I used to obsessively set goals in my personal life. New Years Resolutions were like crack for my self-improvement tendencies.
If you were to peek into my journal archives from years ago, my December and January entries overflowed with ideas for annual goals and frameworks for organizing them (like personal OKRs!). Iteration after iteration.
I’d procrastinate by refining my resolutions until mid-January, when I would finally say “fuck it” and begin the terrifying dance of actually attempting to execute my commitments.
Nowadays, I believe that New Year’s Resolutions are overrated.
While this popular practice gets people excited for the future, it also sets them up for failure. Research shows that over 80% of New Year’s Resolutions end unsuccessfully.
Given the empirical evidence and my personal experience, I don’t create resolutions for myself, nor do I recommend them for my clients and colleagues.
I know what you’re thinking… So what’s a motivated, ambitious person to do? Surely, there must be some benefit to planning for the new year begins?
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution:
Write an annual review.
The annual review is one of my favorite reflection tools. It has enormous potential for drawing out deep insights and lessons from your experiences — and transforming them into a clear direction to charter for next year.
You might find this hard to believe, so let me walk you through how doing the annual review can help you kick-off the new year with unstoppable momentum.
In this article, I’ll elaborate on common objections to doing the exercise, why it’s the most powerful technique in my journaling toolkit, and four easy steps for doing the exercise on your own.
Common Reasons Not To Do an Annual Review
Reason #1: It just takes way too much time!
“You mean that I need to actually remember every event that happened this past year and mine them for insights? No thanks.”
Hold on right there. Before you ‘X’ out of this tab and go back to watching a comedy special in your Netflix queue, hear me out for another minute.
Annual reviews are surprisingly simple. The trick is to focus on your highlights and lowlights — the peaks and troughs — which shortens the time it takes to write a reflection from several days to just a handful of hours.
Recent research supports the claim that we learn faster by reflecting on both our successes and failures (as opposed to just failures).
There’s also an intriguing twist.
What psychologists discovered is that after people succeed, they learn more if they still focus on what went wrong.
That means that, you’ll generally reap greater learning bounties by flipping over the rocks from your lows rather than your highs (even if it’s slightly more painful to relive).
I know what you’re thinking… “Putting my mistakes under the microscope — that makes my stomach feel queasy!”
Hey, I never said this was going to be easy. Clarity comes with a small price, but it’s well worth the effort.
Reason #2: It’s not actionable
Annual reviews help you craft a strategy for how you want to live your life. They are not a tactical checklist (which *ahem* New Years Resolutions tend to devolve into).
That begs the question: is strategy actionable?
Fortunately, yes. Having a strategy means knowing where to spend your finite time and energy — which are your most scarce resources (hint: it’s not money).
Strategy means planning the constraints you want to place in your life to help you move towards your destination.
For example, while slow traveling around the world, one of my top criteria for picking a location was a stable internet connection, so that I could build my coaching business and stay in touch with friends back home. At Dropbox, autonomy and independence was critical to my values, so I constantly sought out opportunities where there was more room for bottoms-up creativity and decision-making.
You can even use strategy to create your tactical checklists, but leave that to your day-to-day to-do list.
For the annual review, don’t get too caught up in the details. Give yourself permission to be free from the “how” for a few hours and think more broadly about the big portrait of your life.
Reason #3 (and often the real reason): I don’t know what to write about
Don’t fear. If you’re already convinced that the annual review is a worthwhile endeavor and just need a structure, feel free to jump down to the last section for my copy-and-paste template.
If you’re still feeling hesitant, because you see your life as ordinary and unexciting, then let’s help you shake off that feeling.
The annual review doesn’t need to chronicle your successful promotion or your relationship break-up (although these events are certainly worth probing!).
Instead, I recommend looking for “sleepers”, patterns that run your day-to-day life more than you give them credit for. Then dig into the assumptions of these hidden scripts — are they actually aligned with your vision of how you want to live your life?
If yes, then congratulations! You’re in fantastic shape.
But if you’re very honest with yourself, you may notice that something’s off. Your personal vision points in one direction and your habits veer off into another direction.
Take my last year’s review. I discovered that while I thought of myself as a confident risk-taker (as a recent grad I declined a prestigious Google offer to join an unproven startup), I still struggled with fear in my day-to-day decision-making more than I felt comfortable acknowledging.
Doing my review helped me crystallize the meaning of my fear (it usually signaled something’s importance to me), so that I could see its positive aspects.
Give yourself 30 minutes to think about the patterns in your everyday life and what you’d like to improve. You may be surprised by what you find.
The Crux of Why You Should Write an Annual Review
Here’s the bottom line. In our busy lives, we risk moving through life on auto-pilot.
Why is this dangerous?
Australian nurse Bronnie Ware found that when patients are on their deathbeds, their most common regret is not having the courage to live a life true to themselves instead of the life others expected of them.
Reflection helps us learn about ourselves, so that we can stay true to our internal purpose. Reflection helps us take a step back from our daily routines and habits, pull out insights, and synthesize them into greater meaning.
Research has shown that simply building in time for thinking and reflection sparks additional learning. And the most powerful, but often neglected, learning activity we can do is learning about ourselves. After all, we are stuck with our mind and body for the rest our lives.
The trade-off here is simple. Avoid regret later in your life by doing a few hours of reflection.
Four Easy Steps to Writing an Annual Review
The format I follow for writing an annual review is straightforward.
There are just four questions (you can copy-and-paste these into your preferred note-taking app):
- What were highlights of my last year?
- What were lowlights of my last year?
- What did I learn?
- What am I looking forward to this year?
Step 1: Summarize your highlights
Jot down 2-4 highlights. For example: positive events you’ve experienced, friends and loved ones you spent time with, peak emotions, or things you’ve achieved.
Step 2: Summarize your lowlights
Jot down 2-4 lowlights. For example: negative events or setbacks, bad things that happened to good people in your life, your mistakes and failures, or things you’ve lost.
Step 3: Synthesize your learnings
Distill and draw out 2-4 lessons you’ve learned from what’s happened in the above sections. Look for patterns across all the highlights and lowlights you wrote about.
Step 4: Think aspirationally about next year
Finally, write about 2-4 new experiences and/or behavioral changes you’re excited about in the next year.
Congratulations — you wrote an annual review before the clock counted down to zero!
One of the best feelings for me is starting off the new year with a clean slate and sense of clarity. The annual review is a vital exercise to create this feeling state for me, and I hope that you experience the same joy from using it in your life.
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