What happened last year?
No, not the mechanical details. Not the log sheets of minutes and seconds that have passed. Not the catalogs of information that apps, products, and institutions automatically produce for and about us, that are a form of debt in bytes and invisible harddrives - a debt that seems to exponentially grow every year.
Nor the deluge of news happening every-where, on every-thing, which prioritizes all things about thing-making and thing-breaking.
I’m talking about your perception of what happened in your life.
When life happens, as it never ceases to do (until it does), we’re hopefully “living” it. Looking back on what happened across a year will feel like a flash and an eternity of time—at the same time.
A flash because we often can remember what it was like this time of year last year, sometimes vividly, and it feels like recent past.
An eternity because we can’t hold all the moments that comprises the fullness of a year, simultaneously, in our heads.
This is why I started doing Annual Reviews.
After years of using other people’s formats and templates (which they generously shared in the hopes that it’d help others, and which they undoubtly did) I think it’ll be the last year I use someone else’s format. I noticed that some templates resonated better with me than others. I suspect this had something to do with the match between questions I needed to aid my introspection with, versus the ones provided.
These are a compilation and sometimes remixes of most helpful prompts that (I think) will form part of my Annual Review next year.
Year in Review
Monthly summary. For each month, write down the things that you did that you’re proud of, and the obstacles you overcame. Reflect on the results you created in your life and career since last year.
I like starting with this “warm-up” exercise because going through each month prepares a visual birds-eye view of the year on 1 to 2 pages. I usually forget even substantial events unless I do the work of quickly scanning through each month to refresh my mind. If you do monthly reviews, this part will be a breeze.
Lessons Learned and Wisdom Gained. What have you learned about yourself and the world over the past year? What wisdom has become crystal clear to you? What were the biggest gamechangers and why did it matter to you? Which lessons and wisdoms do you want to carry with you into the new year, and why?
A good section for those who have a growth mindset. After the birds-eye view, you’re ready to squint and look for passing weather, change in climate, and earthquake-events that changed your inner landscape. Write about that which changed you. How your outlook on life, your lens on the world, your perspective on human affairs changed. Record the grand patterns of truth that you caught glimpses of, and which you want to continue to keep track of in the new year.
Systems, Habits and Rituals review. Make an inventory. Which of your systems, habits and rituals have served you the best this year? What goals have they helped you achieve? Should any be retired or revamped for the new year? Could structure like this benefit other areas in your life where it isn’t implemented yet?
For those of us who subscribe to habit-porn, this is a useful question to ask. Also useful if you’re new to habits and you’re still calibrating their efficacy. Also also useful if you have many naturalized habits where you spend a lot of your time doing X, be it doomscrolling on social media, binging on Netflix, or avoiding a chore, and you don’t know why. This gives you the opportunity to evaluate your repetitive behaviours that slipped in without you noticing. Maybe they are useful coping strategies now that we’re two years into this pandemic. This is the place to make it official, and to build an actual strategy around it.
The Page of Gratitude. Simply put, a blank page where you write down everything you’re grateful for from the last year.
Don’t think this needs much explanation. Big and small things allowed. The profound, and the mundane. Anything goes.
The Yearly Purge. What things/projects/goals have you started and been meaning to get to, but have not found the time to continue? Have you taken on unrealistic expectations from yourself or others that is weighing on your conscience? Do you have emotional baggage (anger, resentment, guilt) that you’ve been hanging on to? Are you dealing with any limiting beliefs that held you back in the past year?
It’s time to review all that gave us negative, ruminating vibes in the past year. Is it something we need to address head on in the new year, or can we let it go, even in its unresolved state? We sometimes hang on to negativity in our lives because of made-up commitments. We sometimes cling to previous projects we started because, while they held so much promise, the passion fizzled in the execution. Do you need to conduct a burning ritual a la “No Time to Die” to close out this section? Then do it.
5-year lookahead. It’s 5 years in the future. What have you created, experienced, or achieved over the next 5 years? Write about what you want to accomplish in your Health, Wealth, Relationships, Community, Happiness. Also, write how you’d like to feel on a more consistent basis. Is current you frazzled, and future you in control of life? The secrets lie in the
To understand what the next year can do for you, we must first map where you’d like to go in the medium-long term. Make this exercise as short or as long as you want, but even doing one-line or bullet-form answers to each category (and add categories as you like) is helpful for framing later sections.
A day in your ideal, not-so-distant life. Peer into your undefined future by designing, from scratch, your perfect average day. How do you wake up? What are your daily routines? What environment are you in? Who are you surrounded by? What makes you feel great throughout your day? Paint your vision in detail, so you can almost believe that it’s happening to you.
I love this exercise because not only does it allow you to freely dream, it gives you a vivid picture of tangible improvements to your life that you can work towards. The details matter a lot here. If having fresh croissants is your dream breakfast which leads to much happiness, perhaps it’s time to introduce that somehow into your life. For others, it can be a change in scenery, or additional companions and obligations in life. The sky is the limit.
Top 3 Goals for the Year. Yes, it’s a classic with a twist. It’s different when you allow this to be directed by words you’ve written in the 5-year lookahead, or A day in your life. Tether the goals to specific futures that you’ve envisioned for yourself, and write why these goals are important to you. Map out your path towards that goal by listing the things you’ll need to get there, such as people, daily habits, new skills and sub-projects.
This is a high-level plan of your year, along with a list of actionable bullets to get you started. In my opinion, goals don’t have to be too rigid. Try to make them openended, like “Improve on calligraphy handwriting”, and then in the “mapping a path” section write down the actionable things that you’ll do to incrementally build on that goal. At the end of the year, you want to be able to say “I put in X amount of time improving my handwriting” and maybe show a before/after screenshot.
Bonus: start scheduling these things into your calendar asap.
Word of the Year. This will establish the theme that will become your inner north star. Choose a word that you can embody as an action, a frame of mind, a lens, an intention. Bonus if you choose a word that reminds you where you want to do better.
Choose a word that will help you stay the course when your vision and goals get clouded. Your word will mean different things in different situations. It will give you:
Perspective: Similar to Tarot or Horoscopes, they shed a particular angle of light on situations that help you see things differently.
Aspiration: When you’re in the thick of living life, invoking this word will remind you of how you want to aspire to stretch this year.
Groundedness: When you feel rudderless or confused about priorities, your word can provide boundaries and simple direction.
I hope you gained something from this summary of Annual Review ingredients. I’ve drawn heavy inspiration from people like Chris Guillebeau (2018), Tim Ferriss (2019), Marie Forleo (2020, my fave), and Susannah Conway (2022).
What questions and prompts, if any, do you ask yourself at the bridge of old to new year? Which ones have served you the best? I’d love to hear it.
Wishing you the best in the year ahead.
Always with much curiosity,
5 year ahead! Quite a challenge. Didn’t know where to start because a part of me uses the anything is possible excuse to delay decision making… I’ll have to start with top 3 goals. Happy new year!
I love your mix-match approach with sharing the best parts! I'm inspired to create my own Annual Review format for 2023.