The (liberating) power of looking back

My friend (and software startup coach) Mike Borthwick recently wrote on LinkedIn: I often find myself creating the first or second artefact a new business will ever create. One day I was putting a new piece of art my son created in kindergarten on the fridge. It occurred to me that the piece I was taking down to make room was the first one we ever put up. I think a lot about motivation and how we don't keep track of progress day-to-day or month-to-month until something unexpected happens and we're suddenly forced to recognise our progress. I have started advising my clients to take their first storyboard, frame it, and hang it on the longest wall in their apartment, house, Vanagon...

I grew up as a software developer in the late 80's and 90's. Software engineering was in it's infancy; methodologies like agile or scrum had not been invented and best practices in software development were few and far between. One of the practices that we started implementing in my programming days was the so-called "post mortem"; an exercise at the end of a project to try and learn what had worked, what not and what we could do better next time.

Some of these exercises were of some value; some not - but fast forward 20 years and they've become standard practice for experienced development teams. Except today we call them retrospectives.

It's easier to remember your failures - or learnings, as I call them

Mike's post on LinkedIn reminded me of my own weekly review and planning sessions. Every Friday morning, one of the first things I do is a review of the week that was and plan out my work for the next week. The review goes in a private diary; I note down wins, learnings, my mindset during the week, how my personal relationships are going and what I'm grateful for.

I've noticed that it's a lot easier to write down my "learnings" (or failures, if you like) than my wins. Somehow the things that didn't work are much more memorable than the things that I did achieve; I often have to go back in my calendar to remind myself just what I got done that I would regard as a success.

Perhaps this is just human nature; we tend to remember the things that we didn't do so well over those that did work. I often start writing with one or two "wins" in mind, but as I go back through my calendar and my notes for the week I remember more wins and often end up with six or seven. Not all of them are big of course; but even small wins are wins and I've learnt to write them down.

Remembering the wins in your business

Building a business is not an overnight thing. Some days you just feel tired of the slog every day, one day after the next, working long hours, dealing with issues, worrying about cash flow and whether that client is going to pay their invoice on time. Or where the next bit of cashflow is going to come from.

It's so easy to forget just how far you've come in your business. Look back even a week and there's progress; look back a month and there's a lot, and look back as much as a year and you will be surprised to see the twists and turns, pivots, re-focusing and just plain old progress you made.

In my Have a Life planner I advocate taking one day a quarter for reviewing the past quarter and working on your strategy and plan for the next quarter. Here's what I've learnt doing reviews of the previous quarter:

  • I'm often surprised at just how much I got done.
  • I'm often just as surprised at how much I got done, but not along the lines I had planned for.
  • I'm sometimes (often) dismayed at how little progress I made on the things I thought was important a quarter ago.

And this taught me a number of lessons.

Lessons learnt from looking back

The very first lesson I learnt from looking back is about what's important:

We need to be very, very thoughtful about what's really important - in business as well as in life.

So often, what we thought of as important wasn't really important at all. Or it was important, but not quite at that time or not as important as something else. In our personal lives, there's nothing like the death of a loved one to bring that lesson home.

The second lesson I learnt is just how quickly we can lose sight of what's important in the rush of urgency:

Importance will always step back for urgency; but very few things are really that urgent.

Of course there are things that are urgent and we have to deal with right away. But when you look at what you've accomplished today and so far this week, how much of the things that you believed were important gave way to things that just popped up and screamed "do me, do me"?

We create our own urgency traps by having notifications tell us when there's a new email or tweet or social media mention; we check on statistics that feed our ego's and we interrupt ourselves to just quickly go and check if someone replied to our urgent message.

Which leads me to the third lesson I've learnt from looking back:

Progress towards a long-term goal requires daily focus on the things that move us towards that goal.

It's easy to get lost in the urgency of every day and postpone the important things we should be working on. And that's where regular retrospectives can help us get back on track; weekly, monthly and quarterly (and of course the traditional end-of-year bash). Some aficionados will even do daily reviews.

The (liberating) power of looking back

Looking back reminds us what we set out to do and just how far we've come in accomplishing those goals. If we're off track, we're going to see it and have to think about whether we need to re-focus. Or whether the direction we were going in was the right one in the first place.

Looking back can be scary too. We can realise that we've wasted a week or a month or even a quarter doing stuff that didn't take us where we wanted to go or even forward in any meaningful way; that we failed or we're drifting aimlessly.

This is where you need to be careful. And this is why I call my "failures" learnings rather than failures. Because if we're drifting, or not moving ahead as much as we would like, there's a lesson in there. Something is not quite right, and our lack of progress - or progress in a different direction - is an indicator that we need to learn something.

And in the process of learning we'll see what we need to improve so that we can move forward, or we'll see that we were chasing something for the wrong reasons. And all of this is worth learning - these are not failures, just lessons we're learning if we're open to seeing them for what they are.

What you can do now

Doing weekly reviews literally changed my life in so many positive ways. When you think about there are many more wins than you may remember; even just a line from a client email saying thanks is a win for me. And learnings are just learnings - they're not failures. If you're not there yet don't worry - you will get there, or where you need to be, and this is just learning what works and what doesn't.

So make time to review every day or at least every week. Take half a day a month and definitely a full day every quarter. Turn off your phone and your Internet connection. Use a whiteboard, Post-It notes or just a journal. Look back and see how far you've come, and celebrate your wins as well as your learnings.

Because the journey is worth enjoying.

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