How to Conduct an Annual Review (2020 Edition!) 🗓

Every December for the past fifteen years, I’ve completed an exercise I call the Annual Review.

This year is different in some ways, but then again, so is every year for one reason or another. In fact, that’s one of the things that’s so beneficial about the Review: in the midst of whatever craziness is happening, it helps to ground your attention and give you something to work on over the next year.

This post contains an overview of the process, along with links that might be helpful for your own review. If you’d like to go waaaaay back to the original post from 2008, you can do that too. Enjoy!

The Goal

The Review is based on a core principle: we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a year.

Once you take the time to do even a basic Review, you’ll find your next year to feel much more purposeful. (Again, this will be true even if the year gets whacked off course, a la 2020…)

But wait, what if you don’t like setting goals? Well, here’s the thing. People who are opposed to goal setting usually point to one of two reasons:

1. They feel self-applied pressure to choose certain goals based on what other people do

2. They prefer to “live in the moment” and are worried about feeling trapped by a detailed plan

Thankfully, neither of these objections should be a real concern to completing a Review.

You’re the one who sets the goals, so nothing is imposed on you from anyone else. And if you decide to change something along the way, great! That’s normal and fine.

What you’ll discover, however, is that the Review gives you a framework for making improvements in your, big or small (or both). Most likely, your vision will expand along the way. You’ll find yourself setting and achieving greater and greater goals as you go from year-to-year.

Goals 2

How It Works

There are two core parts of the Review: a) looking back on the year that’s ending, and b) setting goals for the year that’s to come.

I tend to spend most of my time on the second part, but it’s important to not skip the first. For that, I simply ask and answer two questions:

1. What went well this year?

2. What did not go well this year?

To answer the questions, I just jot down a series of observations based on whatever feels right. Interestingly, even in years that have been difficult for whatever reason, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised by recalling several positive highlights. When we plan, we really can get more of the right things done!

And of course, it’s also important to acknowledge whatever did not go well.


The second part of the review takes more time. I used to spend the greater part of a week on this part, working on it off and on for a couple hours each day. Over the past few years I’ve varied the format a bit, and this year is also unusual because travel is so restricted.

However you do it, the objective is to look ahead and set 3-5 goals for each major category of your life. Which categories, you ask? And how many should there be?

Well, that’s changed for me a bit as well. I used to set goals for 12-15 different categories, several of which were essentially subcategories. Now I just look at a few major “groups” or areas:

Work, Relationships, Wellness, Learning, Travel, Fun

(Yes, after 10+ years of doing the review, I decided to add a category for Fun. It’s one of the positive effects of being shut-in for so long.)

Lastly, I often choose a word or theme for the year as well: the Year of Reinvention, for example, or the Year of Bigger Things. There’s also been the Year of Survival (spoiler: I made it) and the Year of the Cantaloupe (long story).


Closing Thoughts

This process can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like. You can use it as-is or modify it however you want. From time to time I’ve thought about turning it into a book or some kind of online course, but for more than a decade it’s been completely free.

Since I first started writing about the Annual Review, a whole cottage industry has sprung up with people sharing their own versions. If you put in the time, this process works!​ One of my favorites is from Susannah Conway, who’s also been offering her guide as a free resource for at least a decade.

There are plenty of others out there—if you search for “Chris Guillebeau’s annual review” in Google without the quotes, you’ll see some of them, along with many of my posts from previous years.

There’s no doubt about it: 2020 was one for the record books. I’m not sure it was a total dumpster fire like some people say, though—more like a year of realizing that so much is outside our realm of control. That, of course, is why it’s critical to do what we can with what we have.

And that’s precisely where spending some time on a Review of your own can help. You’re not helpless, after all. What will you work toward in 2021?


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