A Good Day's Work

Striving for personal and professional growth

The Building Blocks of a Year Worth Living

Start crafting your personal projects for the year by focusing on why.

Years have a way of disappearing. Even more than with new months or weeks, when the calendar turns to January, I find myself routinely puzzled about how exactly that happened. Where did all of that time go?

Last year was a case in point: 2013 might have been the longest and shortest year of my life. It was a phenomenally full twelve months, during which I got married, switched to mostly self-employment, and alternately got in the best and worst shape of my life. Yet it flew by faster than any year I've ever lived.

It is that paradox that can make the traditional end-of-year personal review so unwieldy. The new year offers up a seemingly ideal "fresh start" for taking stock and making plans, but it can be hard to wrap our heads around something as amorphous as a year of life. We need some kind of structure to hang onto.

One such structure can come from the Job Crafting Exercise (JCE). Developed by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, the JCE helps people think about their jobs as a series of "flexible building blocks" that can be expanded, contracted, or even eliminated in the quest for a better work life. Importantly, it is heavily anchored in realism: The goal is a better approach to work that still fulfills the jobs they signed up to do. By thinking about where they invest their focus, though, employees are able to re-craft their jobs to better align with their strengths, passions, and values.

A year can similarly be thought of as a collection of flexible building blocks. We each take on a collection of "personal projects"—ranging from concrete work initiatives to more abstract personal development goals. At any given time, researcher Brian Little says, we might have as many as 15 or more of these "projects" on our plates. Imagine, then, how they can add up over the course of a year.

With the JCE and Brian Little's work in mind, I started my own look back at 2013 by writing down major "personal projects" from the past 12 months. The big ones jumped straight to mind: Wedding planning, new job opportunities, and the conference I helped to organize in June. I scanned through my photos and emails and re-discovered those mid-sized endeavors that took a few weeks all told, like training programs and scattered bits of travel. Finally, there were some smaller efforts like visiting family or ad hoc work projects that didn't take as much time, but still felt like notable parts of the year. My wife went through the same process, and we checked in along the way to make sure we weren't missing anything significant.

In the end, we each wound up with a pile of sticky notes representing the year that was. Our lists were by no means exhaustive, but they nevertheless showed just how much we had done. Even more helpfully, they began to reveal patterns and themes in the goals we were pursuing. Personally, for example, five or six of my projects all fit loosely under the banner of family life (e.g., wedding, family visits, etc.). Professionally, I could see one bucket of projects that served functional goals like income and another that helped my larger vision of building a vocation. As each of these themes emerged, we would organize our previously disparate projects into groups with a common purpose.

It is sometimes said that hindsight is 20/20, and going through this exercise certainly brought our years into better focus. Unfortunately, though, foresight is typically not so clear. How can we plan ahead with perspective and wisdom?

Simon Sinek has spoken and written persuasively about the value of "starting with why." What you do and how you do it, he argues, should follow from your deeper purpose. Instead of discovering the meaning of your year in December, in other words, it would be better to identify your hopes in January and let projects emerge from there.

For our look ahead, then, my wife and I reversed course. We started with why by choosing five or six over-arching themes that we hoped would define 2014. Some carried over to the new year, while others were new. Some we had in common, and others were highly individualized. All together, though, we each had a broad definition of a successful year ahead.

Grounded now in the things that mattered most, we started to list our notable projects for the next 12 months. Some we already knew would come from work or life circumstances. In those cases, the challenge was to help align them with our deeper goals by shifting either the scope or our approach to the project. Others emerged from the themes themselves, as we thought about how best to operationalize our abstract hopes. By the time we were done, we had a new pile of sticky notes that felt even more substantial.

My hope was that this "year-crafting" process would help my wife and me see just how much we have done and can do in a year, and that it certainly did. That new perspective, though, was equal parts energizing and overwhelming, as we then turned to the question of where to begin with all of our 2014 projects. It was instantly clear that some would have to wait to get started, and we knew there were bound to be others we couldn't anticipate. Yet there was comfort in the knowledge that we could use the over-arching themes we identified as helpful anchors throughout the year to prevent too much mission-creep. Those 2.5 hours were a helpful start, but now the work of building a year worth living really begins.

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If you would like to try a similar exercise, below are the basic steps my wife and I followed, which themselves can be considered flexible building blocks for whatever process will work best for you:

1. Make a list of the personal projects you focused on in the previous year. Be sure to include projects of varying size and importance.

2. Group those projects according to similar motivations. Many projects will have served multiple goals, but look for common themes that link projects together.

3. Turning to the year ahead, reverse the process and start with a list of the key themes you want to focus on in 2014.

4. Now list the key personal projects that will operationalize each of those purposeful goals. Be sure to include both projects you need to do and want to do.

5. Finally, take a step back and consider how you will fit all of that in during the course of the year. You might also want to consult with a partner, friend, boss, or colleague for feedback, perspective, or just to help think things through a little further.

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Reb Rebele, MAPP, works with organizations and individuals trying to understand and apply research that can help improve the design of work and life. You can find him on Twitter @rebrebele or LinkedIn.

Robert "Reb" Rebele is a consultant and educator with the University of Pennsylvania and the International Positive Psychology Association.

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