A Template for a Simple, 5-Minute Annual Review
The only way to waste a year is to not learn anything from it.
Fortunately, you can do the learning even long after the year has passed — but the best time to do it is when the year is over, yet the memories are still fresh. This way, you can extract valuable lessons from a complete period of time but apply them immediately to the next one.
The first problem with an annual review is we don’t want to take time to do it, and the more time it’ll take, the stronger our aversion. The second is there are a million frameworks you could use and picking one is daunting.
This is a classic example of the self-help industry using artificial complexity to sell you bloated solutions to simple problems. It’s great if you have time for the ultimate annual review, the 14-page YearCompass, or a 15-minute tutorial for a multi-hour process. They all work. But if you don’t, fear not.
You can do an annual review in 5–10 minutes, and all it takes is three questions. You can think about them on the toilet. You ponder them as you fall asleep. You can write down the end result if you want, but once you’ve thought deliberately about the changes you want to make, you’ll already have done the heavy lifting.
My questions are loosely based on James Clear’s annual review who, in turn, got them from Chris Guillebeau. Here they are.
1. What did I do well last year?
When you ask yourself “What went well last year?” your brain will start listing what feels like achievements but might actually be lucky breaks.
“I won $10,000 in a raffle” is a valid answer to this question, but if there’s no behavior you can replicate attached to it, what good does it do? “Buy more lottery tickets?” Should that be your new strategy? I don’t think so.
When you ask “What did I do well last year?” you have to zone in on the breakthroughs you had a hand in architecting. Where did you shine, what does that say about you, and can you do more of the same?
List three times when your behavior made the difference — no more! Then, try to extrapolate broader patterns from those examples.
For example, when I got an email inquiring about a licensing deal for Four Minute Books, I didn’t ignore it (I get lots of spam). I vetted the person on LinkedIn and determined they could be legit. I replied quickly with relevant information. Eventually, we struck a deal that funded most of our operating expenses through 2021.
What I did well here was to recognize a genuine opportunity when it was presented to me. This is a pattern I can see repeat across the year. I’m getting better at distinguishing real chances from fake ones — and then taking them. This is a lesson I can build on.
What did you do well last year? What happened only because you made a distinct choice to act? Pull on that thread, and good things will follow.
2. What did I *not* do well last year?
Once again, the emphasis is on “I.” Focus not on the disasters you had no control over but on the mishaps during which you had both hands at the wheel.
Answering “What did I not do well last year?” won’t be as fun as the last question, but it’ll be twice as valuable. Try to list three examples when a choice you made was the deciding factor. No less, no more. Then, project.
For example, while I got better at identifying good opportunities and jumping on them, I did a bad job at making sure those opportunities were aligned with my long-term career goals. I said yes to too many things too quickly, and I now need to find the balance between what pays and what stays.
Case in point: Early in the year, I offered 30-minute consultations for $250. It was easy to set up and get a few leads, but the sales process and preparation for each call took too long. Doubling the duration and rate would have been good; doing consulting only as a long-term, five-figure contract would have been better. Best of all, however, was to realize I am not trying to be a consultant. I’m trying to be a writer. Case closed.
What did you not do well last year? Why did you make those choices? Reflect on your wrong turns so you can start taking the right ones.
3. How will I change the things I didn’t do well?
A what-question forces you to rummage around in the spotty memory section of your mind. A how-question, on the other hand, triggers a function you were born to perform: Your brain is a process optimization machine.
When you ask “How will I change the behaviors that led to what went wrong?” you tell your mind to identify the slightest possible adjustments that will turn a negative outcome into a positive one. By using the word “will” you also imprint the idea that change is already underway.
Compare the three things you did well with those you did not. Maybe, the solutions to your problems are right in front of you. Regardless, come up with three ideas on how you can do what didn’t work differently. These will be the end result of your annual review — and the only actionable items you’ll have to remember.
For example, beyond no longer explicitly offering consulting, I will run new opportunities through two filters instead of one. After vetting them for their validity and payoff, I’ll also check them for alignment with my long-term goals. “Will this truly further my growth as a writer? Is this part of a bigger, long-term effort? And if not, does the payoff warrant veering off track?” These are the kinds of questions I’m going to tack on to my opportunity checklist.
It is important that your improvements are behavior shifts, not 180-degree turnarounds. You won’t be able to summon the strength to implement — and especially maintain — three new aspects of your character at the same time.
How will you change the behaviors that led to your mistakes? What are the smallest adjustments you can make to turn losses into wins? Ask and you shall receive.
What I love about this review process is its overall optimistic take on life. It allows improvement to naturally flow from the things you could have done better amidst the things you already did well.
Chances are, you’ll spot some room for progress in your good behaviors or realize you need to eliminate certain forces that prevent those good behaviors from happening more often. Then, all you have to do is adjust. It’s about nudging more so than uprooting, and that makes it feel sustainable.
What did you do well? What did you not do well? How will you change?
It only took me a few minutes of pondering these questions to come up with simple yet actionable ideas on how I can grow next year — and slow but steady growth is what life is all about. As long as you keep the momentum, you’ll never waste a single year.