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The Year-End Review: The Key to Beginning Your Not So Big Life

by Sarah Susanka

Sarah Susanka’s work is groundbreaking in more than one way. An architect and cultural visionary, she has developed a philosophy of sustainability, simplicity, and well-being that can be applied whether you’re designing a blueprint for your home, or a blueprint for your life. In this article, she describes the Year-End Review, a tool for creating greater awareness and helping you fulfill your desires.

All of us have dreams for ourselves and our lives, but to actually live those dreams requires us to take the time to listen, to pay full attention to what our heart longs to do, and to express those longings. When I wrote The Not So Big Life, it was with the intention of helping readers develop the skill of inner listening, so they could find their way to the meaningfulness that everyone longs for in their lives, yet is elusive to so many of us.

A Not So Big Life is a life lived wide awake, so that no matter where you are or what you are doing, you are aware and open to the nutrients that are being set before you in each moment for your own inner growth. A primary tool in this process of waking up in your life and of learning how to listen is something that I call the Year-End Review. It is in fact the first step in beginning to live in a Not So Big way—that is, with your focus completely on the journey through life, rather than on any particular goal or destination.

Becoming the Gardener of Your Own Life
Amazingly enough, though we usually recognize the importance of looking after our bodies, we rarely consider the value of ensuring that the things we are engaging in during our experiential lives are in alignment with our heart’s true desires. Without this kind of tune-up, our lives will wander, we’ll get lazy or fall asleep at the wheel, wondering why we’re missing the boat, or why we have so little time for the things we really love.

The Year-End Review is intended to help you become the gardener of your own life—planting seeds at the year’s end and watching them germinate and grow over the years to come. The objective is to review all the significant things that have happened over the course of the past year and to give voice to your heart’s longings for the coming months and years. It is important to make a commitment to do the exercise at more or less the same period every year so that you can use it as an annual life tune-up, much as you would for your car or your house. Whether you can only spare an hour, or you have time to spread the process out over a couple of weeks, the results will be immensely beneficial in bringing your actions and your longings into alignment. Best of all, it requires no further follow-through. In fact, it requires that you not even try to follow through.

Although this may sound paradoxical, and will make most newcomers to the exercise scratch their heads and wonder how anything can happen if they don’t take some action, this is the revelation of the Year-End Review. It is designed to show you that you are not the orchestrator of your life, despite your best efforts. There are forces at play that we can’t see, except through the kind of careful observation over time that this process employs.

Unexpected Gifts
Since I started doing the exercise more than 20 years ago, I’ve had so many experiences of expressing a desire in a Year-End Review, and having it come into being in the months that followed, that I’ve lost count. But there was one instance a couple of years ago that astounded me, and that illustrates well the power of this practice. For years, I’ve been fascinated by sacred geometry, and have spent many hours working on various constructions of sacred geometrical forms. I had always wanted to be able to build a large-scale model of all the Platonic Solids (the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, and dodecahedron) nested together so that I could see the nested forms from the inside out, but I just didn’t see how it was possible. Nevertheless, I wrote about my desire in my Year-End Review.

Several months later, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from a builder friend of mine who had heard me speak about the nested Platonic Solids and the mysteries they can reveal when studied. Unbeknownst to me, my friend had taken it upon himself to build the nested forms in a computer-aided design program called SketchUp. When I opened the program file, I was stunned to realize that this was exactly what I had expressed a longing for in my Year-End Review. The software allowed me to move my point of view into the model and look at the nested Platonic Solids from the inside out. Wow! I was amazed not only by the model, but by the fact that I had received exactly what I had dreamed of, even though I had not thought of, or looked at, my Year-End Review entry since I wrote it.

This “not looking” is an important aspect of the process. What you’ll discover when you do the exercise is that by simply listening to and recording your inner longings once a year, they will begin to manifest in your life without your having to do anything else. By attentively listening to our hearts, we seed our lives with those intentions. If we try to force our longings into being, however, the door to their realization remains firmly shut. We have to get out of the way in order for the things we long for to start showing up and, when they do, they almost never look quite the way we had imagined. That’s why we have to relinquish control of the steering wheel. In fact, we’ve never been in charge. We only thought we were.

A Tool for Transformation
You can take a look at the entire list of questions I recommend for this exercise by clicking on the Chapter 11 tab on the Not So Big Life website at and reviewing the Year-End Ritual Exercise .pdf posted there. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. Create a special journal, either in a blank book or on your computer, where you can write down all the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that come to mind as you answer the questions in the review. After you’re done, you’ll close the journal and not look at it again until it’s time to engage the review again next year.
  2. Schedule some time to engage this process. I typically designate around two hours a day over the week prior to New Year’s. If you can find only an hour, that will work, but the more time you spend, the more you’ll get out of it.
  3. Make a record of all the significant things that have happened to you over the past year. What books, movies, or experiences have moved or inspired you? What people have come into or departed from your life? What challenges have you faced?
  4. Next, take a look at yourself in the present. Who are you becoming? What is your experience of your life today compared with last year? What parts of it are enjoyable? What parts are frustrating?
  5. Finally, consider what you’d like to happen in the future. What are the things you’d like to make time for? What are the dreams you have for your life? What are the longings of your heart right now?

The Doorway to Living Your Dreams
That’s all you need to do. During this period of introspection, you can also read what you have written in past years. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process because it allows you to see how you are changing. Often I can’t figure out how things have changed so much from year to year without my having to work at it. Dreams really do come true.

We can live much more of our potential simply by using this process of inner listening, and by paying attention to what life delivers to our doorstep. Just like taking photographs of our children as they grow, the Year-End Review allows us to watch our inner world grow and flourish. It’s astounding to see the results delivered each year.

Sarah Susanka is an architect who describes herself first and foremost as a student of life. She is the acclaimed author of nine books, including The Not So Big House series and The Not So Big Life, in which she unveils the process by which she lives her own life—a process she share with everyone interested in realizing their full potential.

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