In January 2014, I began a process of sitting down to postmortem the month just passed.
In writing “postmortem,” I use the same business jargon you may have heard in the office after a project for which the team wants to review what went well, what went badly, and how to apply the lessons from the effort in the future.
My personal monthly postmortem extends beyond business, although I do include my professional efforts in the mix. After all, work takes a lot of space in my life, but work doesn’t consume my entire life—or it shouldn’t.
All this preface to say: You should try it.
I schedule my monthly postmortem shortly after the month ends. With so much underway at any moment, I can easily forget what happened only a few weeks before.
Call me old fashioned, but I do my postmortem in writing, with pen and paper. I have my reasons:
- The process feels more reflective and meditative. I can type much more quickly than I can write anything by hand.
- I rarely write by hand. Infrequency makes taking the time to sit down and scribe out my thoughts in pen on paper, as they arrive, special. Further, typing and writing by hand have a different tactile sensation and use different motor skills, which rarity makes feel more intense.
- It seems as though I internalize what I’ve written better when I’ve scrawled it out longhand. Science may back up this impression: Subjects in a Princeton−UCLA study about, yes, studying found that people who wrote notes by hand had a better conceptual grasp of the material.
To get started for each postmortem, I pull up my goals list for the year as a refresher on my key areas of focus and my calendar in Outlook, which gives me a quick reminder of the month and its major moments. (Even shortly after the month ends, I seem to easily forget what happened during the course of it.)
I have a dedicated notebook for my postmortem musings, so that I can go back and review previous months and see patterns.
The Postmortem Process
To get the bad stuff out of the way first, I start by outlining what I call my “losses,” which can refer to actual losses and setbacks and also can include steps I didn’t take, mistakes I made, and opportunities I missed.
Rather than develop a simple laundry list of woes, I assess each one in turn with the following questions:
- Why did this happen?
- What can I list as key takeaways? What can I say I learned?
- How will I apply my learnings to address or avoid a similar situation in the future? Or how can I ensure important steps in my forward progress don’t fall off my radar going forward?
Starting with the bad gives me the chance to end on a high note—with my “wins.” What did I handle really well? What did I get done that keeps me on course?
As with the losses, I review each win with an eye to preserving the positive:
- What did I learn?
- How can I ensure I keep up the good work or behavior?
More than I expected I would, I’ve found that I internalize the lessons from my postmortems each month.
When I flip back to past months to review historical wins and losses, I see that my reactions to given situations have improved—sometimes without my even fully realizing the positive change. Problematic behaviors have eased and good behaviors feel so entrenched that I almost don’t remember reacting in any other way.
Mostly, I credit taking dedicated, focused time to think through needed changes and externalize my thoughts in writing. I feel the surveillance factor has a role as well. After all, who wants to have to write down the same failures each month? Or, when reviewing past postmortems, see the same missteps over and over again?
Do you do any sort of postmortem?