The Complete Guide to Annual Reviews

Why Do An Annual Review?

Everyone knows about New Year's resolutions, though they've become something of a joke. Regular gym-goers complain about those who will clutter the gym in January and be gone by February.

But there is a reason why the end of the year is a good time to do a review.

First, there's the practicality aspect: for many of us, the holidays includes some time off from work, often to spend with family or friends. This period naturally ends up being reflective, and we simply have some time to breathe and think.

There is a name for landmarks like the beginning of the New Year: "The first day of the year is what social scientists call a "temporal landmark." Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space...we also use landmarks to navigate time."—When, Daniel Pink

These landmarks allow us to start a new chapter, and close an old one. They stand out, just like a physical landmark does.

If we want to reflect, think, build new goals, and ultimately improve ourselves, temporal landmarks like the end of the year are a natural time to do so.

What Makes an Annual Review?

There are many different styles of annual reviews, but they all have three main components:

  1. Reflect
  2. Brainstorm
  3. Plan

Reflect is about looking back at the past year, what was accomplished, what didn't go well, and comparing progress to any goals you had.

Brainstorm is the step where all ideas are welcome. You want to write down anything and everything that crosses your mind about what you want to accomplish or focus on next year.

Plan is the stage where you start selecting items from your brainstorming, and planning how to accomplish them.

One important note: you may wish to focus on the first two steps, and then do the third step in a separate session. They are quite different processes, and sometimes require a different headspace.

Review Spotlight: Tim Ferriss

Tim outlined his current format in this post, and this is the format I've followed for the past several years.

In true Tim fashion, what makes this annual review great is how simple it is. It consists of three steps:

  1. Write down two columns: positive and negative. Write down all the people, activities or commitments that triggered the strongest positive and negative reactions. Use your calendar or your journal to help.
  2. When you're done, go back and circle the top 20% in each column.
  3. Take your positive winners and schedule them in your calendar. Create a not-to-do list with your negative leaders, and put it somewhere you'll see it every day.

And that's it!

One additional modification I like to make: I add a step in between for more brainstorming.

I brainstorm ideas in four categories:

  1. Healthy: what are activities or goals related to my health that I could potentially (remember, this is brainstorming) do next year?
  2. Wealthy: what are activities or goals I could do to become more wealthy?
  3. Wise: what are activities or goals I could do to become more wise?
  4. Crazy: what are some crazy activities or goals I could pursue?

Review Spotlight: James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits, the best book on habits I've ever read.

He started as a blogger, and has published his annual reviews since 2013.

His format is also simple—he answers three questions:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn't go so well this year?
  3. What am I working toward? (and sometimes, "What did I learn?")

He will write a paragraph or so for each item within each question. Some examples of items he's mentioned: writing, travel, lifting, management, staying in touch with family and friends, photography, building systems—anything goes.

My Annual Review

I change something about my annual review every year. Sometimes I discover a cool question I want to journal on, or find that I'm sticking too much in the same pattern as last year.

Overall, my review still holds the same structure:

1) Reflect: Write down a list of the top positive and negative highlights from the year.

  1. Reduce: From these lists, circle the most impactful ones in each category.
  2. Expand: Write a few sentences or a paragraph about why each one was in the top.
  3. Wild cards: this is where you can go back to a larger list of questions, and journal on the ones that interest you. If any of the questions prompts something significant to pop up, write a paragraph about it and add it to your list. This is one of the sections that can change year-to-year as you feel like it or discover new questions.

2) Brainstorm: Brainstorm possible goals and habits in the following areas:

  1. Healthy: what are activities or goals related to my health that I could potentially (remember, this is brainstorming) do next year?
  2. Wealthy: what are activities or goals I could do to become more wealthy?
  3. Wise: what are activities or goals I could do to become more wise?
  4. Crazy: what are some crazy activities or goals I could pursue?
  5. Wild cards: like the first step, this is where you can incorporate more prompt questions, which you can swap out year-to-year or build a list and choose the ones you like.

3) Plan: This is the step where you make concrete, actionable plans to accomplish the goals and habits you brainstormed in the previous step.

  1. Go back to your brainstorm, and circle up to 5 goals or habits you'd like to build in the next year.
  2. One note here: it's tempting to pick the full 5, or even more. Don't! If you want to accomplish more, prioritize them, and only tackle the first few. I'd recommend even trying to get it down to 1-3. A good question for this is: What goal, if it was the only one I succeeded at, would still make me happy?
  3. Set out your plan for accomplishing these goals.
  4. This process is outside the scope of this post, but deserves some attention all on it's own.
  5. My suggestion: focus on the first month, or the first quarter at maximum. Iterate from there.
  6. If it's a brand-new goal—it isn't a progression on something you already do—set a process goal (ex: publish 10 YouTube videos). If you already have the process in place, feel free to set a target goal (ex: get 1000 YouTube subscribers).
  7. Find some friends to hold you accountable, and execute! Iterate along the way.

The Value is the Exercise

The point of an annual review isn't—necessarily—to set a bunch of hard-to-reach goals for the next year.

Maybe you don't set goals at all! Even if that's the case, the annual review is valuable.

It forces you to reflect back on your year, and put those reflections to paper.

As the years go on, it will give you an accurate portrait of your thinking at the time. Maybe you can reflect on the progress you've made. Maybe it will remind you of what you wanted to accomplish back then.

Either way, it will be much more reliable than your memory.


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