Every year around New Year’s day I dedicate an hour or so to review my past year and look forward to the year to come. I’ve done so since 2013. It’s a wonderful exercise which always leaves me feeling gratitude — and sometimes relief — about all that is past, and hopeful for what is to come.
I first heard about this practice from David Allen, but I haven’t been able to source it and so can’t check to see how much I’ve adapted what he suggests1. I’ve tried more structured methods of reviewing my year, but this is the only process that I’ve consistently finished each year. It’s flexible, simple to do, and rewarding. Also, I have half a decade’s worth of reviews at this point which makes me want to keep doing them.
So here is the reviewing process:
Start a new document in your device, or a fresh page in your notebook, and make three lists: Accomplishments, Experiences and Aspirations.
Accomplishments are the answers to this question: “What are you proud of accomplishing last year?”
I list those things I actively worked on and which supported my goals and needs as I understand them.
- 2017: Started a Shut Up & Write branch in Thessaloniki
- 2016: Attended my third Vipassana 10-day course and served as a volunteer at another 10-day course
- 2015: Changed jobs!
- 2014: Bought a new laptop (finally!)
Under “Accomplishments” I also list some raw numbers that I keep track of, such as the number of books I read that year, and the number of hours I meditated (outside of retreats). These specific numbers are important to me. I don’t dump a whole bunch of raw “quantified self” data into this list.
Experiences are the answers to this question: “What memorable experiences took place last year?”
Experiences are differentiated from achievements because although important enough for me to remember, I wasn’t the driving force behind them. They sort of just happened on their own, without requiring any special effort or determination.
- 2017: I decorated a Christmas tree with a loved one (by putting lights on it — not quite what I had imagined, but it still counts)
- 2016: Went to an improv comedy class.
- 2015: Visited Edinburgh, after five years
- 2014: Got my house burgled (had to happen sometime)
Under “Experiences”, I also list all the cities and places I visited that year, whether it was for vacation, work, or other reasons.
Aspirations are the answers to this question: “What accomplishments or experiences would you like to include on these lists a year from now?”
This is a new category I’m trying out this year, instead of more structured planning methods. I get bogged down when there are too many fiddly bits. But the question of what I would want to be true a year from now is always relevant and fairly straight-forward to answer, even if I can’t see how to get there from here. I’ll determine how useful this is in a year or two.
And that’s it!
All the examples above are real and were drawn from my own notes. I avoided the personal ones, but otherwise tried to give an overview of the sorts of things that I find interesting to record.
Note the absence of extensive explanations. The lists are for my own benefit and so I don’t need to include the context of why things are important to me. I know that already. Part of what makes this review simple to do is how little you need to actually write down if you aren’t over-explaining. Last year I wrote my longest review and it was only a few hundred words.
I try to support my feeble memory by taking notes for these lists over the course of the year. But I don’t do that with any consistency and so always have to spend some time daydreaming about what I did and what happened and so on. Deciding what is important or meaningful enough to record gives this review its resonant power.
If you share your life with a partner, it can be a insightful to do this review together with them and to share some of your lists with each other. Your partner can also help you remember things.
If you are as pretentious as I am, you may find it appealing to make this review into an event. Two years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were travelling through Belgrade around New Year’s. We did our review together while drinking tea at the Hotel Moskva, one of the city’s landmarks, where a host of luminaries have stayed since its opening a hundred years ago. Fancy downtown hotels, lonesome mountain cabins, eccentric seaside cafes, and other such liminal spaces can help you look back with a bit of detachment, and envision a future with unabashed optimism.
Some folks balk at reviewing their year around New Year’s day, a moment deeply associated with consumerism and socially-induced “resolutions”. If you belong to this faction — and I don’t blame you — your birthday is an excellent alternative date. It’s unique to you and it occurs on the same day every year.
I hope you found this helpful. Give this review a shot and let me know how it went!
I do recall it was a webinar or a podcast, not a book — but that’s as far as I got. If what I’m saying here rings a bell, send me a note of the source and I’ll add a more detailed attribution. ↩︎
Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura