So a new year is almost upon us. Besides making the obligatory observation that time seems to be moving ever more swiftly, what difference does a new year make? For most of us, I think, a new year is a natural time to both reflect on the current year and plan for the coming one.

If you’re like most IT managers, this kind of reflection upon the past may seem somewhat unnatural. After all, technical managers succeed by pushing projects through their queues as quickly as possible. We’re more likely to look at a current Gantt chart than an outdated calendar.

In this column, I’m going to suggest several ways to reappraise the current year so that you can better prepare for the coming year. In my next column, I’ll provide some tips on how to set goals and plan for the new year.

The necessity of candor
Let’s start by defining what we’re trying to do here. The goal is to spend some time—at least 4-6 hours—reviewing what you’ve accomplished during the past 12 months, measured against your goals for the same period. You can use the lessons of this review to prepare for the coming year.

For this to make any sense, you need to be completely honest with yourself. Remember, no one needs to see this but you. If you’re like most of us, you have to do something similar for your annual review. Do two different reviews—the one for your boss can include excuses and justifications, if you wish. But don’t try to fool yourself.

Use Outlook as a mirror
There are lots of ways to look back through the year: You can review old project reports or Gantt charts to track completed tasks, or you can look at old financial statements to benchmark your ability to control costs. The choice is really yours. For this column, I’m going to concentrate on my Outlook client. That might sound strange to some of you, but I use Outlook as my primary way to communicate with the rest of the organization, and to manage my own time.

At the end of each year, I try to spend several hours looking back through my Outlook Calendar and Inbox. Here are the kinds of things I look for:

How many successful projects have I completely forgotten about?
If you’re like me, you can get depressed while thinking about the year ending, viewing the previous 12 months as mostly wasted effort. When you look back through your calendar, you’ll come upon projects that you’ve finished and forgotten—which is a nice boost for your ego (and something you should remember for your annual review with your boss).

How many worthless projects did I waste my time on?
Now everyone has his or her own definition of what constitutes a worthless project. Here’s mine: A worthless project is one that isn’t tied to your organization’s strategic goals. By that definition, spending 30 hours in meetings to select an ERP vendor is a worthwhile project, while spending three hours deciding who gets the next available window office is a worthless project.

How many regularly scheduled meetings did I have?
As we’ve discussed in this column before, most of us have way too many meetings. By and large, regularly scheduled weekly meetings are less productive than ad hoc meetings thrown together to address a particular issue. All too often, though, the latter kind of meeting often mutates into the former type of meeting. This fills up your calendar, limiting your ability to actually get stuff done.

What did my successful projects have in common?
By looking at your Calendar, you might be able to learn what your best projects had in common. For example, was there a kick-off meeting to launch the project? Was there a clearly defined goal at the project’s outset, with a rational budget and delivery date? Did progress meetings have agendas and action items that were published regularly? Was testing built into the process?

What did my failed projects have in common?
Conversely, looking at your failed projects could also help you identify common mistakes. Did the project goals change over time? Was there enough planning at the beginning of the project, or were participants forced to regroup with even more planning and “fire drill” meetings while trying to meet the original deadline? Were all the stakeholders in the project invited to all the relevant meetings?

Whatever the method, make the time
Looking through my old Outlook calendar is the best way for me to review the past year. Perhaps looking at your project management software is a better method for you.

So be it. The important thing is to take some meaningful time away from your regular schedule and thoughtfully review the work you did during the previous year. In fact, if you’ve got suggestions on other factors to look at, I’d love to hear them. Post a comment and share your idea with the rest of us. We’ll review the best suggestions in a future column.