Introduction: The Monthly Checklist
Every month I sit down for an hour or so to take a look back at the past month and work my way through a pretty involved checklist and a list of questions I ask myself to see where I came from and where I want to be. Although the process is time-consuming and can take a lot of mental energy, I find the process rewarding and beneficial for the upcoming month. Below is a screenshot of the checklist.
As you can tell these items are personally curated for myself and myself only. Most of my personal goals lie within the realms of creative side projects, and finance. For you it might be career, or health, or relationships, or what have you. This post isn’t to show you the best monthly review since we’re all different and what works for me might not work with you. Consider this post more of a jumping off point for your own end of month checklist. The order of the list is a bit deceiving since I tend to go about it in different orders each month, but in general I tend to do the top item on the list, the monthly review, last the rest depends on what I’m feeling. In this post we’ll go through most of the checklist the way I did this month (March 2021).
Review Daily Word Count Sheet / Create New Daily Word Count Page
Asides from the inconsistent naming (is it a sheet or a page? What does that even mean?), this is a pretty straightforward part of my monthly review checklist. As a writer by hobby, and an engineer by profession, I love numbers and more importantly I love looking at numbers that can give me insight on my projects. So to satisfy that desire for data I have a simple Google Sheet I use to keep track of said data. Here’s a look at this month’s data, as you can tell it wasn’t the best month for my writing.
Knowing this gives me a good idea of where I really stand on these projects. For example, I feel like I wrote a good amount this month, but in reality I only wrote for a total of 8 days this month, as compared to say January when I had a goal of writing 30k words by the end of the month.
Depending on what your personal projects are and how their goals can be measured I do recommend having a spreadsheet or some sort of tracking system to keep yourself honest. If it’s hard to quantify the project or goal in a simple way may I suggest time tracking?
Review Toggl Reports
I love time tracking. We only have so many hours in the day and so many days in our lives that I think that it’s important to know how you spend it. And much like a budget knowing where your money goes allows you to plan better and smarter for the future. There are many different time tracking programs out there, but the one I prefer is Toggl.
Toggl is a time tracking system aimed towards freelance workers, and contractors, but has developed a cult following within the productivity community thanks to podcasts like Cortex. Toggl lets you break down what you track into workspaces, then clients, and finally projects (you can also use tags for overlapping tasks between clients & projects). How you choose to use it is up to you, and that deserves its own full length post. For now we’ll just focus on it in the context of my monthly review. Below is a look at my top “projects” this month.
As you can tell I log a mix of things, from side projects (Father Ringo) to chores, and exercise. All of these things are productive in their own right but to different means. Chores & exercise in my mind are “maintenance” tasks, they’re needed to keep me going so I can focus on more important things. Projects on the other hand are “productive” tasks since they are actively producing something of value. I have plans to spin my “maintenance” tasks into their own workspace in the future for easier review, but migrating workspaces in Toggl is tedious. I should also note that the Running timer should be much higher as I didn’t begin to record exercise time in Toggl until just this week.
Toggl also has a view for “clients” which are the level right above projects. I use clients as a catch all for my projects or areas of focus for maintenance tasks (e.g. chores, or exercise). Here’s this month’s:
I don’t really do much with this data in my monthly review but I like to take a look at it to know where each thing stands and know what I should spend more time on next month. And speaking of budgets let’s talk about You Need A Budget.
Check YNAB Expense Reports and Adjust
You need a budget, I need a budget, we all need a budget. Knowing how we spend our money and time can make a huge difference in your spending and saving behavior, and because of this, it’s useful to invest in budgeting software. I personally prefer YNAB (aka You Need a Budget). YNAB is a simple to use zero-based budgeting platform that I attribute to being the most important app in my life. And because of this I check out my total expenses each month on YNAB and see what I spent the most on and make a mental note on what needs to change. I have a personal goal to FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), so keeping an eye on this helps me know how close I am. But YNAB won’t tell me that exactly so I use another tool that’s just as important to my monthly review.
Update FI Calc
YNAB only tells you where you’ve been it doesn’t tell you where you’re going. That’s where the FI Laboratory by The Mad Fientist comes in. There’s not much to this except that it’s a simple calculator to determine how soon you can FIRE. I like to use it just to give me that extra motivation to save more and spend less.
Review Exists Reports
Exist is one of my daily driver apps, and a favorite of Mark and I over at The Productivity Lab. The app is one part daily journal, and one part data aggregate. Another more niche thing I personally love is the quantified self, again going back to my engineering mind I want all the data I can get on me to make the best decisions for future me. Once a month I take a look at my Exist monthly review page to get an idea on my average mood for the month, the most common tags I used, along with other data such as my sleep for the month, and productive time.
Just knowing this data helps a lot, especially the sleep tracking data (thanks to a connection with the Fitbit API). If you’re interested in having as much as your data in one place I highly recommend Exist, especially since they are very consumer friendly and privacy first.
You might be thinking to yourself: “Wow Kyle this is is pretty intense, are you okay?” Well dear reader, you haven’t even seen the worst of it yet. There’s one more thing I review at the end of each month that isn’t even on this checklist (at least not explicitly), and that is my Daily Review sheet.
The Daily Review Sheet
I love spreadsheets, if I wasn’t an engineer I would be an accountant. Taking inspiration from the Cortex “Theme System Journal” and Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, I review myself at the end of each day with rating myself on different “anchors” and habits. Anchors are just another term for values, and each anchor is graded based on my habits within them. Why I do this, and how this system works deserves its own post as well, but for now here’s a partial look at my Daily Review sheet for this month.
Needless to say, this is probably the most insane thing I keep track of, but having that data is important for my monthly review. But before we get to that we have one more stop at something a little less granular and something more aspirational.
Update & Checkoff the “Impossible List”
Inspired by Thomas Frank from College Info Geek and The Inforium, I decided create my own “impossible list”. The title “impossible list” is an intentional misnomer and is designed that way to give you the experience of accomplishing the “impossible”. The list is less of a bucket list but an ever changing list of things things you want to accomplish without any solid due dates. It can be anything from traveling, to saving money, to writing a book, or running a marathon. Every month I make an effort to go through my impossible list to check of what I’ve accomplished, add new things, and remove things I no longer want to focus on. Below is a brief glimpse into my impossible list I keep in Notion. I make sure to leave a comment when I check it off to know how accomplished it.
Finally, after all of that is said and done it’s time to move onto the actual review.
And we’re here, after about half an hour of reviewing all those ancillary pages it’s time to get down to business: the monthly review. Each month I ask myself a series of questions divided into three categories: goals, anchors, and accomplishments. We’ll begin with the goals.
Goals are exactly what they sound like, they are the things I want to accomplish that month, and to evaluate them I ask myself the following questions:
- What goals did I accomplish this month? And to what level?
- What Goals did I not accomplish, and why?
- How did I grow this month?
- What do I want to continue doing?
- What do I want to stop doing?
- What do I want to start doing?
- What do I want to continue not doing?
Each of these questions is important unto itself. Taking careful time to reflect upon them is important to understand what I’ve done and what I want to do. I highly recommend anyone looking to achieve their goals to use a similar set of questions.
This is where the Daily Review sheet come back into play. At the end of the month I take a look at my daily review sheet and compare the scores of each anchor against each other and find what I did well and what I need to work on. I then ask myself the following questions:
- What anchors did I focus on the most?
- What anchors did I focus on the least?
- What can I do to improve upon those anchors?
- What do I want to focus on for the next month?
Again, just like in the goal section I find these questions important in knowing what I need to focus on and more importantly: what I want to focus on. This helps guide me from month to month.
What’s the point of all this work if you can’t appreciate the things you’ve done? At the end of each review, I give myself permission to look back upon everything I’m proud I did in the last month and just take a moment to appreciate it. Here are this months’ accomplishments:
- I ran 20 consecutive miles!
- Migrated the old Quadrant Nine site to a new host
- Spun out fiction writing to its own site
- Began reading Beyond the Basics with Python and finished the first two chapters
- Wrote two scenes of Father Ringo
- Finished our last session for A Voice in the Deep, it was fun playing my first homebrew campaign
- Finished The Adventure Zone’s Balance arc
The final step of the monthly review is to plan ahead. Here I get together a Notion template where I put together all my goals and tasks for the next month and break it down into high level tasks for the month and the week (I put the low level tasks into Todoist). Here’s an example for next month (April 2021)
As you can see I have different ways of breaking everything down. Each month has a “Big 5” list where I list out the five main things I want to achieve by the end of the month, and each week has a “Big 3” list which is a more granular high level list of things I want to get done. Again, this page also deserves its own post so I won’t get too into the weeds here.
Conclusion: Wow, That’s a Lot
Not everybody’s monthly review has to be involved as mine, and I would not encourage it either, especially to those getting started. The monthly review should be unique to you and you only, it can either be one question (e.g. “What did I do this month?”) or a hundred questions with thousands of spreadsheets. The point of this post was to help inspire you to either build your own monthly review or help you look for inspiration for your own monthly reviews.
The monthly review, like everything else in life, is a work in progress. It will never be 100% complete and shouldn’t be. Mine is constantly evolving, going from ebbs and flows of shorter and simpler checklists and questions, to longer more in depth reviews. But what it should always be is something that helps you go from point A to point B, a way to reflect upon the past and plan for your future.
Happy reviewing, and remember: stay productive!