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Solo Travel and the Annual Review

Every year, around the first week of January, I take off for four or five days on my own to review the past year and look ahead to the next. This is not an exercise in New Year's resolutions. Quite the contrary, it's a long and thorough examination into what went well the year before, what did not go well, and how I can improve (using measurable outcomes whenever possible).

For me, it's essential to do this over the course of many days and do it alone. Lucky for me, I married somebody who understands this and encourages my solo travel. Traveling by yourself to a location far from home is the ultimate freedom, and is not at all selfish unless that is all you do or you spend all the household money on your journey.

The process of the Annual Review started for me in 1992 when I was 21 and took my first solo trip to Phoenix, Arizona with the idea of moving down there (after a particularly harsh winter in Minnesota this became a goal in my life). That trip unlocked something in me, and over the next 20 years, though I wasn't able to travel every January, I always felt a week of contemplation was necessary.

The outline of an Annual Review was brought into sharp focus for me by my friend Chris Guillebeau, who writes the Art of Non Conformity website. He, like he is apt to do, articulated the details and nuance of the process far better than anybody. His blog post on the subject is must read.

The process is pretty simple: outline the key aspects of my life (health, finances, small businesses, daytime work, family and friend relationships, learning, etc.) and ask yourself some honest questions. For each topic:

  1. What went well this past year? Did I achieve goals, gain momentum, or reach a milestone?
  2. What did not go well this past year? Did I fall short on personal goals, lose momentum, or cause a stumbling block to occur in any form?
  3. What are the (measurable) goals of that topic for the next 12 months?

As is often said regarding travel, it's the journey that matters. The journey of personal exploration and examining where you are and who you want to be is a powerful one indeed. But this is far more that journaling or keeping a diary. Ideas without measurable milestones are simply dreams. It's easy to dream about life, but hard to quantify. This formation of measurables is key to the whole process. A simple example: If I want to lose 24 pounds in a year, I need to shave off two pounds a month. There is no other way to do it (healthily). And there is no way to know where I'm at unless I step on the scale, take out my cell phone, and enter the data into a spreadsheet.

A few thoughts surrounding the Annual Review

  1. I budget every year to be able to do the Annual Review is a location very different from home. Though I'm sure I could produce good results by simply driving two hours north to Duluth, Minnesota (and in lean years that's what I've done) the unlocking that occurs in a new climate is substantial and worth the investment.
  2. Every year I buy a new notebook (I like the Staples "Sustainable Earth" notebooks that have heavier paper, stiff covers, and solid binding. I've been using these every year since 2007 and they rock). This notebook is with me all year long, and is the depository of thoughts, goals, opinions, and tracking of information but the first 20 pages or so are always showing the process of that year's annual review. It's a fine way to remember what is important.
  3. In 2014 I decided to try a slightly new approach and start the Annual Review using large sized notecards, with each card having a header of a topic. This proved to be extremely effective, allowing me to jump from topic to topic without dis-organizing the notebook.
  4. I've learned (the hard way) that the most important part of the annual review is the establishment of quantifiable goals. Without things that are measurable, you'll be adrift in a sea of emotions, feelings, hopes, and dreams with nothing concrete to allow you when you cross a finish line (or more importantly, how far away the finish line is).