You may have done something like an after-action review and not even known it. Learn how to harness the power of an AAR for your mental self-care goals this year.
What if you could adapt one of the most successful methods of achievement for groups to your personal life? This month for Self-Care Sundays we’ll explore the after-action review (AAR) and how we can apply it to the different areas of our lives where we need to focus our self-care efforts.
How to Take a Bad Situation and Make it Better
“How did play rehearsal go today?” my friend Molly asked.
“Awful. It seems like we rehearse and rehearse but the kids never get better,” I grumbled.
“You do have a difficult group of students this year, don’t you?” she said.
“There must be something I can do to help them understand how. much. time. they waste when they goof off during rehearsal. No one seems ready for a performance in just five days!”
“Have you considered doing a little review of today’s rehearsal before you start rehearsing tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe the students think rehearsal went well.”
“I’ll try anything,” I said. “Maybe if I stop trying to sound like the expert, the kids won’t feel judged by me and they’ll honestly evaluate their own performances.”
“It’s worth a try,” Molly said with a smile. “I worked with that class four years ago, and I know what you’re up against.”
The next day, we sat in a circle on the stage at the start of rehearsal. “Today, we’ll do something a little different,” I told my class. “We’ll go around the circle and I’d like each of you to tell me one thing that went well during our dress rehearsal yesterday.” I pointed to the student on my left. “You start.”
“Well,” he drew the word out, giving himself time to think. “I knew all my lines.”
I nodded and pointed at the next student.
“My costume fit well, and I really like it,” she paused for a minute. “Thank you for making all of our costumes, they’re really cool. I feel like I really lived two-hundred years ago when I wear it.” Others nodded their assent.
What Went Well…and What Didn’t
We moved around the circle, and each student found something positive to say. Some of them had to really search, especially when it came to the last few students.
“Now I’d like you to think for a minute about what didn’t go so well,” I instructed. We’ll go around the circle the other way this time.”
“That’s easy,” the boy on the right said, “we wasted so. much. time.”
Guilty looks spread around the circle and students nodded their heads. I pointed to the next student.
“Mine goes with his,” the girl said, “we didn’t listen very well. I feel like if we had listened, we could have gotten out of here in half the time.”
Inside I jumped up and down and gave Molly imaginary high-fives. Outside, I nodded solemnly for the next student to take their turn. My faith in my students recharged as each student gave an honest appraisal of what had gone wrong the day before.
“Now, for the last question,” I said. “After we all answer it, we’ll have just enough time to rehearse Act 2, Scene 1 before the bell rings.”
“Aww, man, I’m in that scene,” one of the boys piped up.
“Shush,” his classmate admonished him, “listen up. Let’s not waste time.”
“Here’s the question,” I said. “What will you do better next time? Don’t give advice or suggestions to other people, limit it to you. What will YOU do better next time we rehearse?”
After-Action Reviews and the Individual
Unwittingly, Molly had suggested an after-action review activity. And just as unwittingly, I had carried out an after-action review that followed one of the most important aspects of the Army procedure (known in the military as an AAR).
Despite desperately wanting to provide commentary after each student shared, I managed to keep my mouth shut. In doing so, I did what Margaret S. Salter and Gerald E. Klein, independent researchers from the Wexford Group, discovered whilst studying the Army’s AAR process in 2006. I facilitated “a dialogue rather than providing a critique,” a key point in making the AAR process the most effective learning tool for participants.
Our next dress rehearsal would prove whether or not the activity actually worked and helped change student behavior.
But what does all this talk about an after-action review for a group have to do with mental self-care and goal setting for an individual?
Simple. The Army bakes goal-setting into the after-action review process. All too often I beat myself up when things don’t go as I imagined they would. But I didn’t actually delineate what I wanted to accomplish.
Maybe you’ve fallen into that trap, too. You have a vague wish, “I want to pay more attention to my mental self-care” or “I really should start journaling. Everyone says it’s a great stress-reliever.”
When the next crisis slams into you, you realize you haven’t done anything to prepare yourself mentally for the vicissitudes of life and the stress almost does you in.
We can learn from the Army. They started refining their AAR process back in the 1980s in an attempt to better train troops for combat during rapidly changing conditions. We need tools to help us handle the rapidly changing conditions of life. Remember 2020?
While the Army created the process to help combat units perform better, we can learn from the Army’s process and apply it our own self-care plans.
The Steps to An After-Action Review
According to the Army in Training Circular 25-20, the four steps in an AAR seem pretty simple
- Step 1. Planning
- Step 2. Preparing
- Step 3. Conducting
- Step 4. Following up (using AAR results)
Surprisingly, the after-action review doesn’t start with what I did with my group of drama students. My activity falls into the third step—conducting the review.
The Army gives great care to the first two steps—planning and preparing. As individuals, we too should pay close attention to the first two stages.Want to know how to use the Army's After-Action Review process to improve your personal self-care goals? #selfcare #selfcarehacks #AAR Click To Tweet
1. Planning Means Goal Setting
If you want to improve your mental (or emotional) health, you’ll first need to set specific goals. After all, you can’t measure success or evaluate areas of improvement if you don’t have a goal. The Army starts their planning with a before-action review (aka BAR—the government loves acronyms).
- Task (what actions to take)
- Purpose (why it’s important)
- Intent (statement of goals)
- End state (what the desired result is)
For mental self-care, I’ll use the example of journaling to show how the AAR concept can work for an individual.
Task—journal for five minutes before bed five nights a week.
Purpose—to help me process the day’s events so they don’t keep me awake all night.
Intent—form a healthy mental self-care habit that will improve my sleep and help me process my emotions.
End state—I will fall asleep quickly, sleep soundly, and wake up refreshed in the morning as evidenced by my fitness tracker (which measures sleep and its quality) and my morning mood.
2. Careful Preparation Makes it Real
The army spends a few pages in its training guide talking about the preparations necessary for an effective AAR exercise. They diagram not only the importance of preparing for the actual training exercise, but the comfort of the participants during the review process. The manual gives details on how the participants should sit, the visual aids necessary, as well as which refreshments the leader should make available.
Likewise, individuals should prepare ahead of time, too. Buy a journal (or find a notebook). Decide which pen you want and where you’ll sit. Create the atmosphere you want ahead of time, so you’ll feel comfortable when you sit down to journal. Decide if you’ll want to sip tea or coffee (I’d recommend decaf if you do this at night).
Make sure to attach your new habit to a trigger. Do you already have a nighttime ritual? Maybe you feed the dog each night at the same time. Set your journal on top of the bag of dog food. You probably won’t want to journal next to the dog’s dish but keeping the journal where you’ll see it every night will help you remember to actually journal.
If you’ve never journaled before, decide if you’d like prompts or a certain format to facilitate your processing.
You could start with the HLL format. Jot down the day’s high points, low points, and lessons learned. Sentence structure and grammar don’t matter. Make lists, misspell, ditch grammar. Just get your thoughts on paper.
By preparing ahead of time, you’ll show yourself the importance of your new mental self-care habit.
3. Conducting the After-Action Review
Decide ahead of time when you will conduct the AAR. The army uses both informal and formal AARs, but the magic lies in when they take place—immediately after the training exercise.
For an individual wanting to adopt the after-action review concept, you’ll need to decide how often you want to conduct a review. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly?
When I set goals, I review my progress weekly, quarterly, and annually. In the journaling for mental self-care example, checking your progress weekly will help you decide if you need to make any changes.
Maybe keeping your journal on the bag of dog food doesn’t work as a good trigger. If so, change your trigger. Perhaps you don’t like the HLL format. You’d rather just vent on paper. Go ahead, make the change.
Make small changes at the end of each week in your journaling habit and take note of whether or not you see results. Did you sleep more and ruminate less? Do you feel refreshed in the morning and ready to tackle the day? Make sure to write these observations down.
4. Following Up
Remember, according to Army Training Circular 25-20, “An AAR does not grade success or failure. There are always weaknesses to improve and strengths to sustain.”
Following up does not mean beating yourself up. It means taking an honest look at how your efforts to improve your mental self-care have worked out. Don’t fall prey to the blame game or fortune-telling (‘If I didn’t have kids, I could take better care of myself’ or ‘I’ll never have time to focus on my mental self-care’).
Once every three months, take time to review your weekly observations. If after three months you see no real benefit in journaling as part of your mental self-care routine, ditch the effort. Maybe you need to start seeing a counselor or have a sleep study done.
The beauty of the after-action review process lies in your ability to set goals, try approaches, and change them if they don’t work. You’ll also end up with a deep knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work.
Need Mental Self-Care Ideas?
Wondering where to start with your mental self-care goals? You might consider some of these ideas—each one of them has the potential to improve your mental health.
- Gratitude journal
- Reflective journal (such as the HLL journal in the example)
- Leave work at work
- Take your full lunch break and eat mindfully
- Spend time with friend or family outside once a week
- Take time to explore hobbies
- Learn to say NO
- Learn to set boundaries
- Join a support group
- Start counseling or therapy
- Read a book
- Solve puzzles
- Organize your office (clutter disrupts our ability to concentrate)
- Start using a daily planner (here’s an affiliate link to my absolute favorite planner)
If you incorporate the after-action review process into whichever mental self-care action you decide to take, you’ll discover quickly whether or not that action meets your intentions. If it doesn’t, cross it off the list and try something else.
Because our mental health encompasses more than just our state of mind, we’ll explore other specific areas where the after-action review process can assist you in discovering the best ways to take care of yourself. Come back next week for ideas on improving your academic self-care. Yes. I just said ‘academic self-care.’ Because we need to use our brains on brainy things if we want to keep them sharp.
Oh, and that unruly group of students and the play they put on? It turned out a smashing success.
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