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Life review

Reviews are proceses to stop your daily life and do an introspection on how you feel and adjust your path.

Thoughts on the reviews themselves

Keep It Simple

It's important for the process to be light enough that you want to actually do it, so you see it as a help instead of a burden. It's always better to do a small and quick review rather than nothing at all. At the start of the review analyze yourself to assess how much energy do you have and decide which steps of the review you want to do.

Review approaches

In the past I used the life logging tools to analyze the past in order to understand what I achieved and take it as a base to learn from my mistakes. It was useful when I needed the endorphines boost of seeing all the progress done. Once I assumed that progress speed and understood that we always do the best we can given how we are, I started to feel that the review process was too cumbersome and that it was holding me into the past.

Nowadays I try not to look back but forward, analyze the present: how I feel, how's the environment around me, and how can I tweak both to fulfill my life goals. This approach leads to less reviewing of achievements and logs and more introspection, thinking and imagining. Which although may be slower to correct mistakes of the past, will surely make you live closer to the utopy.

The reviews below then follow that second approach.

Personal alive reviews

Reviews have to reflect ourselves, and we change continuously, so take for granted that your review is going to change.

I've gone for full blown reviews of locking myself up for a week to not doing reviews for months.

This article represent the guidelines I follow to do my life review. It may seem a lot to you or may be very simple. Please take it as a base or maybe to get some ideas and then create your own that fits your needs.

Reviews as deadlines

Reviews can also be used as deadlines. Sometimes deadlines helps us get motivation and energy to achieve what we want if we feel low. But remember not to push yourself too hard. If deadlines do you more wrong than right, don't use them. All these tools are meant to help us, not to bring us down.

Types of reviews

As plannings, reviews can be done at different levels of abstraction, each level gives you different benefits.

Weekly review

I currently don't do any review process at weekly level. I want to specially after reading the gtd book, but I haven't found how and when. For sure I've sketched some ideas but often skip the opportunity to do it.

Month review

The objectives of the month review are:

  • Help you stop and analyze how you feel and what worries you.
  • Transform the abstract guidelines of your life path to actionable elements.

The objectives aren't to:

  • Assess the progress in your objectives and decisions

It's interesting to do the reviews on meaningful days such as the last one of the month. Usually we don't have enough flexibility in our life to do it exactly that day, so schedule it the closest you can to that date. It's a good idea to do both the review and the planning on the same day.

As it's a process we're going to do very often, we need it to be relatively quick and easy so as not to invest too much time or energies on it. Keep in mind that this should be an analysis at month level in terms of abstraction, here is not the place to ask yourself if you're fulfilling your life goals. As such, you don't need that much time either, just identifying the top things that pop out of your mind are more than enough.

Month review tools

With a new level of abstraction we need tools:

  • The Review box: It's the place you leave notes for yourself when you do the review, it can be for example a physical folder or a computer text file. I use a file called review_box.org. It's filled after the refile of review elements captured in the rest of my inboxes.

  • The Month checks: It's a list of elements you want to periodically check its evolution throughout time. It's useful to analyze the validity of theories or new processes. I use the heading Month checks in a file called life_checks.org.

  • The Objective list: It's a list of elements you want to focus your energies on. It should be easy to consult. I started with a list per month in a file called objectives.org and then migrated to the life path document.

Month review phases

We'll divide the review process in these phases:

  • Prepare
  • Discover
  • Analyze
  • Decide

To record the results of the review create the file references/reviews/YYYY_MM.org, where the month is the one that is ending with the following template:

* Discover
* Analyze
* Decide

Month prepare

It's important that you prepare your environment for the review. You need to be present and fully focused on the process itself. To do so you can:

  • Make sure you don't get interrupted:
    • Check your task manager tools to make sure that you don't have anything urgent to address in the next hour.
    • Disable all notifications
  • Set your analysis environment:
    • Put on the music that helps you get in the zone. I found it meaningful to select the best new music I've discovered this month.
    • Get all the things you may need for the review:
      • The checklist that defines the process of your review (this document in my case).
      • Somewhere to write down the insights.
      • Your *Review box.
      • Your Month checks.
      • Your Objective list.
    • Remove from your environment everything else that may distract you
      • Close all windows in your laptop that you're not going to use

Month Discover

Try not to, but if you think of decisions you want to make that address the elements you're discovering, write them down in the Decide section of your review document.

There are different paths to discover actionable items:

  • Analyze what is in your mind: Take 10 minutes to answer to the next questions (you don't need to answer them all):

  • Where is your mind these days?

  • What did drain your energy or brought you down emotionally this last month?
  • What worries you right now?
  • What did help you most this last month?
  • What did you enjoy most this last month?

Notice that we do not need to review our life logging tools (diary, task manager, ...) to answer these questions. This means that we're doing an analysis of what is in our minds right now, not throughout the month. It's flawed but as we do this analysis often, it's probably fine. We add more importance to the latest events in our life anyway.

  • Empty the elements you added to the review box.

  • Process your Month checks. For each of them:

  • Think of whether you've met the check.
  • If you need, add action elements in the Discover section of the review.

  • Process your Month objectives. For each of them:

  • Think of whether you've met the objective.
  • If you need, add action elements in the Discover section of the review.
  • If you won't need the objective in the next month, archive it.

Analyze

Of all the identified elements we need to understand them better to be able to choose the right path to address them. These elements are usually representations of a state of our lives that we want to change.

  • For each of them if you can think of an immediate solution to address the element add it to the Decide section otherwise add them to the Analyze.
  • Order the elements in Analyze in order of priority

Then allocate 20 minutes to think about them. Go from top to bottom transitioning once you feel it's analyzed enough. You may not have time to analyze all of them. That's fine. Answering the next questions may help you:

  • What defines the state we want to change?
  • What are the underlying forces in your life that made you reach that state?
  • To what state you want to transition to?
  • What is the easiest way to reach that destination?

For the last question you can resort to:

  • Habits change
  • Projects change: start or stop doing a series of tasks.
  • Roadmap change

Once you have analyzed an element copy all the decisions you've made in the Decide section of your review document.

Decide

Once you have a clear definition of the current state, the new and how to reach it you need to process each of the decisions you've identified through the review process so that they are represented in your life management system, otherwise you won't arrive the desired state. To do so analyze what is the best way to process each of the elements you have written in the Decide section. It can be one or many of the following:

  • Identify hard deadlines: Add a warning days before the deadline to make sure you're reminded until it's done.
  • Create or tweak a habit
  • Tweak your project and tasks definitions
  • Create checks to make sure that they are not overseen.
  • Create objectives that will be checked in the next reviews (weekly and monthly).
  • Create Anki cards to keep the idea in your mind.

Trimester review

The objectives of the trimester review are:

  • Adjust your life path
  • Identify the philosophical topics of your life to address
  • Identify the interesting topics to learn

The objectives are not:

  • To review what you've done or why you didn't get there.

When to do the trimester reviews

As with moth reviews, it's interesting to do analysis at representative moments. It gives it an emotional weight. You can for example use the solstices or my personal version of the solstices:

  • Spring analysis (1st of March): For me the spring is the real start of the year, it's when life explodes after the stillness of the winter. The sun starts to set later enough so that you have light in the afternoons, the climate gets warmer thus inviting you to be more outside, the nature is blooming new leaves and flowers. It is then a moment to build new projects and set the current year on track.

  • Summer analysis (1st of June): I hate heat, so summer is a moment of retreat. Everyone temporarily stop their lives, we go on holidays and all social projects slow their pace. Even the news have even less interesting things to report. It's so hot outside that some of us seek the cold refuge of home or remote holiday places. Days are long and people love to hang out till late, so usually you wake up later, thus having less time to actually do stuff. Even in the moments when you are alone the heat drains your energy to be productive. It is then a moment to relax and gather forces for the next trimester. It's also perfect to develop easy and chill personal projects that have been forgotten in a drawer. Lower your expectations and just flow with what your body asks you.

  • Autumn analysis (1st of September): September it's another key moment for many people. We have it hardcoded in our life since we were children as it was the start of school. People feel energized after the summer holidays and are eager to get back to their lives and stopped projects. You're already 6 months into the year, so it's a good moment to review your year plan and decide how you want to invest your energy reserves.

  • Winter analysis (1st of December): December is the cue that the year is coming to an end. The days grow shorter and colder, they basically invite you to enjoy a cup of tea under a blanket. It is then a good time to get into your cave and do an introspection analysis on the whole year and prepare the ground for the coming year. Some of the goals of this season are:

  • Think everything you need to guarantee a good, solid and powerful spring start.
  • Do the year review to adjust your principles.

The year is then divided in two sets of an expansion trimester and a retreat one. We can use this information to adjust our life plan accordingly. In the expansion trimester we could invest more energies in the planning, and in the retreat ones we can do more throughout reviews.

Trimester review tools

With a new level of abstraction we need tools:

The principle documents

Principle documents for me are orgmode documents where I think about the principle itself. It acts both as a way of understanding it and evolving my idea around it, and to build the roadmap to materialize the principle's path.

Without ever having created one I feel that it makes sense to make the reflection part public in the blue book, while I keep for myself the private one. This may also change between principles.

The life path document

The life path document is an orgmode document where I think about what I want to do with my life and how. It's the highest level of abstraction of the life management system.

The structure so far is as follows:

* Life path
** {year}
*** Principles of {season} {year}
    {Notes on the season}
    - Principle 1
    - Principle 2
    ...

**** Objectives of {month} {year}
     - [-] Objective 1
       - [X] SubObjective 1
       - [ ] SubObjective 2
     - [ ] Objective 2
     - [ ] ...

Where the principles are usually links to principle documents and the objectives links to tasks.

Trimester review phases

We'll divide the review process in these phases:

  • Prepare
  • Refine
  • Decide

Trimester prepare

The trimester review requires an analysis that doesn't fill in a day session. It requires slow thinking over some time. So I'm creating a task 10 days before the actual review to start thinking about the next trimester. Whether it's ideas, plans, desires, objectives, or principles.

Is useful for that document to be available wherever you go, so that in any spare time you can pop it up and continue with the train of thought.

Doing the reflection without seeing your life path prevents you from being tainted by it, thus representing the real you of right now.

On the day to actually do the review, follow the steps of the Month review prepare adjusting them to the trimester case.

Trimester refine

If you've followed the prepare steps, you've already been making up your mind on what do you want the next trimester to look like. Now it's the time to refine those thoughts and compare them with your actual life path.

How to define the trimester objectives

I've had a hard time choosing how must those objectives be defined. Should they be generic? or would it be better for them to be concrete and measurable?

Given the mindset of this review, it's better to have generic open goals. As you climb up the abstraction ladder and work with greater time slots you need to reduce the precision because you have more uncertainty. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow so adding hard SMART goals is unrealistic and a certain path to frustration.

They should be guidelines that help you define the direction of where do you want to go and leave to the lower abstraction level reviews particularize those principles into more specific goals.

Process the captured data

So the captured data is a mix of ideas, plans, desires, objectives and principles. We need to refile them as we do with the inbox. Each element may fall or change one of the next containers:

For each of them then we will:

  • Think which kind of element it is
  • Tweak the related documents
  • Extract the underlying principle.
  • Adjust the principle document with the captured thought.

Trimester decide

Year review

Year reviews are meant to give you an idea of:

  • How much have you and your workflows evolved
  • What roadmap decisions were right, which ones were wrong
  • With the context you have now, you can think of how you could have avoided the bad decisions.

If you have the year's planning you can analyze it against your task management tools and life logs and create a review document analyzing all.

The process then has many phases:

Housekeeping

As they are time expensive, probably lot of time may have passed since your last life review, it's a good time to do some housekeeping tasks to have a tidy environment (and data!) before you start analyzing everything.

  • Extract all your media (photos, videos, text) from all your devices (mobiles, laptops, servers) to your central archive. For the portable devices I use syncthing to sync all the important data to the NAS, although it's usually untidy.
  • Once it's extracted tidy them all. For example you could group the pictures and videos in a tree of directories (trips, trips/2022-06-Glasgow, trips/2022-06-Glasgow/2022-06-10-hiking-trail-lakes, ...). As this is an unpleasant task I've created claspy a command line tool that helps you categorize the files into their desired paths. Do the same for the documents, music, binaries... everything! until you have an empty mobile and empty Downloads directory.
  • Update your ledger so that it reflects the reality.
  • Update your task manager systems so that it reflects the latest state.
  • Update your digital garden so that you don't have any uncommited changes.

Analysis

To do it I gather all the information from my life logging sources and start thinking of what do I want to change. It helps me to write a markdown document with the insights gathered in this process.

What you have learned

It's always interesting to look back and see what you've learned throughout the year. I have these sources of data:

Digital garden

If you happen to have a digital garden you can look at your git history to know what has changed since the last year. That's cumbersome and ugly though, it's better to review your newsletters, although you may need to use something like mkdocs-newsletter.

While you skim through the newsletters you can add to the analysis report the highlights of what you've learned.

You can also check your repository insights.

Anki

I use anki to record the knowledge that I need to have in my mind. The program has a "Stats" tab where you can see your insights of the last years to understand how are you learning. You can also go to the "Browse" tab to sort the cards by created and get an idea of which ones have been the most used decks.

What you've read

Each time I finish a book I register it in a document with a rating and optionally a review. When doing the review I check which ones I read, which ones I liked more, what genres have been the most popular for me, which authors. With these data I create an analysis of what seems promising to read in the future.

I also update the section of "what you've learnt" with the insights of these books.

Task review

Follow the review process of the task management article.

Planning

What to read

With the analysis of what I've read I research for new books and create an ordered list per genre.