5 Questions to Help You learn from Last Year and Make the Most of This Year
About a 6-7 minute read
28th December, 2021
This year instead of just setting New Year intentions, I looked back first to see what I could learn from last year. The results were revealing, and I feel good about what I learned and the intentions I ended up setting. In this article I’ll share the journaling process I used. It works for New Year rituals, but it also works for other endings/beginnings too.
I've always loved the feeling of New Years Eve. I know that in reality the 1st of January isn't any different than the 23rd of August or the 5th of December, but there's something about the fresh start of a New Year that makes me feel like it's worth putting some effort into.
I used to be a big goal setter and for many years I set "SMART" goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), "Rocking Chair" Goals (where you imagine you are sitting in a rocking chair looking back on your life), and followed all kind of other goal setting practices.
They were all helpful, but my faith in them has dwindled over time for various reasons. I won't go into those here, except to say that I started to feel that there was a part of me that wasn't getting to have a say in these goal-setting practices. They felt very prescriptive and seemed to be always and only about moving forward. As I've become more aware of the cyclical nature of life, I've increasingly wanted to call on the wisdom available in the cycle, the spiral, the ending as well as the beginning, rather than the linear straight line of progressing always forward.
So this year I decided to reduce my focus on traditional goal-setting even more than I already have, and increase my focus on discovering and using what I could learn from the results of my habits, choices, interpretations, actions, and non-actions during the previous cycle.
New Year, New Moon, Wiser You
In this case, the previous cycle was the calendar year, but you could also use this practice at the ending/beginning of a lunar cycle, or at any ending/new beginning.
And as it happens, around the 3rd of January the Moon will be new. Two potentially potent new beginnings lining up almost side by side 🙂
As I've grown more interested in the relationship between the Lunar cycles and the rhythms of life all around us, I've come to think of the Dark Moon/New Moon as a powerful time for paying attention to what can be learned from endings and completion.
The practice I'm about to share with you is what I used for my 2021 review and my 2022 intention setting; I use a similar practice, a bit more briefly, as each Lunar cycle ebbs to a close and each new one approaches.
And a note for you if you're a menstruating woman: one of the most powerful and transformative practices of my life (which I wish I had learned decades earlier) has been learning to use a process like this in rhythm with my menstrual cycle, as taught by Jane Hardwicke Collins, Alexandra Pope, and growing numbers of other Wise Woman teachers.
So. All these cycles! How can we glean the wisdom they have to offer?
I have a journaling habit that has served me well for a very long time: the practice of using prompts, or questions, to help yourself dig deeper.
For this exercise, I used groups of prompts to help me effectively review 2021, and to name my intentions for 2022 in light of what I can learn from 2021. I made a big list of questions and grouped them under five headings:
- How am I feeling about the year that is ending? Or, what stands out in my mind from that year?
- What can I learn from it?
- What shall I let go of?
- What shall I keep?
- What is my vision for the year that's beginning?
Once I had my five groups of questions, I started answering them without thinking about them too much and without censoring myself.
The whole idea of “free writing” using prompts, is that you’re mining for the gold that’s under the surface. You want to know what's going on with the real you. Evaluation has the effect of driving the real you underground and bringing an “acceptable” version of you to the surface. So if you want to get to the deeper truths, it’s important to write quickly, freely, without stopping to think, edit, or critique.
Feel free to use copy-paste the following 5 sets of prompts and use them yourself as is, or to change them any way you like to make them suit you better. If you share them, please just acknowledge where they came from.
How am I feeling about things that happened during the year that’s ending?
- happy that ...
- disappointed that …
- thrilled that …
- excited about ...
- sad about …
- worried about …
- afraid that …
- anxious about …
(It's important to dig for the so-called “negative” emotions as well as the “positive” ones. All of them hold important information, but also you want to be compassionate toward yourself and not judge or suppress any aspects of your experience. Peace starts and grows inside each one of us, with how we treat ourselves. Judgement and suppression have no place in your personal journal! You are safe here.)
if the above prompts don't bring up much, or if you want more, try these:
- What stands out as positive in my mind from the year that’s ending?
- What am I grateful for?
- What do I feel empowered by?
- What stands out as not-so-positive, difficult, or uncomfortable from 2021?
- What was I dis-empowered by?
- What do I regret?
What can I learn from this?
After you’ve taken time to pay attention to, and be present with, how you’re really feeling about the previous year (or whatever period of time you’re focusing on), you could go back through the answers you gave and add questions like these:
- what did I do well?
- what did I learn, or what could I learn from that experience?
- what could I do to end the coming year without that regret?
- what would I like to have been different, and what could I have done to make it different? Or, what could I have done differently that might have led to a better outcome?
What shall I let go of?
Paying attention to what there is to learn from the past empowers you to let go of baggage you’ve been carrying that you don't need anymore.
- What do I want to let go of and not carry with me into the year (and years) to come?
- What pitfalls/traps/habits/tendencies do I want to avoid in 2022?
- What were the triggers or circumstances that led to those?
- Was there a “domino effect” I can spot, where this led to that which led to the thing I want to avoid in future? How can I set up my environment/schedules/activities differently to eliminate or at least reduce those triggers or circumstances?*
- How can I make it easier for myself to be more present** – more aware of and mindful about the habits or tendencies I want to let go of?
*You are in charge
So often we feel out of control, as if life were living us and not the other way around. One way to counter that feeling is to set up deliberate “dominoes” in your environment so that when they fall, they trigger the behaviors you want to engage in and discourage those you don’t want.
As a simple and obvious example, I put things I want to remember or do more of where they’re obvious or where I’ll literally fall over them. I put things I want less of in my life out of sight completely and look for ways to make it difficult or time consuming to get to them. (I learned this strategy from James Clear, who has tonnes of great stuff on building more effective habits minus the "you just need more will power" approach.)
**You are enough
I’m slowly getting better at using mindfulness or presence to support myself in making more conscious, life-affirming choices.
I’ve learned that most of my not-helpful habits arise from being in a hurry, from the fear that I don’t have enough time. The practice of being fully present in each moment, and the feeling of ease that that brings, helps remind me that except in rare circumstances where it's actually warranted, hurrying is a form of violence, or a violation of the present moment.
Being fully present, when I remember to practice it, comforts me and helps me know that I am enough. And that by extension, what I am doing right now in this moment is enough and will be enough.
What shall I keep?
Once you know what to let go of, you can turn your attention to what you’re keeping.
Sometimes (often?) what you chose to keep or build is informed by what you decided you've had enough of. Consider going back through the things you want to let go of or discontinue, and ask something like
- What could I replace this with that would serve me better? Or, What’s the counter-habit to this?
And you can also use questions like these:
- What is there from 2021 that I want to build on/do more of/continue with?
- What habits do I want to strengthen or build in 2022?
- and, What triggers can I set up in my everyday environment to support these habits?
What are my intentions for the year to come?
Finally, you could let loose with a bit of big picture imagining…
- What am I excited for in 2022?
- What are my highest priorities for 2022?
- How can I make the best possible use of 2022?
...but keep in mind that grandiose imaginings never last past about the 6th of January. After that, you’ll need all the strategies you’ve identified throughout this exercise, plenty of deliberate, compassionate, self-parenting, and lots of rinse and repeat.
Please leave a comment...
Do you have a regular end-of-year/New Year ritual? Did you read anything here that you feel like trying, or using to tweak your existing process?