The Power of a Personal Retrospective

Metal Toad first introduced the concept of a retrospective to me in 2014. As an agile software company, our teams undertake retrospectives (retros) quite frequently.

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Metal Toad first introduced the concept of a retrospective to me in 2014. As an agile software company, our teams undertake retrospectives (retros) quite frequently.

What is a retrospective, you ask? Atlassian defines them as "anytime your team reflects on the past to improve the future." 

In the most simple form, a retrospective is a time for the team to meet and discuss/reflect on what worked, what didn't, why, and how we can improve. I've witnessed the power of team retrospectives firsthand, and in December of 2017, I decided to take the retrospective one step further. 

I started a new tradition: a personal retrospective.

2017 had been a challenging year, and I was looking to create my fresh vision for 2018. To do that, I was inspired and intrigued by our team retrospectives. They worked in my collaborative professional life to create better processes and products.

Could they also work in my own personal and professional day-to-day to create a more fulfilling and meaningful life?

I went all in. I grabbed butcher block sheets of paper, and different color felt tip markers. I taped the paper to my hallway walls and wrote various personal retrospective questions across the top:

  • What am I most proud of this year?
  • What am I most grateful for this year?
  • What did I enjoy or energized me this year?
  • What could have gone better? 
  • What challenges did I overcome?
  • What lessons did I learn? How did I grow this year?
  • What did I say I was going to do but never did?
  • What would I like to redo?
  • Where did I put my focus that did not serve me?
  • What do I want more of in my life?
  • What do I want less of in my life?

I spent a whole Sunday mapping things out from the previous year. At the end, I had a pretty powerful product! Walls filled with the celebrations of the year (what worked), the things that could have gone better (what didn't work), and even better — a map of trends I wanted to do more of or keep in my life, and a map of trends I wanted to do less of or stop in my life.

This alone was an insightful experience.

However, if you want to unlock the full power of a retrospective, you need to take some additional action steps.

  1. Change things in your life based upon your retrospective insights
  2. Keep doing retrospectives consistently to uncover more insights
  3. Repeat

Simple to write, more challenging to do! 

Yet, I stuck with it. Over the years, I've continued to refine the prompts I ask myself. I started to make small changes in my personal and professional life based on my insights. I undertook quarterly or bi-annual retrospectives to help uncover trends faster and create more frequent intentionality in my life. I started using 8.5 x 11 paper sheets and writing on the front and back. I needed less time for my retros as I practiced more often — and I started to curl up in a chair with coffee or tea as I wrote (which is how the cats began to join me for moral support).

This December, it will be four years since I started my personal retrospective tradition. I can attest this tool has had an incredible impact for the better on both my personal and professional life. 

I take more calculated risks. I learn faster from mistakes. I can track the small wins that lead up to big wins. I am clearer on what is meaningful and essential to me, so I make time to prioritize what is meaningful and essential to me. 

If you are looking to make intentional shifts in your life — however big or small — I can't recommend the power of a personal retrospective highly enough. I encourage you to try it! 

Start with 15 minutes, once a month or once a quarter, and see what arises for you. You'd be surprised what a difference a small, consistent effort will make.

Have you tried a personal retrospective before? What prompts resonate most with you? What results have you seen? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


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