The past few Decembers, I have gone through a process designed by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits called “Sacred Bow.” This is a month-long process of reviewing the past year, reflecting on learnings, and deciding what intentions to bring into the new year.
This reflective process has been incredibly useful for helping me get focused on what matters to me and recognize some of the things that aren’t serving me.
Last year, after a month of going through the process, I laid out a whole year of priorities…month by month. The first few months were pretty easy to envision. I already had some medical appointments to make, a memoir to finish, and some trips to plan for the first part of the year. But I found that as I tried to plan beyond a few months, I was just sticking things in arbitrarily, with no way to predict what would make sense going into the summer and fall.
And while many of the priorities listed did get accomplished, after the first couple of months the timeline just wasn’t accurate. Why in January I thought I would plan a dinner party in October, I have no idea. But I didn’t (though we did have a nice dinner out with friends, so maybe that counts?).
I’ve decided to eschew annual planning altogether, and instead do a personal retreat day around the change of the season to reset my priorities and plan projects. I am still doing a version of an end-of-year review, but from now on I am not going to try to plan out a whole year.
I’ve been inspired to make my seasonal planning a day of reflection, creativity, and strategic prioritization—away from all of my usual distractions. Next year, I’d like to plan at least one or two at a location other than my house. It could be an AirBnB in another city, a cabin in the woods, or just the closest library or coffee shop.
For this first round, though, I am trying it out in my house. This means closing my distracting tabs, putting my devices in focus mode, putting on some non-distracting music, and working my way through a series of exercises to determine areas of focus for the next three months.
I find that I really need to remove myself from my daily routines to do this kind of work. It doesn’t take much space, but if I am doing this planning between random to-dos, Netflix shows, or internet rabbit holes, it doesn’t stick. It just becomes another note to self that I forget about until next time.
Instead of goals, I am working on longer term vision setting this year. This is an extra feature for my retreat week between my two scheduled retreat days. This process includes:
- Review and update core values
- Define my key roles and write a vision of how I want to be in each role
- Write five and ten year descriptive visions for my future life
This process is influenced heavily by Cal Newport’s “lifestyle-centric career planning,” which uses a vision for how your life will be to determine which types of work pursuits support that vision.
I will admit, I’ve done these visioning exercises in the past and it is very hard for me to imagine a future life for myself that isn’t defined by cultural and capitalist expectations that I have for myself. It is very hard for me to pin down what really resonates with me beyond all of the “supposed-tos.”
I think getting mired in cultural expectations is a pretty universal experience, and it seems to be even more damaging for women. Our culture has restricted women so much historically, that even now it is difficult for even the most progressive feminist to imagine a life totally outside of these restrictions. Partly because the limitations are still baked into the whole economic system. But also because we have never been taught how to imagine something different.
So part of my personal retreat intent is to break down some of these limitations I put on myself and really let my imagination run wild. Who could I become, if I did not believe I was “supposed to” do this, or “have to” do that? A lot of this stuff is optional.
Retreat day plan
The first part of retreat day? After my morning rituals (meditation, yoga, journaling), breakfast with a good book. Maybe a book that will help get me in the mood for some deep introspection, or maybe some fiction to help my brain disconnect from whatever it is trying to solve.
After breakfast, I will set up a work space with as few distractions as possible. I will need my laptop to access Evernote and write up my reflections, so I will close my browsers and go into do-not-disturb mode.
I will make a cup of tea and put on some ambient music. Then I will sit down and go through my review template:
• Write down highlights of each month
• Note key fitness stats
• Reflect on wins, challenges, and learnings
• Reflect on season overall, and call out underlying beliefs that affect behavior
After my review process, I will go out for a walk (without listening to anything) to let my brain process a bit. Then I will come back to my planning process:
• Write down what I intend to keep doing, start doing, do more, do less, or stop doing.
• Select up to five areas of focus from my master list of life areas
• For each area of focus, define projects, intentions, and habits that will support that area
• Write down challenges that may impede me, and how I will address those challenges
• Write down what I want to create in my life in the next season, year, decade, and lifetime
After a lunch break, I will begin documenting project plans, adding tasks and habits to TickTick, and set up my bullet journal pages for the next month. Having never got through this process before, I don’t know if I can/ should try to do this all in one day. For this first round, I have blocked out two days a week apart, but I don’t intend to retreat for more than four hours each day.
If you feel like you could never block out even a half day to do a personal retreat, that is a sign that you really need something like this in your life. Even an hour or two at the end of the week to do a GTD-style weekly review.