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Blog // Productivity
April 20, 2020

Doing A Yearly Review

Yearly reviews are a part of many people’s working life. However, doing a personal yearly review can be a powerful tool for improving your life for yourself.

I’m doing my personal yearly review this week. Typically, I do it in late March, but with the way last month unfolded, it made sense to delay it for a few weeks.

I got into the habit of doing my yearly reviews in March when I was living in Japan. The business year starts in April, so it made sense to do a review in March. Also, the planner I used ran from April to March.

As a result, I stopped doing yearly reviews in December, which is such a busy month anyway. I still choose a yearly theme for the New Year, but it is more of a guidepost, an idea of what should matter, and a way to avoid getting sucked into making New Year´s resolutions.

Moreover, the fine detail of a yearly review works better in late March, when the cherry blossoms start to open, the air starts to freshen into spring, and my mind just feels a little more creative and freer.

Though, of course, you can do your yearly review any time of the year that suits you.

The Yearly Review Basics

In its simplest form, a yearly review is a series of questions:

  • What happened last year?
  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work well?
  • What would you like to keep doing and what would you like to stop doing?
  • How can you improve the things you will continue doing?
  • How will these things contribute to your long-term hopes and dreams?
  • Which habits do you need to keep, add or improve to help with all this?
  • This is something you could do in a single session, maybe an afternoon, though I prefer to spread it out over a week.

    It’s not that you need a week’s worth of time to do it. Rather, breaking the review up into a series of sessions during the week gives the brain time to mull the questions over and over and to make new connections, and it allows ideas and insights to develop. Spreading the review out makes the process feel less like a Herculean chore and more like a creative experience.

    A good yearly review isn’t a history lesson. It’s an exercise in map-making and in understanding where you’ve been so you can decide where you’re going and how you’ll get there.

    My Yearly Review For 2020

    This year, my review is going to be spread over six sessions, each about 2 hours long.

    Day 1 – Gratitude

    Inspired by Tiago Forte, I’m starting this year’s review with a gratitude session. Beyond simply being thankful for the past year, gratitude is a powerful way to reframe how you think about your experiences. Gratitude helps you to move your focus past what went wrong and to look at the things that went well and the people who helped and enabled you along the way.

    Day 2 – Reflection.

    Look back over the last year. Try to ask yourself some probing questions, not just about the first things that come to mind, but about the things that happened over the whole year (perhaps by flicking through your calendar or past to-do lists). Consider the goals and plans you had, the projects you took on and the things you abandoned. You want to get a broad sense of what your last year was like and realise, as C. Wess Daniels puts it, that your year is more than just “any one week, month, or event.” Also take a look at the coming year, the things you’ve already committed to, and get a sense of how that feels right now. Think about your yearly theme and how that’s working out for you so far.

    Day 3 – Imagination

    Debbie Millman’s imagine your future exercise has been part of my yearly reviews since 2015. In fact, my pre-COVID 2020 was pretty close to what I wrote back in 2015 (I’ve blogged about an updated version of it, which I wrote in 2017 when I was looking forward to 2024). Imagine yourself in ten years from now in as much detail as possible. What would you like a normal day to look like for you? Where do you live? What time do you wake up? What does your morning routine look like? Where do you work? What work do you do? How do you dress? What do you eat? Who do you work with? The goal here isn’t to dream up some elaborate fantasy. Rather, as you write, you’ll start to get a sense of your own priorities.

    Day 4 – Implementation

    With a clear picture of your past year, a glimpse of the coming year and a sense of what you hope for in the future, it’s time to think about connecting them all up. Building a bridge from the present to the future takes a lot of work, which includes staring into an abyss of unknowns. Your present habits, resources and skills will get you from where you are to where you want to be in six months, but they might not be enough to get you to where you hope to be in ten years. You may want to think about courses to take, new skills to acquire, habits to break or develop and people to meet, or maybe, even about making changes to your career or where you live.

    Day 5 – Documentation

    It’s time to write up your findings. What are you most grateful for? What worked and didn’t work last year. What 2 or 3 projects will define the coming year? What relationships and habits do you want to focus on? What do you hope your life will look like and how will you build a bridge from this coming year to the future? How you document it is up to you, but the value here will be in creating something you can keep close by you throughout the coming year.

    Day 6 – Writing

    Having finished the review, I find it cathartic to use my next writing session, which this time will be on a Saturday morning, to explore what the week was like. This might become a blogpost, a series of tweets or just remain something personal. It could be a few hundred words or a haiku. It doesn’t matter.

    Day 7 – Walk Away

    With the review finished, go do something else. Try to stop ruminating over the process.

    What A Good Yearly Review Looks Like

    A good yearly review is like a map. We tend to think of maps as pretty static things. They represent, on paper or on a screen, the land around us, but maps also allow us to travel through time. Old maps show that the urban places we find ourselves journeying through are the result of an almost countless succession of historical events. Every city street was once nature. Maybe, it was cultivated by its original inhabitants, then conquered by invaders, before becoming a farm, then a village, a town and finally, a city, but, of course, originally, a much older and less technologically advanced version of the city you now experience.

    Moreover, maps guide us into the future, as they help us to go on journeys and adventures. And they need to be accurate. There’s a great risk, or at the very least an inconvenience, in travelling with an out-of-date map.

    Done well, you yearly review has the same multidimensional quality, looking back to the past, deeply into the present and suggesting a way forward. Your own personal yearly review might be only a few pages, but in your hands, it could be a remarkable map leading you to your own amazing adventures.

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