about ourselves and each other. That conversation is also extremely valuable.

Each of us does this exercise slightly differently, so I’ll describe how I do it.

For instance, I use this exercise to explore my work life. I note very important personal milestones, but for context, rather than to closely track what happened.

Look Back at 2023

To do the “look back,” to jog my memory, I reviewed my “23 for 23” list and my digital calendar.

On one page of good paper, in separate boxes, I noted:

  • My one-word theme for the year: for 2023, “Wave”
  • My annual challenge: #GoOutside23in23
  • Personal milestones: such as celebrating my in-laws’ anniversary, giving the commencement address for my daughter’s high-school graduation, jury duty, Justice O’Connor’s death
  • Travel: both personal and work, including vacations and conferences

Most of my entries are related to creative projects I’ve worked on, so they each have their own box; for instance:

Some of my boxes are more idiosyncratic, for instance:

  • Didn’t work: I noted things that didn’t work out, or that failed altogether; for instance, I tried to figure out an idea for an audio-book from my material, and haven’t cracked that yet
  • Realized: I made a list of things I realized; for instance, I realized that going to conferences is very useful for me, and should be more of a priority; I also realized that I want to spend more time reading social media (yes, more)

At the end of the “look back” half of this exercise, I always say, “Wow, I can’t believe everything that happened this year.”

Creating this kind of “ta-da” list is really valuable. I’ve found that I can become very focused on everything that I want to do in the future, or on the things that I’ve been struggling to accomplish.

I get very energized by reminding myself of all the things I have done.

Look Forward to 2024

No surprise, my “look forward” is less specific and more aspirational.

For 2024, on another page of good paper, I included all the major categories that I used to “look back”—also my one-word theme of “Revisited” and challenge of #Write24in24—as well as categories such as:

  • Anniversaries: 2024 marks a milestone date for my marriage, my children’s literature reading groups, and The Happiness Project book
  • Paperback: the paperback of Life in Five Senses
  • Adventures: My “24 for 24” list includes “Go on 2+4 adventures” so I have a box with possible adventures
  • Admonitions: I wrote certain words in big letters, such as GROW ALL and CONVENE and WATERCOLOR
  • Major to-dos: I listed items such as “Update my office” “New product”
  • Big Goals: for instance, doing something for TV, writing occasionally for outside outlets, picture book
  • Secrets of Adulthood: I want to make progress on this next big book project

Just as the “look back” helps remind me of what I’ve accomplished in the previous year, the “look forward” helps me articulate what I want to accomplish in the new year.

Putting it all on one page, in the briefest possible form, keeps this exercise manageable. It also means it’s easy to keep a file handy of all the previous years’ sheets.

I’m struck by how often a theme will repeat year after year before it finally gets resolved; on the other hand, sometimes a theme that seemed important at one point will vanish.

These pages give me a real feeling of both continuity and change—in my interests, values, strengths, and weaknesses.

How do you look back and look forward on your work life?



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