There’s something quite special that happens when we reflect on what we’ve done.
Well, two things, actually. One is that we gain a better understanding of what we’ve done or learned. The other is that our self-efficacy improves—that is, our belief in our own abilities.
Self-efficacy is a powerful thing because the more we believe we have the ability to perform well, the more we do perform well.
Researchers have found that the practice of reflection makes what we’ve learned stick in our minds better, as well as improving our performance. In fact, there comes a point in our work or training when we’ve learned enough that reflecting on our experience can boost our performance more than further practice.
A study of customer service representatives found that those who regularly reflected on their training performed 25% better on the final test than other trainees. They also improved their chance of receiving the highest rating for their service by 20%.
The funny thing about this research, though, is that when given the choice, most people choose more practice over reflection. It seems we prefer doing to thinking.
But reflecting is good for us—whether it’s tracking our progress on goals, making sure we’re doing meaningful work, being more self-aware of the good we’re doing (which can help protect us from burnout), or taking note of what we’ve learned, reflecting regularly helps us refocus and better understand ourselves.
Today I’ll look at three forms of regular reflection and how to implement them: weekly, monthly, and annual reviews. Click the links below to skip to each section:
- Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
- Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
- Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
The weekly review is a chance to tie up loose ends, prepare for the week ahead, and reflect on short-term goals.
Writer Alan Henry finds the benefits of conducting a weekly review make it worth finding the time on a regular basis:
You’ll be more organized, you’ll never wonder if there’s something you forgot to do or something you should be working on, and you’ll never be afraid you forgot about something important.
If you find it difficult to sit down every week and reflect on your progress, you’re not alone. For writer Chris Bowler, his weekly review was something to dread, because initially it just consisted of trawling through his task manager. As Bowler points out, to-do lists aren’t much fun to review because they tend to include lots of tasks we should do but don’t want to, and things we want to do but can’t right now.
Because Bowler’s to-do list was frustrating, his weekly review ended up that way, too, making it harder to do:
If [your] review is just another chance to get frustrated, you’ll let it slide more often.
Bowler was able to improve his weekly review by focusing less on his task list and more on his achievements from the past week and goals for the week ahead:
Previously, I would get frustrated with my weekly reviews as they would feel mostly useless. Now, I enjoy the process and look forward to the exercise.
Since completing weekly reviews consistently, Bowler has been able to shake bad organization habits such as setting arbitrary due dates for all his tasks so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
Since I’m bad at reviewing my projects regularly, I’ve developed this habit of setting a due date to bring a task back to my attention.
Now Bowler’s reviews include time to go over his projects and plan his tasks for the week ahead, replacing this bad habit and keeping him more organized.
What to include in your weekly review
If you’re just getting started with your own weekly review you’ll probably need to do some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you. But to get you going, here’s a step-by-step example from author Michael Hyatt. Hyatt’s review consists of 8 steps designed to stop important tasks or appointments from being forgotten and help him stay on top of his workload.
Step 1: Sort through all loose papers. Some will need filing, others may need to be actioned, and some might simply need to be recycled.
Step 2: Sort through notes from the past week. All notes taken during the week are reviewed for action items, anything needing following up, and any information that needs to be transferred elsewhere for more permanent storage.
Step 3: Review last week’s calendar. Check for any follow-up needed for past events.
Step 4: Review annual goals. This is where you start looking ahead to the coming week. Review annual goals and ensure the next step for each goal is planned and scheduled on your to-do list or calendar.
Step 5: Review upcoming week’s calendar. Check if any coming events require preparation and schedule time to get this done.
Step 6: Review in-progress projects. Make sure the next step of each project is planned and scheduled.
Step 7: Review delegated tasks. Check anything that you’ve delegated or tasks where you’re waiting for someone else’s input and follow up if necessary.
Step 8: Review your someday/maybe list. Go through your list of projects, ideas, and tasks you’d like to do someday when you have time. This is your chance to choose something from that list and schedule it into your week.
This process might sound complicated, but with a checklist and some patience you could get through a list like this every week. Hyatt’s review not only helps him prepare for the week ahead, it also ensures nothing from the past week gets forgotten or overlooked.
Alan Henry says his weekly review helps him re-evaluate the work he does and how he plans for the week ahead:
I learned that when you take time to step back and reconnect with the things you have to do and why you have to do them, you begin to understand what’s really important, what you really have time for, what you need help with, and how much bandwidth you actually have.
Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
We all love to set big goals at the start of a new year, but they’re very likely to fail. Monthly goals, on the other hand, are easier to manage.
A monthly review gives you a chance to reflect on a longer period without being so vast it’s hard to grasp.
According to author and zen habits founder Leo Babauta, the monthly review “helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something in just a month, and it lets me take a big-picture look at my life.”
A monthly review is a good chance to set new goals, assess your behavior from the past month, and celebrate your achievements.
I’ve been writing and sharing my own monthly reviews for a couple of years and I’ve found the added transparency of sharing my reviews has helped to keep me accountable to the goals I set each month.
What to include in your monthly review
- Highlights from the past month
- His current weight and any change compared to the previous month
- The outcome of last month’s goal
- Goals (usually just one) for the month ahead
- Any changes to his codex—a list of his values and personal beliefs revisited monthly
- Books, movies, articles, podcasts, or albums enjoyed in the past month
Benson publishes his monthly reviews on Medium, so you can explore real-life examples of his template in action.
For an even simpler template, Rosetta Thurman from Happy Black Woman has you covered. Her monthly review consists of just four steps:
- List everything significant that happened last month. This doesn’t have to be just your achievements—any significant life changes or events you attended also belong here.
- Reflect on these three things from the past month:
- Your biggest personal milestone
- Your biggest professional accomplishment
- Your most valuable lesson learned
3. Choose a theme or emotion that sums up the past month for you.
4. Set goals for the month ahead.
Of course, the best monthly review template will be the one that works for you. For more inspiration, my newsletter The Monthly Review sends out various personal reviews every month. If you’ve already started your own monthly review, you can even submit it for inclusion in the newsletter.
Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
There’s nothing quite like a brand new year for reflecting and setting new goals. Annual reviews tend to be longer than monthly or weekly reviews, simply because there’s a lot more to reflect on and a bigger time period to plan ahead for.
But that doesn’t have to make your annual review overwhelming. Whether you take a week off in December to complete it like entrepreneur and author Chris Guillebeau, or wrap it up in an afternoon, your annual review only needs to cover what’s important to you.
Maybe you want to reflect on your business or career achievements of the past year. Or maybe you like to set lots of goals each year, then reflect on your progress towards them.
Or perhaps you just enjoy making a list of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows from the past year, as I do.
Like any other review, a personal annual review is for you and should include whatever you find most useful. Even if that changes from year to year.
What to include in your annual review
Celes Chua from the blog Personal Excellence provides a 6-step template for creating your own annual review:
- Reflect on your biggest accomplishments from the past year.
- Reflect on your biggest lessons learned in the past year.
- Give yourself a score for how well the past year went. You can give yourself a grade from F to A+ or a score from 1-10.
- Plan your goals for the next year by asking yourself what it would take to look back on this year as your best year ever, or to rate it 10/10.
- Plan any new habits you can build to help you achieve the goals you set in the previous step.
- Plan your immediate next steps to achieve each of the goals you set.
If you prefer more in-depth reflection on the past year, Leo Babauta has some handy suggestions for finding details of everything you did:
- Check your TripIt account, or anywhere else you record details of your travels throughout the year to remember the trips you took.
- Browse all files on your computer created in the past year to see what you spent time working on.
- Look through your Amazon order history and credit card statement to see what you spent money on.
- Read through your notes and journal entries from the past year.
You can also set your RescueTime dashboard to show all your time logged and your productivity pulse for the full year:
Or, if you like having all your data in one place, you could use a service like Gyroscope or Exist*. Both of these services offer annual reports of your data that give you a simple way to reflect on your activities from the past year.
You may not want to dedicate a whole week of your life to your annual review as Chris Guillebeau does, but even spending an afternoon reflecting on what you achieved in the past year and where you want to be in 12 months’ time can bring clarity to your daily plans.
Guillebeau credits his annual review with much of his success as a writer and entrepreneur:
When someone asks how I can do “so much,” I always mention this week-long planning process. There is no hidden secret to working towards a lot of big goals at the same time, but taking the time to clearly define specific objectives each year has helped me more than anything else.
If you read this post thinking reviews sound like a good idea but too much hassle, you might want to try writer Laura Vanderkam’s approach of writing your review ahead of time. Writing your annual review at the start of the year tells you what to work on, she says.
I think the best approach is to plan for great things, but be open to even more wonderful things happening that you didn’t know to plan for.
Vanderkam suggests imagining it’s the end of the year right now, and the year went well. Now write down the 3-5 things that made it such a great year.
This tells you ahead of time what to work on. All you have to do is work towards making that review a reality.
… articulating what you find interesting and meaningful can help answer the question of “I have time, what should I do with it?”
If you’re ready to try your own reviews, grab one of these templates and adjust as you go. You’ll find your own needs change over time and dictate what kind of reflection is most useful.
*Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Exist.