At the end of last year, a friend invited me to join him for a personal yearly review and planning session. I was skeptical of both the time commitment (2-ish solid days) and the overall value, but I ended up finding it extremely beneficial. I now recommend the exercise to almost everyone, especially to those motivated by their long-term impact. Here, I’ll explain the process we used and why I found it so valuable.
My friend and I followed a simplified version of Alex Vermeer’s guide (8,760 Hours), which breaks life down into 12 categories:
- Values and Purpose
- Contribution and Impact
- Location and Tangibles
- Money and Finances
- Career and Work
- Health and Fitness
- Education and Skill Development
- Social Life and Relationships
- Emotions and Well-Being
- Character and Identity
- Productivity and Organization
- Adventure and Creativity
For each of these categories, we answered four questions:
- What went well in this category over the past year?
- What went poorly in this category over the past year?
- Where do things stand in this category right now?
- Where do you want things to stand in this category one year from now?
The first three questions are essential set-ups for the last. Answering all of them for each of the categories resulted in a comprehensive picture of the trajectory my life had been on, its current state, and what I wanted it to look like in the future. From there, I distilled a short list of high-priority goals for the year ahead, and made plans for how to achieve them.
Looking back, there were three main things this process did for me:
- It clarified my progress. Before completing the review I had a vague sense of some areas of my life where I’d grown, areas where I’d struggled, and things I’d achieved or messed up along the way. However, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate them clearly or pinpoint causal factors. A systematic, focused analysis gave me a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of where I’d been, where I was at, and what I wanted. I cannot overstate how valuable this was.
- It helped me plan. A thorough reflection on my progress in the previous year made it much more practical to set and prioritize effective goals for different areas of my life. I was surprised by how much the quality and substance of my goals improved as a result of the review. I now consider reflection to be an essential component of good planning and goal setting on any time scale.
- It reminded me that life is complex and beautiful. Reviewing all twelve of the above categories made me realize that there is a lot more going on in my life than I thought, and tuned me in to a level of richness and complexity that I find almost impossible to notice on a day-to-day, or even month-to-month basis. This filled me with a profound sense of gratitude, even after an unusually difficult year, and made me much more optimistic for the year ahead.
One of the most valuable pieces of this experience was doing it with a friend. We shared useful reflections, processed uncertainties, and kept each other on track throughout the process. We had check-in calls every few hours during the review itself, and at the end we shared the goals we made. Over the course of the year we’ve talked regularly to report our progress and refine our goals, which has been incredibly helpful. If you decide to do an annual review, I highly recommend finding a friend or two to join you. Alternatively, you could publish your review and goals here on the Forum for feedback and accountability.
Having gone through this exercise, it’s now crazy to me that it isn't more commonly used. As someone looking to optimize my impact—and other areas of my life—over a period of many years, the annual review seems like an indispensable tool. I’m not sure how I ever hoped to make progress on the things I care about without a structured, big-picture reflection coupled with specific and ambitious goal setting. My suspicion is that there are many others who would similarly benefit from this practice.
Thanks to Sofia Davis-Fogel and Alex Norman for comments on drafts of this post, and to Alex for introducing me to annual reviews.