Johannes Thönes

Software-Developer, ThoughtWorker, Permanent Journeyman, Ruby Enthusiast, Java and Devils Advocate.

Creating a Ritual for a Personal Retrospective


Creating a ritual is a core part of planning your personal retrospective. In this article I will share briefly some thoughts on how make them a ritual.

This article is part of my Personal Retrospective Series – so read the other articles, if you want to learn more about personal retrospectives.

Why creating a ritual?

You might have noticed that it is fairly easy to notice mistakes of other people. But it is very hard to notice mistakes you made yourself. After all, you probably would have avoided the mistake in the first place if you knew, right?

Detecting own mistakes requires reflection. And as such, reflection is not something which is natural to human kind. So if you want to do reflection to learn from yourself, you can give yourself some support by creating a ritual: your personal retrospective.

It is not a coincidence, that the first section in the introduction chapter of “Project Retrospectives - A Handbook for Team Reviews” is named “The Need for a Ritual”. A ritual helps teams as well as individuals to acknowledge that this is a special time.

Your personal retrospective is something special: You are spending time just with yourself to improve yourself. The ritual character helps you to get in this “Retrospective Mode”.  It gives your retrospective the necessary structure and meaning.


There are a bunch of things I do before going into the retrospective, which help to create the ritual and make the retrospective productive. I noticed over time, that my retrospectives are more effective the more careful I plan them.

Enough Time

The most obvious and maybe hardest part is to plan enough time. It is essential to have the time in my schedule - because than I can start with other preparations.

For a year-end retrospective I need about four to six hours time. I usually try to have the day free from anything except the retrospective. This helps me to focus on the retrospective rather than rushing through it, because I need to be somewhere else afterwards.

Material and Environment

The next thing I make sure is to have the right material and prepare environment for the retrospective. This includes a few things:

  • A space were I can be uninterrupted.
  • A room and table different than my usual desk to stress the fact that I’m doing something special.
  • Paper and coloured crayons so I can express my thoughts on paper and in color.
  • Other writing equipment like ruler, whiteouts, pencils and an eraser.

Prepare Snacks & Drinks

If I do the retrospective for four hours or more, I certainly need something to drink. And having nice snacks available is an easy way to make myself more comfortable. So I select something special I usually don’t buy. This is a reward to myself for taking the time to do the retrospective.

No Interruptions

Minutes before I start the retrospective I make sure, nothing will pull my focus from it. So I switch off my phones and make sure nobody needs something from me for the time being. If I use a computer for the retrospective, I also make sure everything which issues notifications or is otherwise suspicious of pulling away my attention is turned off.

Now I’m all set for the retrospective.

Ritual Supporting Exercises

I do a few personal retrospective exercises supporting the ritual. They are:


Every ritual has a clear start and a clear end. For example in Christian marriages, the ritual starts with the bride walking into the church (with her father) and it ends with the bride walking out of the church (now with her newly acquired husband).

To start my personal retrospective ritual I have music. I have a special starting song and I have a special ending song. They are the same since I do retrospectives. This makes it both consciously and sub-consciously obvious when the retrospective starts and when the retrospective ends. The lyrics of the ending song have a very strong impact on me, as they support the execution of decisions I made in the retrospective. The starting song is just a non-vocal song I like.

This exercise is very helpful because I can apply it very easily even in the short weekly heartbeat retrospectives.

A letter to myself

At the end of a quarter or yearly personal retrospective I summarise my insights gained in the retrospective and my wishes for the next period in a letter to myself. This helps me to debrief and end the retrospective. Also, it is kind of a micro retrospective of how the retrospective itself went this time.

It helps me to create the ritual the next time, because the first thing I do the next time is reading this very letter. This creates a nice continuum from the last retrospective to this retrospective.

The exercise is stronger than the music exercise because writing a letter to myself is not happening as often as listening to music. I do it on longer term retrospectives, because for a heartbeat retrospective it would take too much time.


As you can see, there are a few things I do to create a ritual. They have developed themselves more or less unplanned over the time I practiced personal retrospectives. As you can see it is not rocket science.

What do you think? Would this work for you? Do you do other things to create a ritual for your personal retrospective?