2020 was a great year to learn more about yourself.
You were forced to cancel travel plans and minimize social interactions. You’ve likely spent more time with yourself than ever before. And while time alone might have brought your most unpleasant feelings to the surface, your experiences can reveal a promising way for your future.
Yet, this year per se isn’t enough to make you learn more about yourself. You can spend 52 weeks alone without evolving at all.
It’s about when and how you reflect on your experiences that will improve your life’s quality and prepare you for the next year.
Billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely shared in an interview how she regularly reflects on her life’s obstacles and the lessons learned. And psychologist and educational scientist John Dewey summarized the effects best, writing:
“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
I’ve run a personal annual review for the past four years now and continue to look for ways to improve it. Recently, I went through all my notes and distilled the practices that helped me the most.
4 Things You Need To Run Your Annual Review
You don’t need a fancy retreat to conduct your reflection. All it takes are four simple things.
2x3 hours of uninterrupted time. You don’t want to rush through your review in one sitting. For me, the reviews work best when I block three hours on two subsequent days. You can, however, also block two times 3 hours on a single day. Your life, your choices.
Paper, pen, and the printed questions. Your computer or your phone will easily distract you. Shut your devices off and prepare a technology-free working area. Print this article (you’ll find a printable version a the end) or write down the questions. You can always look up information afterward if you need it.
Journals, diaries, calendars, or other personal data. Your memory is good, but your documentation works better. Collect all personal evidence from the year before your review. It’ll help you answer the questions that follow. If you manage your life digitally, you can use your computer and phone (in flight mode) for part one.
A blank desk, floor, table, or a whiteboard. I’ve done my reviews on a beach chair, in a hostel, and on my desk. What works best is a big empty area, like a clean desk or an empty whiteboard.
Optional: People to work with. Depending on the COVID situation, it can be beneficial to do the review with two to three close friends. You can bounce ideas, verify your thoughts, and help each other focus.
Part 1: How to Kickstart Your Personal Review
The first three hours are all about reflection and examination. It’ll be your evidence-based foundation for the session that will follow in the second session.
Start by getting into the present moment. You can either do it with a 5-minute breathing meditation or by journaling about how you’re feeling right now. Then, ask yourself what you’re most grateful for in life right now.
Once you feel you’re in the right mindset, start going through your notes and impressions from the year. Flip your journals' pages, look at the key events in your calendar, or think of your highlights and lowlights of the year. You don’t necessarily need to write anything down yet, but you can make some notes if you feel like it.
Now it’s time to answer questions that’ll help you organize your thoughts and feelings. You don’t need to answer them chronologically. You can even skip the ones that don’t feel right. However, I’ve found that the questions I felt resistance toward shined a light on something I tried to ignore.
Questions to Reflect Holistically
- How have you lived your life in the past twelve months?
- What residual feelings do you have about the past year?
- What were your 2020 highlights?
- When did you feel your heart most open this year?
- What moment did you feel most alive this year?
- What are you most proud of? Why?
- What were your 2020 lowlights?
- What was most challenging for you, and how did it make you feel?
- How have you experienced crisis, loss, and pain this year?
- What made you feel hurt, angry, or sad? Why?
- What have your highlights and lowlights this year taught you? What are the life lessons you want to remember?
Questions to Reflect on Your Success & Growth
- How have you grown and developed last year?
- What were your three biggest work accomplishments? What contributed to them?
- Are there any other goals apart from the work you achieved that you are proud of?
- Have you developed any healthy habits you want to keep?
- Have you developed any new skills? What helped you learning them?
- What was the best decision you made all year? What did you learn from it?
- What risks did you take, and what were the rewards?
Questions to Reflect on the People & Relationships in Your Life
- For which people in your life are you most grateful?
- Which qualities about relationships do you value most personally and professionally?
- Which person has inspired you the most? How?
- Which person had the biggest negative impact on your life? Why?
- Are there any toxic friends in your life? How have you signaled your boundaries in the past year?
- What new relationships enhanced your life? Who? How?
- How has your relationship with yourself changed over the year?
- Is there anything else you want to reflect on that hasn’t been asked yet?
Going through your memories and answering all of these questions might take more or less than three hours. Time is a mere reference point.
Once you feel your answers are complete, you can stop. If you feel like it, talk through them with a friend and explain what surprised you the most. Then, take a break and let it rest until you feel ready for part two.
Part 2: How to Make the Most From Your Insights
Now you’ve mastered the reflection; it’s time to start thinking ahead to 2021. Based on your foundation, you want to develop bigger aspirations and plan the processes neccessary to realize them.
Questions that Reveal Your Deepest Aspirations:
- What happens when you really show up in the world? What are you really longing for?
- What would a dream year look like for you in 2021?
- What does success in 2021 mean for you?
- What three big goals will you accomplish next year?
- What three skills will you acquire?
- We are now in December 2021. You integrated all your experience and learning from 2020, and 2021 was the most incredible year of your life — surpassing even your wildest expectations. With all your energy, write about your year — what happened and how did you feel?
Once you feel happy about your answers, it’s time to dig deeper. Even if it can feel difficult at first, it’s essential to answer your reason behind it. So, with all honesty, ask yourself: Why do you want to achieve it?
Do you want to receive external praise? Do you want to make your parents proud? Do you want to leave the world better than you found it? Do you want to spread love and happiness while fostering a healthy body?
None is better than the other. But knowing your ‘why’ will help you move faster towards your dreams.
Put Your Dreams into Actionable Goals and Processes
You’ve already mastered the deep work of your annual review. What’s left is a plan that helps you move towards your desired 2021 outcome.
When you skip this step, your annual review remains mere entertainment.
You won’t move towards your big goals.
I know because I made this mistake. In 2016 I didn’t translate my annual review into actionable steps. Guess what? My wildest dreams didn’t manifest.
In 2019 I applied the advice that follows. And despite the pandemic, I reached almost all of my goals. My mind and body are strong and healthy. I became self-employed and made a great living from working on my dreams. I run a weekly couple’s podcast with my partner and write six days a week. I live in an honest, exciting, and supportive relationship. I feel a deep appreciation and love for the people in my life.
The only thing that didn’t work out this year — and you’ll know why — is spending the cold European winter in a warm country.
Here’s how you can make it work for you.
Have Clear Goals but Focus On Your Process and Systems
It’s easier to focus on the outcome. But the goal is not in your control. By obsessing about the outcome, you prevent yourself from immersing in the process that leads to your outcome. As James Clear put it:
If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.
So, instead of obsessing over the outcome, think about the processes and systems required to get to your goal. Again, James Clear:
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
One of my 2020 goals was to live in a strong and healthy body and mind. But instead of obsessing over the outcome, I came up with habits that would get me there. I focused on building a daily yoga practice and prolonging my daily meditation practice. I developed a feel-good plan to eat 99% plant-based food and do intermittent fasting almost every day.
I reached my goal because I focused on the process instead of the outcome.
Here are the questions that will help you:
- How do your goals for 2021 translate into actionable habits and processes?
- What habits, behaviors, or attitudes will you need to develop or adopt next year?
- What things or habits do you need to stop doing?
Once you’ve broken down your dreams into actionable processes, summarize your reflection on one clean sheet. This summary will be the anchor for 2021. Place it somewhere clearly visible, like next to your mirror or on the wall behind your desk.
Close On A High Note
Congratulations! You’re almost done. To finish your annual review and close the year behind you, write down your answer to:
- How are you feeling right now? How do you feel about 2021?
If you feel like it, share your summary with your friends or family. In this way, you create accountability partners who might remind you or check in with your progress.
It’s easy to skip your annual review and continue as before.
It’s much harder to take six hours, face your feelings, keep your focus, and derive actionable steps.
An annual review isn’t easy. But when you commit to taking an honest look at your year— your highs, your lows, your actions, your mindset — you shift your life’s trajectory.
That’s what will help you live the life of your dreams.
I hope you’ll find the energy to achieve anything you want.