Advice for Entering the New Year: The Yearly Review

Here’s a good idea for today or tomorrow, if you haven’t already: Do a yearly review.

The yearly review can be very simple and consist of just two parts. I’d create a heading on the page for each part.

Reflect on the Prior Year

First, look back at the last year. I think David Allen captures this process best when he says to simply write down, in the order that they come to mind and without feeling the need to organize or categorize things, the most notable accomplishments, events, and other points of interest from the year. To be “notable,” the item doesn’t necessarily have to be large; rather, it just means anything worth noting, to you.

Some of my items include: “South Africa,” “Submitted book proposal,” “delegate at Lausanne,” “almost spilled water on the former deputy prime minister of Australia,” “finished a large organizational design project (not without its challenges),” “productivity presentations in DC and at the DG conference,” “Kate started kindergarten,” and “Joseph started to walk.”

Define A Few Priorities for the Coming Year

Second, look ahead to the next year. Reflect a bit on your overall priorities and the general environment for the next year — major upcoming events in the year, current stuff on your plate, and stuff you really want to accomplish in the next year. Then, just list the top 3-5 primary things you want to accomplish this year (making sure you are identifying things that are truly important).

These 3-5 things should be “big rocks” for the year, rather than smaller stuff. In a sense, these are your goals for the year. Maybe you will change them as you get into the year a bit and more clarity comes about what is most important, and obviously you will be doing many other things as well, but it is a good thing to start the year with major priorities in place specific to the year.

Optional: Review Your Mistakes (but do it right)

When reviewing the prior year, you could review your mistakes. In one sense this may seem contrary to my prior post on forgetting what lies behind. So the first thing to say here is, if you do this, don’t dwell on them. Ponder them briefly to learn from them, then move on.

Which leads to the second point and the reason I mention this: It is a good practice to learn from your mistakes, but most people do it wrong. As Marcus Buckingham points out, most of us have a default assumption that excellence is the opposite of failure. So, in order to improve, we think we should look at what went wrong (either in your life or the experiences of others) and do the opposite.

But that’s wrong. Excellence is not the opposite of failure; they are just different. In fact, as Buckingham points out, excellence and failure are often remarkably similar. For example, in one of his books he talks about how unsuccessful salespeople often suffer from call reluctance. So one might conclude that excellent salespeople do not and say, “if you want to be an excellent salesperson, you better not feel high reluctance to making calls.”

But that would be wrong. Many excellent salespeople do suffer from call reluctance. But the difference is that they have an additional factor, namely the talent of “confrontation,” that presses them to push beyond that reluctance and make the calls anyway.

So the way to learn from things that went wrong is not necessarily to look at what you did and invert it. There may be some of that, of course, but don’t primarily look in that direction or dwell there. You may have actually done most things right, or in accord with what would make for excellent performance, and lacked something — perhaps even something small.

So when there is an area that you want to improve, the main thing to do, as Chip and Dan Heath discuss in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, is not identify what weaknesses you need to overcome but rather what bright spots you need to build on. Identify what went well and focus most of your energy there.

So, reviewing your mistakes may identify some things you need to improve and do differently. But most of all, when there is an area that you want to improve, seek primarily to identify bright spots and identify ways to build on those. And do this quickly and don’t beat yourself on. Make the changes you need to make (and correct anything you might need to correct) and move on.

Making it Happen: How Do You Keep Your Priorities in Mind?

There is one last thing to address here: Once you’ve identified your priorities for the year, how do you remember them in such a way that they really guide your actions?

This is important, because the reason most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions — or, alternatively, accomplish their goals — is that they don’t translate them into their schedule.

So, here are two ideas for accomplishing your priorities.

First, it can be helpful to identify one or two recurring practices or tasks that will move them along. For example, if one of your priorities is to learn about leadership next year, identify a recurring time that you read each day (perhaps before bed, or early in the morning, or whenever). Then stick to it, and put it in your calendar if you have to.

Second, review your priorities for the year as part of your weekly review. That way, each week they will be fresh on your radar and you can design your upcoming week in light of them.