Yes, I drew this.

You can still take control of last year with a Personal Annual Review

Here’s how to look back, look forward, and make both worthwhile

If you’ve ever been an employee, the term “annual review” has probably ignited your anxiety and taken from you a chunk of time you would have been happier to spend on something more worthwhile, like waiting in line at Starbucks or mistakenly sharpening your plastic pencil.

At one of my previous full-time jobs, I was asked to assess myself for an annual review and draw up 3 goals for myself. Then I met with my supervisor, who also wrote 3 goals for me and asked me to adjust mine to what he wrote. Like I said, let’s hear it for annual reviews. I could have been warming up other people’s lunches for them. What a missed opportunity.

And yet, an annual review, done well for the right reasons, is a powerful thing you should consider doing for yourself. In fact, I want you to learn how, so you can do it right now.

A personal annual review is a simple exercise to recall what you did and didn’t do in the last 12 months, celebrate and contemplate those two things, and articulate what that means for the future. That doesn’t sound so bad right? In fact, it’s empowering for a number of reasons.

Excellent questions. You are probably not nuts, although you are right to ask. (I mean, maybe you are). You are also wise for thinking this sounds silly, because it does. But, it’s very useful, for a number of reasons:

We forget: Twelve months is a long time and even if you set very specific goals for yourself, the mind is a funny thing. It simply can’t retain a majority of your life happenings for immediate recall. It’s dumbfounding what it remembers (memes) and what it doesn’t (where your passport is). The act of retracing your steps, taken or not taken, in the past year will produce more insight than you’d initially think.

Self-awareness: As you start to collect your actions over a year-long span, you begin to see the patterns of your behavior. Obviously, if you’re keeping tabs on a regular basis, this is closer to the surface for you. But the more you do it, the more dots that will connect. If you are someone who uses the words “intentional” or “mindful”, you are certainly nodding during this paragraph and I thank you.

Gratitude: Even if you had what you felt was a down year, having all of your victories or positives in one place will boost your mood and affect your outlook. See, it wasn’t all bad? Hey look at us positives, all together for a change. We should do this more often. Since they’re spread out over time, they don’t often get the chance to co-mingle. Think of it like a wedding reception and the invited list is all of the meaningful things in your life. Skip the DJ and create a playlist.

Reconcile priorities, time spent, and action: This is the most tactical benefit. You put what you did under a microscope and understand if what you wanted has translated into what you do and who you are.

Skillbuilding. Every reason already mentioned is its own skill. Each one can be worked on and improved. That also goes for writing itself. Although (maybe) it takes time to research, it’s an easy writing exercise. You write about you, what you know, and what you discovered. Regular writing is good for you. This review is a good place to start. I did mine in 90 mins and I hate writing.

So, where does all the information for your PAR come from? What should you assemble, celebrate, assess, and write about? It’s obviously up to you where it all comes from, since it’s what you care about, but here are some fairly universal sources:

Calendar: Events, trips, meetings, invitations to socialize, and for me, speaking gigs.

Email: Unless you’re an inbox zero assassin, you’ve got a digital trail of your year you can search through for clues about your activities.

Work produced: What did you make this year?

Apps, journals, real-time tracking: If you want to get into your personal data or into records you kept in spreadsheets or journals, you can find both numbers and highlights to examine.

Spouse, friends, coworkers: Ask people questions about the past year see what they tell you. They may shrug or look at you funny, but you know who to ask to avoid that.

Things you committed resources to: If you spent notable time, effort, or dollars on something, that deserves some attention.

Social media postings/usage: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could download what you post to social media sites? Turns out, there are ways to do that on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Changes: What started the year as one thing only to become another thing? If you’re adventurous, this could be its own list.

If you’ve never done it before, don’t wait. Do it immediately. Who cares if it’s mid-Jan? (or mid-July for that matter). No one, that’s who. If you relate your Personal Annual Review to your friend on March 18th, they may ask if you did it the day before at the Irish pub, but once you explain it, they’ll be impressed. The act is more important than the timing.

My only real suggestion is don’t do it on your birthday. Right idea, wrong time. Go out and play instead.

OK, so what does it look like? Here are a few choices.

Just started teaching myself to draw, so keeping it simple.

4 ways to do an Annual Personal Review

The best I can tell, the inspiration for the Personal Annual Review comes from Chris Guillebeau, author and founder of the World Domination Summit, which I attended in 2018. I don’t think he claims to have invented it, but more people have credited him than anyone else I’ve seen.

Chris uses a spreadsheet template to set his goals and track them throughout the year. It includes this information:

  • Categorized goal
  • Action required for each goal
  • Goal deadline
  • 4 updates, one per quarter

This is, of course, proactive, which if you’re reading this and thinking about a PAR for the first time in your life, you don’t have the benefit of being. But, you can retroactively use the template to think about what you set out to do in the past year. For this year, I made my own goal tracking binder based on Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner.

From that inventory, Chris translates it into prose form where he picks a few items in each of his pre-set categories. It looks just like a blog post.

Inspired by Chris’s approach, author James Clear simplified things a bit but not using the excel sheet (he’s a habits guy so I’m sure he’s tracking things), and writes a very straightforward essay about his year. He starts with the same 2 simple questions as Chris:

  • That went well this year?
  • What didn’t go so well this year?
  • And adds a third: What did I learn?

2019 was a banner year for him, his book Atomic Habits has sold over 1.3 million copies since its release before the holidays in 2018. He’s posted every annual review he’s done since he started doing them in 2013, so if you have the time, you can read each and see his evolution.

This is the easiest framework to follow. Here’s someone else who did it. Christie Mims, a coach I met at a networking HH in DC close to 10 years ago suggests largely the same framework, with some additional prompt questions if you need them.

I don’t recommend this approach for your first time doing it, but this 4-step process by angel investor Steve Schlafman is the most comprehensive I came across, when scouring the web for how-to’s that an actual person actually did. You could simply do step #1, which is setting up a table to pick your 2–3 top moments from each month. That gives you a nice visual list. From those, you could easily expand on each, or pick a few to examine and write at length about. It should also tell you what your best and worst months were, which is no small piece of insight to ponder. Now you know when to schedule your vacation.

The other visual he recommends is a “life assessment board”. This is not really known as a LAB, in the parlance of our times. It reminds me a bit of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues scorecard. As I said, this is more of an advanced method. If you’re just starting to self-assess, wading into assigning numbers might feel pointless (you’ll know this when you start giving yourself lots of 7s.)

If you really hate writing, really love data, and have digital access to lots of your personal behavior, let me introduce you to a self-tracking legend, Nicholas Felton. For 10 straight years, the designer and former Facebook employee created an impressive data visualization of his prior year. He stopped in 2014, but you can still see all of them on his website.

If you pull this off, you have less things to worry about than the rest of us.

I’ve been handwriting for 40+ years, so that’s probably never getting better.

My thoughts on Personal Annual Reviews

Because I would never suggest a challenge like this without doing it myself, here’s mine. I did a version of method #2 and kept a few other things in mind:

Goals are, at best, guides: Most of our goals are kind of dumb. We want things before we fully understand why. Instead of treating a goal as a destination, use it as a pathway to map out values, priorities, and behaviors. There’s lots of research that goal-worshipping can work against us or create a grind where one isn’t necessary. The more important things for our own sense of direction are habits and systems. Small things we do over time that have an “investment effect”. This is the cornerstone of the “challenge mindset” philosophy I write and speak about. Focus on the simple, repeatable, and meaningful actions you can sustain over time.

Don’t worry about the number: A lot of quantified goals (“I want to read 52 books this year”) are arbitrary. Before you commit to a goal whose only real distinguishing factor is a number, step and back consider a similar type of goal without that number. Is there really a difference between reading 40 books and 52? My advice is to avoid committing to an exact number, unless it’s about a system.

Ditch the term “failure”: Typically, two things happen when you label things failures: (1) You pass judgement on something that is incomplete, stalled, the wrong focus for what you want, an outdated idea which you moved away from (for good reason), or something that didn’t work the way you expected. Be honest, do any of those really sound like “failures”? You are using the terminology of self-pity. Knock it off. Re-label these as “efforts”. File them under “what didn’t work” or “lessons learned”. (2) You go the other way and you add luster to “failure” by making it a badge of honor. I know lost of entrepreneurs and/or smart people like to say they keep a “failure list” or that companies should give out “failure of the year” awards, but in both cases it’s largely artifice. Getting back to your habits and your systems, you should be striving for that which you can sustain. The effort, the thinking, the experiments, those are worth your attention.

99% of things that people call “failure” are just points on a timeline in between the beginning and the end. You don’t need to walk around chatting up your so-called failures to be a deep, interesting, or successful person. In fact, turning “failure” into this type of fetish makes you a boring cartoon of a person. Ick.

Use the phrase “I would like to be the type of person who…”: and you’re more likely to set standards for behavior, as opposed to goals as milestones.

In the end, here is what I think: You are not your goals. You are not your destination. Your identity is the adventure you embark on. Make that adventure as enjoyable and meaningful as you can.

Good luck and if you decide to do a Personal Annual Review (you should do an Personal Annual Review), plus let me know. Happy to take a look and help however I can.

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Speaker, facilitator, creative consultant. Founder, The Idea Enthusiast LLC.