2020 was exceptional in many ways, and, at the end of it, I decided to do a personal retrospective on the year, something I’d never done before, in order to try and get a sense of perspective.

I found it helpful, and it led to me writing reflective notes at the end of each month in 2021. Having followed that monthly practice, I wondered whether I would bother doing anything additional at the end of the year.

However, I decided that I’d find it helpful to review what I’d written in my MonthNotes and see what stands out for me when I step back from them and see if there are any wider lessons there for me.

2021 feels like it was a year of transition for me, most obviously in relation to my phased return to work following my stroke last year, which covered the first four months of the year: I started January working 15 hours per week over 3 days, and I slowly added in extra hours from there; I ended the month doing 20 hours over 4 days; the final week in April was my first full 5-day working week after almost exactly 8 months. In June I had a procedure to close a hole in my heart, which doctors thought had caused my stroke. As a friend reminded me in January, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’. I’m massively grateful for the amazing support I got from work with that, and I’m pleased to finish the year still running, in good health, and not exhausted or in any way burnt out.

What were you looking forward to at the start of the year?

At the end of my 2020 retrospective I listed five things I was looking forward to in 2021. Revisiting that list was a bit of a depressing way to start reviewing 2021:

  • Rebecca completing her rolfing training — didn’t happen, she just had three zoom calls
  • My team having a face-to-face meeting — didn’t happen, and although we managed two hybrid meetings where team members in the UK were able to meet together, I’ve not seen the rest of the team in person since I joined, and so I have never physically met one of the team
  • Returning to singing in a group — only happened once
  • Seeing my parents — happened several times
  • Seeing friends — happened lots

Going through that list I was reminded of another thing a friend said to me early on in January:

“What if 2021 is as hard as 2020?”

Reader, it wasn’t.
Which isn’t to say that it was easy. We still live in weird times.

Events/activities that made me happy

Liverpool FC goalkeeper Alisson Becker heading the wining goal from a corner in thre 95th minute vs Wets Bromwich Albion

My monthly notes were loosely based on a set of prompts/questions. I didn’t stick to the same questions every month, as that would have felt forced. However, there were two questions that I used every month:

  • What was fun?
  • What did you enjoy?

5 keys to happiness

Beahavourial scientist Professor Paul Dolan says that — whilst everyone finds happiness in their own personal, unique blend of activities that bring them some balance of pleasure and purpose (fun and fulfilment)— there are five things that people universally report as bringing them happiness which together balance those elements. And, on re-reading my month notes, I was struck by how much of them fits into these five categories:

1. Being outside

I enjoyed going on walks, seeing different flowers, birds and other animals (including a deer, an eel, hedgehogs, and a snake), going to the beach, going camping, spending two weeks in the Lake District, feeling the seasons changing, and picking fruit

2. Being with people we like being with

I regularly reported both looking forward to and having enjoyed seeing friends and family.

3. Listening to music

I enjoyed going to a music festival, going to a concert, and dancing — on a beach, in some woods, in a club, with a community on a Friday night, in my own house first thing on a Monday morning — even listening to music in a car.

4. Having new experiences

I frequently commented on enjoying things I did for the first time (or for the first time in a long time): watsu, somatic experiencing, virtual book clubs, reading new books (including books by authors I’d not read before — eg Thomas Mann and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), paddleboarding, trying random coffees, getting guinea pigs, going back to Anfield.

5. Helping people

Many times I reported feeling proud of being chair of Cambridge Curiosity & Imagination, a local arts and wellbeing charity. I was pleased to start coaching again. (As Sam says, “If you want to feel like you do some good in the world, become a coach.”) And in August I started teaching French to my younger daughter and her best friend. We’ve kept it up, and it’s been fun and rewarding too.

Events/activities that made me sad

2021 was not all been happiness and light. In a world of growing inequalities and climate change, I despair at the state of politics. I’m appalled by how the UK government handles almost everything, and I’m particularly saddened and worried by the effect of their propaganda and restrictions.

Events/activities that helped me grow

I went on three training courses:

At work, I’ve also grown and learnt by doing. In particular last year, I worked on two cross-functional projects — one to improve how we design and develop new products, and one on team working as we come out of the pandemic.
I’ve learnt lots by working with people in different functions, partly through those two projects, and also through our senior leadership group.

Related to work, I am growing through networks/communities — communities relating to product development, agile ways of working, leadership, the chief of staff role, business operations, business agility, and psychological safety. I also set up two new communities of practice at work — one on leadership and one on new product development. Hopefully these communities will help others to grow too.

Outside work, my ‘SE’ sessions (somatic experiencing) with Giselle were amazing and helped me to grow in ways I can’t easily articulate. I’m looking forward to learning more about the practice in an introductory workshop in London in April.

What was the biggest lesson you learnt?

  • I never regret going outside

Impact and outcomes

In my prompts for writing reflective notes, I have a series of questions — a quarter of the total number — relating to impact and outcomes:

  • What outcome made you proud?
  • When did you make a personal impact that improved something?
  • What did you achieve?
  • What did you do that was critical to something succeeding?
  • What did you do that helped someone else achieve something?

I think I included them to challenge/help me to articulate things that I can find difficult to articulate.

And it’s interesting that in 2021 I found these questions among the hardest ones to answer, and so they’re questions I didn’t often use in my MonthNotes. As in other years, I find it easy to point to projects that I led or contributed to and to things (outputs) that I developed, improved or contributed to. And I am — gradually, slowly — getting better at articulating my contribution and the value I bring.

However, I often find it harder to articulate the end achievment/result of what I do, the impact or outcome.

I work in complex organisations and enjoy tackling hard problems. Projects I worked on last year were aimed at improving things for hundreds, or one case thousands, of people in countries all over the world, helping them to adopt better ways of working.

Outcomes are often the result of a complex combination of factors. They can also take a long time to materialise, and so success can be hard to identify on a month-by-month basis. It is easier to point to outputs, or changes in leading measures, whilst the real outcome you’re wanting to chage is a lagging measure (or perhaps hard to measure). And it may not be easy to assess or measure the contribution of one thing (an output, a lead measure) on another thing (an outcome, a lagging measure). And what if the outputs look right and/or the lead measures show a positive change, but there’s no change in your (lagging) key results?

Furthermore, it can be hard to be accountable for an outcome when it will inevitably be the result of a range of things in a complex system and especially when you work through influence and don’t control all of the levers (and probably no one does). But that’s what it can mean to be judged by results.

Habits from 2021 that I want to continue doing

  1. Daily exercise — helps keep me healthy
  2. Daily meditation — helps me stay balanced
  3. Going outside every day — helps me to maintain a sense of perspective

I developed these 3 habits in 2020. I don’t manage to do each of them every day, and sometimes going out on a walk I can feel a bit like this:

But I’m doing pretty well, and they’re all massively helpful.
Plus, I’ve got a new habit, which I want to maintain:

4. Starting the week by dancing with Rebecca on a Monday morning.

What would you have liked to do more of in 2021?

  • Team development — we did do some of this, some of it happened organically, some of it we deliberately paused, some of it we never completed because we prioritised other work
  • Spoon Carving
  • Kayaking
  • Coaching

What else would you like to do more of in 2022?

  • Read poetry
  • Lie on the grass watching clouds moving across a blue sky
  • Challenge ourselves to tackle big issues

I often operate within a system and work to improve it from within, helping shape the conditions and environment to allow others to thrive and do their best work (eg through cumulative sustained marginal gains). In doing so, I’ve realised that I like to focus on what is within my control/sphere of influence, and I wonder whether this means I sometimes don’t stop and challenge major system blockers.



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Richard McLean

Richard McLean

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.