I’m writing this at the beginning of a year (2021), but this practice is something I’d recommend for anything you do or at the end of any time period.
Developing an after action review (AAR) habit can have a powerful effect on everything you do. Whether you’re evaluating your day before you climb into bed, breaking down a major project at work, or contemplating how to make your marriage better, an AAR will help you build on or grow from your previous experience.
What is an After Action Review?
An after action review represents an evaluation of any time period, project, or mission where you identify what went right, what went wrong, what you learned, and how you can do things better the next go around.
I first heard this concept from Michael Hyatt, but since then, I’ve heard it from a million other voices in the productivity, leadership, business, and personal development space.
The purpose of the exercise is to encourage your intentionality around your goals and projects and disciplines. Many of us try things – to lose weight, to make more money, to improve a relationship, to grow spiritually – and either fail or succeed. Typically, we just roll with whatever feelings we have after success or failure.
An after action review encourages growth and continual improvement.
What are the Elements of an After Action Review (AAR)?
While you might run into variations (and I’m sure there’s an official military process for an AAR), what follows works for me – when I remember to work it.
What was the mission and was it accomplished?
The first and most important question is whether or not you achieved the goal you set out to achieve. For my annual review, I have a list of goals and the painful task of seeing how far I got. I do the same on a weekly and quarterly basis.
If I’m evaluating a project or a specific goal, the simple question is if the project was successful or if the goal was achieved.
Pro tip – you might realize you didn’t clarify your goal. The AAR might reveal that you need to take more time to identify what you’re trying to achieve.
What Worked? What Didn’t?
After determining success – complete, partial, or complete stinking failure, ask these two questions:
- What worked?
- What didn’t?
Even in the most egregious, gut wrenching failure, you did something right. What was it? Celebrate even the smallest of wins.
If it was only deciding to try, that’s still a win.
I know that sounds like a participation trophy, but you must keep yourself motivated if you tanked it yet want to keep working at finding success.
Similarly, even in the most amazing success, there were some areas that you really flubbed up. We can always improve.
As a matter of fact, that is exactly how successes turn into failure: you don’t take the time to poke holes in what you did to see where the weaknesses were.
A powerful example from the business and tech world is the failure of Blackberry or Kodak. Do you think Blackberry – who owned the smartphone world – spent enough time finding what didn’t work or what might not work in the future? Did they consider how a competitor might come at them?
Or in the case of college football juggernaut University of Alabama. Do you think he doesn’t consider what worked so he can double down there while at the same time finding every tiny mistake and diagnosing how an opposing team could capitalize on it?
Figure out what worked. Figure out what didn’t. Learn.
What Will You Keep, Improve, Start, or Stop?
In some ways, these questions are redundant to the previous questions. Frankly, if you stopped at what worked and what didn’t, you’d be miles ahead of most people.
But to dive further, identify the following:
- What will you keep doing?
- What will you improve about what you’re currently doing?
- What will you start doing?
- What will you stop doing?
Give yourself a couple minutes to think through each of these questions.
Pay particular attention to what you should STOP doing. Oftentimes, addition is only possible through subtraction in the world of self and project improvement.
Remove distractions. Remove tasks that are really just procrastination in various disguises.
Keep doing the incisive, effective habits, tasks, and practices.
Start doing the thing that you have been hemming and hawing about for the last 3 years.
Improve your morning and evening routines. Improve your communication. Improve your processes.
What Did I Learn? What’s My New Goal?
End the review with these two simple questions:
- What did I learn?
- What’s my new goal? (or how should I adjust my current goal?)
Jot down the big ideas. This “what did I learn” question is coming back around on the previous questions. That’s okay. You might pick up a few more things or you might just be able to summarize everything you learned throughout the AAR.
Finally, your new goal.
Do you need to set a new one?
Do you need to adjust an old one?
Or do you just need to apply what you’ve learned to the current one and get back after it?
After Action Review for the Past Year to Prep for the New Year
Cut and past these questions into a document and answer them:
- What were my goals last year?
- How far did I get in accomplishing them?
- What worked this past year?
- What didn’t work this past year?
- What should I keep doing into the new year?
- What should I improve about how I’m handling my health, my relationships, my relationship with God, my finances, etc?
- What should I start doing?
- What should I stop doing?
- What did I learn?
- What should my goals be for this next year?
Remember – you can take these same questions and evaluate any project or task or time period.
An excellent resource for staring a new year (that can be used for starting any new time period or project): Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals – Michael Hyatt