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So far in our series on quarterly reviews, we’ve discussed proximal and distal causes….
(The root cause of our issues may not be what it appears)
(Reinforcing feedback loops propel massive change, very quickly).
I also revealed that there's a catch: reinforcing feedback loops tend to be counter-acted by balancing feedback loops, which means that exponential growth has natural limitations. Nothing lasts forever, and you shouldn't take a slow down in your progress as a sign that you're doing anything "wrong."
Why dig into all this stuff?
I wanted you to really understand the importance of building feedback loops into your life.
This is a critical concept that I use over and over again:
Wherever you want to improve, first, make sure you can track your progress. Then, build feedback loops that will help you grow.
The core of this in my own life is my system of Weekly and Quarterly reviews.
(I cover this how to do these in-depth in my online course, The Difference Engine. If you want to deep-dive on this stuff, check it out.)
The Quarterly Review is the most important component, however, and I'm going to cover that process in this email. If the idea of doing weekly reviews is overwhelming to you, I strongly suggest you start with the Quarterly.
There are three phases of the review process:
Round up, Review and Report.
Let's dive in.
Round Up Phase
The "Round Up" phase is where we pull all our data together from the past quarter and mull it over.
If there is one lesson I have learned from this process, it is that how I think about the past is almost entirely contingent on how I am feeling at that moment.
If I'm having a good week and feel great, I feel like the last quarter went well.
If I'm having a tough week and feel terrible, then I feel like the last quarter went terribly.
This is why having some kind of regular data-gathering and tracking regimen is, for me, absolutely critical: it keeps me connected to reality.
My emotions have a massive impact on how I perceive the world around me, and if I'm not careful, that emotional feedback can drive me completely off track, even when I'm improving over time.
What you track will depend on what you're trying to achieve. A good rule of thumb (suggested to me by Dr. Trevor Kashey) for tracking is this:
Only look at a number if you are trying to justify a decision.
If you're making decisions about your diet and need to know which way to go, looking at your weight is a good idea.
If you're not actively making decisions about your diet or exercise, then thinking about your weight is only going to be a distraction. If you're not changing your behavior, what's the purpose of paying attention to the number?
Same goes for anything: your finances, your business growth, your body composition, whatever. If you're not justifying a change in behavior, you don't need to look at the numbers. You'll just piss yourself off.
Note that "looking at the numbers" and "tracking the numbers" are different in this case. For example, I weigh myself every single day, even when I'm not actively paying attention to my weight. Why? Because when I DO decide to pay attention, I'm going to want the historical data.
This is similar to setting up something like Google Analytics on your website, even if you rarely log in. Because the system can only give you historical data, you want it set up from the very beginning just in case you need that data later.
Right now, I keep up a weekly "Personal Dashboard" in Google Sheets that tracks a whole variety of things I care about:
Although there are plenty of awesome self-tracking and "Quantified Self" apps out there, Google Sheets is my preferred place to keep everything. Not only can I easily create charts of anything I track, it's flexible, easily shareable, free and easy to use for quick calculations or formulas (as with the "calories to pounds" ratio above).
While this may look overwhelming, it started very small, with just my weight and sleep numbers (in this case, tracked via my Oura Ring).
I really only pay attention to a few things on that sheet every week...but I like knowing the data is there in case I need to go back and diagnose any issues that arise.
Besides hard data that I'm actively tracking, I like to round up some other bits and pieces from the past quarter as well:
- How do I look? (Pictures of myself at the end of the quarter, compared side by side with the beginning of the quarter)
- What were my favorite pictures from the quarter? (Go through your camera roll or social profiles and pick out the ones that spark the best memories)
- What were the peak experiences? (Often I'll remember these when I look over the pictures, but what were the key moments from the past 12 weeks? What did you do that challenged you, or brought the most joy, or hurt the most? What were the real turning points?)
Pull all this stuff together wherever you feel comfortable - in an Evernote note, a physical notepad or binder, or a folder on your computer. Get it together and then spend some time going through it.
I tend to not have a really concrete, step-by-step process for this; instead, I want to "relax" my mind and leave myself open to recognizing patterns.
This is one of the most important parts of the process. When we're in the thick of things, living our lives, it can be extremely difficult to notice the high-level patterns that emerge.
Eating an extra slice of pizza can be an "in the moment" decision, perhaps because you felt extra stressed or it was a special occasion. But if those "special occasions" are happening a lot, that extra piece of pizza becomes a regular part of your diet...a pattern that can have consequences (good or bad, depending on what you're trying to achieve).
I often find that simply mulling things over in a relaxed, "directionless" way is the best way to tap into my "right-brained," contextual mind. Patterns will seem to emerge that you were previously unaware of: "Wow, I was really down this quarter," or "Hey, I've actually made a lot more progress than I thought...just look at where I started."
In the "Review" phase we take the general impressions and data we've gathered in the Round Up Phase and start to synthesize it all.
Data is great, but it isn't knowledge. A number doesn't tell you what to do with it. We need to bring all our different data sources together, figure out what we feel and think about it and then turn those feelings into a plan to improve our lives. The Review phase is where that starts.
This almost always take the form of journaling. I simply do not know what I think before I write it down. Even if I think I know what I think about a topic, forcing myself to write things down imposes a level of clarity on my thinking that I never reach on my own.
There are two types of journaling that can work well in a Quarterly Review: Open and Structured.
Open journaling is the simplest, but in some ways, the hardest: just open up your notebook and start writing. You've gathered all your data together, you've mulled it over...now, start taking whatever is in your head and putting it on paper (or computer screen).
The key to successful Open Journaling is to let the process work itself out. The less editing or second-guessing you do, the better it tends to go.
This type of writing is much more like meditation than it is traditional essay writing like in school. Your inner critic will keep trying to interrupt, but if you can shut your need for perfection down and view your journal as a kind of portal to your subconscious, you'll be surprised what you find there.
Open journaling is what I did when I first started my Quarterly Reviews. Over time, I found myself returning to certain themes over and over again. I wanted to be able to track my responses and thoughts on those themes over time. That caused me to switch to Structured journaling, which here simply refers to answering a specific set of questions every quarter.
The questions you answer should be specific to you, addressing your own needs, goals, and ambitions. I'll share my questions below, but there's nothing special about my particular framework, and I change my questions all the time, depending on what's important to me and what's going on in my life.
I have three basic "Areas" in my life that I think about a lot: Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Within those areas, I have what I call "The Big Questions":
- How am I sleeping?
- Am I happy with my body?
- Am I happy with my sex life?
- Am I working on the right kinds of tasks?
- Am I working on the most effective tasks?
- Am I thinking long-term?
- Am I experiencing pleasure?
- Am I minimizing stress?
- Am I in control of my time?
Again, nothing inherently special about these questions, but they accurately reflect my priorities right now.
One thing I will point out is that questions are extremely powerful. There's a reason this blog is called "Better Questions": the questions you ask determine the answers you get.
Over time, the questions I ask myself have become less and less focused on particular goals and accomplishments (notice that most of them ask if I'm "happy" with my current state, rather than asking what the current state actually is).
That's because I found that, for me, goal achievement works best when it's simply a means to an end. I try to pursue goals where the actual pursuit is enjoyable, not just the end result. That way, I experience much less "post-goal achievement depression," and the pay-off happens right now, rather than potentially occurring sometime in the future.
To give you a different take on the same process, Taylor Pearson, who has written a number of excellent things on goal-setting over the years, uses these questions in his review process:
- What went well?
- What are the 20% of things I’m doing driving 80% of results?
- What went badly? What were the biggest mistakes I made?
- Why didn’t I achieve what I set out to achieve?
- What are the three least valuable things I'm doing? What are the 80% of things I’m doing achieving 20% of the results?
- What am I doing to avoid the Resistance?
I've used those questions as well, often in tandem with my own.
Once you've done your journaling, there's one final step to take to make sure that all of this thinking and writing has the impact that you want:
Imagine that you are the CEO of You, Inc., a world-famous company that helps millions across the globe.
As the CEO, it's your responsibility to report to your investors, updating them on what the company is going through, how it's adapted, and what it plans to do moving forward.
As the leader of the company, you're the one best-suited to setting a clear vision for the future. You can't just spit facts and figures at people. You need to distill everything down into digestible information. You need to spot patterns, trends, and future developments that others might miss.
That's exactly what we do in the "Report" phase.
Data is great, and journaling is useful - but we still need to boil everything down into a form that can be easily communicated and used to set a course for the next quarter.
I mean "report" quite literally. My preferred method of reporting is to create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation and then to "present" it in a video. It doesn't matter if you never show this video to anyone; forcing yourself to think of it as a real presentation will help you to think and communicate as clearly as possible.
There are a few basic parts to the Quarterly Report:
- What were the major themes of the quarter? (what were the trends? How would you summarize the major changes?)
- What were the major events?
- What were your major accomplishments?
- What are your Goals for next quarter?
The format isn't particularly important - I tend to keep my slides fairly simple and then elaborate in the video. Do the report in a way that you're comfortable with, focused on the things that are important for you.
One of the things I didn't really expect when I first started doing these is how important reviewing my photos has become.
I tend to have a pretty poor memory. I forget most of what happens each month. Going back and looking at photos, particularly photos of my kids, brings those memories back in a way that I find intensely valuable.
This three-step process - each time, bringing your picture of the last quarter into sharper and sharper definition - culminates in the goal-setting process.
There are lots of different goal-setting formats; all of them are fine. I use a slightly-modified version of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), but anything you like and are comfortable with will work.
One piece of advice: limit the number of goals you take on each quarter. In many ways, the fewer goals you have, the better. My personal limit is three, and I routinely find that bending that rule leaves me unfocused and more than a little stressed-out.
Setting goals is great, but doing so after a Quarterly Review like this one is incredibly powerful. Because you've done the work to truly integrate and understand what happened to you over the past three months, you'll have an especially-clear idea of what you need to change moving forward.
This is the key: the review process is a feedback loop. The whole reason we do this work is to more effectively change our behavior moving forward. Clarifying where we've been, and what we learned while we were there, allows us to make informed decisions about what to do during the weeks that come.
Better questions lead to better answers.
Better answers lead to better decisions.
Better decisions lead to better outcomes.
I hope this was useful.
P.S. If you have any questions, email me back and let me know! I'll answer them in this week's Deep Dive video.
Cool Stuff To Read:
How To Fall Asleep In 120 Seconds. I plan on experimenting with this over the next week - give it a shot and let me know how it goes!
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