Looking in the rear view mirror

As we trudge back into the office ready to start another year, how many of us will leap back onto the treadmill full speed ahead, forgetting in the rush for success to digest the lessons learned from the previous year?

Too often I see people who are so obsessed about their future goals that they fail to stop, reflect, process and even celebrate what they've actually achieved.

So while the corporate engine room gets fixated on 'goal setting' for 2012, I want you to pause for a moment to reflect on what you actually achieved in 2011.

One of the great lessons we can take from the elite sporting world is to slow down and celebrate after a series win (or commiserate after a series loss). Taking time out allows you to process what worked well, or what didn't work, before soldiering on to your next challenge.

Athletes understand how invaluable it is to reflect upon where they have just come from, what has worked, what didn't - and understanding the reasons why, before moving towards setting new goals.

If you're reading this going 'yeah, yeah, yeah, it all makes sense but just hurry up and get on with helping me set my new goals', pause for a moment while I tell you a quick story.

Towards the end of last year I was in the middle of a coaching session and my client was concerned she wasn't achieving enough in her personal or professional life. This shocked me a little as she earns a fortune, lives in an amazing house, has a great husband and loving family.

My client asked if we could outline a more intensive goal setting strategy for 2012 and beyond.

Rather than pushing forward with her demands and sticking to the Olympic motto of 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' or 'faster, higher, stronger' that so many of us have borrowed from Baron de Coubertin, I said 'before we look at 2012, how about we take a look in the rear view mirror for 2011 and identify what has worked well?'


My client retorted with "isn't it a sign of weakness to look back? And doesn't all of the latest information from goal setting and positive psychology teach people to not get stuck in the past and instead look ahead to the future?" (Don't you just love it when a client is across all of the latest research in your field?)

The truth is that up until recently most research in the area of goal achievement was focused on the process of setting and achieving goals. But a relatively new field called 'accomplishment focus' is now illustrating some of the benefits of reviewing and reflecting on goals that have been previously set and achieved.

In fact a 2008 study in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology found that students who regularly reviewed their achievements had higher levels of future goal commitment and intrinsic motivation towards achieving future goals (meaning they are setting and achieving goals for the right reasons, not extrinsic reasons like purely to impress other people).

So I told my client: 'Yes, many happy people do have a present-focus and do get excited about the future, but I think we can sometimes get so stuck on what's ahead, that we forget where we've come from'.

I could see my message was not getting through, so I resorted to using a driving analogy 'It's like driving a car. While you definitely need the majority of your focus out the front windscreen looking at the road ahead, every now and then you also need to take a look into the rear view mirror to see what's behind you'.

This exercise proved very fruitful and at the end of the session she said "I have been so focused on the future and what's ahead of me that I'd totally forgotten to look back at my achievements".

How true is this for most people in today's quick fix, drop and drag society? We are increasingly being taught that success can be bought in a pill, a potion, a bottle or a lotion. It is all too easy to become obsessed with soaring faster, higher and stronger that we forget to celebrate our successes and achievements along the way.

Now I'd like you to grab a blank sheet of paper and complete the same activity, working through the questions below based on what you achieved in 2011.

❏ What has worked well in your professional life?

❏ What achievements did you have at work? (new products, sales targets, business wins etc)

❏ What lessons did you learn when things didn't go so well?

❏ What wins did you have with your finances?

❏ What are you happy about in your personal life?

❏ What positives have you drawn out of your relationships?

❏ What wins have you had with your health and fitness?

❏ What did you enjoy doing more of last year?

❏ What did you enjoy doing less of last year?

It is important to slow down and really think about these questions because looking in the rear view mirror can actually be a lot more difficult than what it sounds as it forces you to reflect and take stock of what happened in all of the major areas of your life.

However a large number of people who do complete this activity are pleasantly surprised when they put pen to paper at how much they actually did achieve in all domains of their life. Conversely, this activity will also make it very obvious if you haven't had a lot of output in the previous year.

Whether you are pleasantly surprised or not, the rear view mirror activity provides you with real feedback on your achievements and helps you to reassess and plan for the coming 12 months. (I'll be covering goal setting in my next post)

So take the time to pause and reflect on 2011.

Did anything surprising come out of your rear view mirror?