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Rebecca SchalmSeptember is around the corner. I was in school for so long, I think September will always feel like the start of the year. One of the things on my to-do list for the fall is to take my annual personal retreat.

The retreat is my time to sit back and reflect on the past year, take stock of where I am, how that lines up with where I wanted to be and what I want to aim for in the future.

This is about life in totality – my professional and my personal life.

Some of my friends like to do this exercise over a weekend with other like-minded people so they have a sounding board as well as some built-in accountability. However, you want to structure it, I strongly believe hitting the pause button for at least a day to think about you, your life and what you want to get out it is time well spent.

There are three key components to a personal retreat:

Time to reflect.

I think it makes sense to begin with an honest review of what’s gone well over the past year and what hasn’t. What are my successes? What are the things I’m proud of? What didn’t go so well this year? Where did I fail in my commitments to myself?

Time to dream.

This is my opportunity to brainstorm around short, medium and long-term aspirations.

I like to start with the short-term view, which for me means the next 12 months. I like it because it’s practical and grounded in reality.  The question I ask is: When I do my reflection next year, what do I hope I can say about the past year? What will ‘good’ look like?

Then I shift to the long term, which for me is about 10 years. This is my chance to throw all the really big questions out there and dream about the answers. It can be hard, because it’s so intangible. What do I imagine I want my life to be like? Am I working? Doing what? How am I spending my leisure time? Who are the most important people in my life? What do my finances look like?

This helps me establish my ‘true north,’ the direction I want to head.

Finally, I look at the medium term, the bridge between now and my imaginary future. Given where I am now and where I want to be in the future, what might the halfway point look like?

Stating some mid-term aspirations will help me make decisions that will move me toward the future state I have envisioned. For example, if I want to be retired in 10 years, what do I want to be doing five years from now?

Time to plan.

After I consider the medium and the long term, I go back and look at my short-term goals to do a reality check. What’s missing or misaligned? What have I stated I want to focus on that’s irrelevant and should be dropped? There will be enough distractions popping up along the way, I don’t need to create my own.

This is the point at which I put my one-year goals and action plan in writing. I do this because I know, unless I have something concrete with a few targets and a way to track my progress, I’m probably going to get off track. Until I have a plan, I only have a dream.

I use four to five themes or ‘buckets’ to organize my goals, and set a few goals within each. For example, one theme will certainly be ‘financial security.’ Another will be ‘relationships.’ For financial security, I will probably set goals around how much I want to earn this year and how much I want to save. Then I will set up a simple tracking mechanism where I can check my progress on a quarterly basis.

Later, when I’m doing my plan each month, I go back and look at my annual goals and identify what actions I need to take to help me achieve them.

I’m not foolish enough to believe my life will play out exactly the way I plan it at my annual retreat. Where would be the fun in that?

But I do take my time spent here on Earth seriously and I plan to invest it wisely.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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