How to design a year to show up for yourself and others.

“I should have taken today off; it’s been a tough day…it’s always a tough day.” This was a conversation I was having with a client late last year. It had been three years since his wife’s passing and the day of our discussion would have been her 49th birthday. Before I could even ask my next question as to why he hadn’t, he followed-up by explaining that he had too many meetings booked to take the day off.

It was what he said next that highlighted the real problem “Hopefully, next year will be different.” 

My client is a successful and busy leader. As an important decision maker working in a fast-paced, sales-driven organization, the chances are high that by the time the date nears next year his calendar will again be filled with meetings. Chances are even higher that his sense of obligation as a leader will keep him from cancelling those meetings and prioritizing this day for himself. 

The reality is that without taking proactive action to block off that day for himself, the outcome will not change.

This situation is not unique to my client. It’s a common pattern I’ve witnessed, especially with well-intentioned and often over-extended leaders. They allow their calendars to be driven by other people’s priorities adding their own as an afterthought.

 The consequences are as predictable as they are frustrating. Not only does this reactionary approach lead to regret, resentment and stress, but to quote John Danahoe, the former CEO of eBay:

“The world will shape you if you let it. To live the life you desire, you must make conscious choices.”

Our choices are demonstrated through our actions. Speaking with my client that day I was reminded of how often I personally have reacted to similar situations by waving my white flag, surrendering to the busyness. After missing too many important events and disappointing both myself and the people I care the most about, I created a simple annual exercise to proactively design a blueprint for the year ahead. 

Over the past couple of years, I have shared this with friends, family and leaders to help them build capacity, foster vitality and ensure the things most important to them take precedence over other people’s agendas for them

This exercise requires only three things: access to your calendar or schedule – professional and personal, something to capture your reflections, and one hour of undisturbed time. I love to hit a coffee shop, turn off my Wi-Fi and turn on my favorite playlist with a tasty drink for this annual ritual.

Start by Looking Back at the Previous Year

Use the first 30 minutes to look through the previous year’s calendars reviewing both your past personal and professional priorities and commitments. Looking week by week, record observations from the following categories:

  1. Specific dates and activities that were scheduled into your calendar that you’d like to make time for in the future. These could include birthdays, anniversaries, personal and professional events, traditions and experiences.
  2. Specific dates or activities that you weren’t available for or that weren’t scheduled (and perhaps missed), that you’d like to make space for in the coming year. 
  3. Vacation time, specifically recording how much and when it was taken.
  4. With as much detail as possible, any additional time you took off that was either unscheduled or scheduled last minute. This could include sick days, mental health days, caregiver days, time-off for personal appointments or any other unexpected emergencies.  

To close off the first part of the exercise, take a mental step back and record any trends that you notice. This is not meant for you to judge or beat yourself up, but instead build awareness of what worked and what didn’t, when you felt energized and when you felt drained, what you want more of and what you need less of moving forward.

Perhaps you’ll notice decisions that were made from a sense of obligation to others or based on the opinions of others, as was the case with my client. Consider where your personal expectations and values have positively or negatively influenced your choices.  

To deepen this reflection, imagine a stranger looking through your recorded observations; what might they think are your values and priorities? This distancing perspective often helps you see things with less emotion and more openness.  

Now Look Forward at the Year Ahead 

For the next 30 minutes focus on the year ahead of you. Building from your recorded insights and reflections, take action to transform hopes into reality by designing your future.

  1. Begin by building from your previous year in review. Start by transferring all the important dates into your calendar. If they are recurring, simply set them up to repeat year after year.
  2. Consolidate a list of things that you’d like to make time for in the following year that may not have specific dates yet. Reflect both professional and personally. These may be general, such as attending a large industry conference, going to an outdoor music concert, or taking your kids camping for the first time. Add in reminders or placeholders for these events now. 
  3. Shift to focusing on vacation and personal time. Whether you have designated paid vacation days, or you are self-employed, everyone needs some dedicated, work-free regenerative time. In today’s 24/7 connected world, there may not ever be an ideal time to book a vacation or take personal time off. Wherever possible, officially schedule it your calendar or, at a minimum, tentatively block it. Much like my client, there will always be meetings and projects that will fill the calendar squeezing out your vacation time if you wait. Be proactive and make it a priority

To close the exercise, repeat the same general reflections as you did in the first 30 minutes and record how you feel as you notice trends for the year in front of you. 

Take the strangers perspective – have you designed a future that reflects a fulfilling personal and professional life? 

After our call, my client went through this exercise. With his permission, this is a part of what he shared:

“Directly after our call I blocked my wife’s birthday for next year as a vacation day. Now nothing can be booked over it. I plan to spend the day hiking which was something we loved doing together. Giving myself this permission and taking action has been incredibly empowering. Even more than that, I realized how important it is for me to be of service to others. Looking at the past year it became so clear that I was giving all of my energy away by trying to be available to everyone, every day. I am redefining what being “of service” means to me and looks like in my actions. I have scheduled time to share this with others both at work and personally.” 

Remember, your priories come to light through your choices, but they come to life through your actions. 

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