How to do a personal annual review: A simple self evaluation that will set you up for success in 2021

We’re days away from saying goodbye to 2020. And while you might want to simply move on and try to forget the past 12 months ever happened that would be a mistake. Whether your past year has been strained by stress and uncertainty or full of success in the face of adversity, it’s worth it to take the time to do a personal annual review

A personal annual review is an opportunity to step back and take stock of your hits, misses, and learnings from the past 12 months. 

Not only does an annual review help you uncover insights and set better goals for next year, but thanks to a psychological principle called the peak-end rule it can even change your perspective. 

The peak-end rule states that our memory of an experience–even an entire year–is largely based on how we feel at its peak and end. This means that reflecting on your accomplishments and learnings can potentially rewrite your memory of 2020 as a more positive experience.

To do this, we’re going to take a departure from past years where we focused on how to use RescueTime’s personal data to do a year-end review.

Instead, we’re going to use a time-tested personal review process that involves just three questions: 

  1. What went well? 
  2. What didn’t go so well? 
  3. What did you learn? 

Get our FREE annual review template: We’ve put together a simple Google doc template you can fill out as you go through this post. (You’ll be asked to make a copy). Or download it as a PDF.

Part 1: What went well?

Reflecting on your accomplishments is one of the most important parts of self-improvement. When you reflect on your successes, you build your self-efficacy–your confidence in your skills and ability to handle future obstacles and issues. 

As Tracy Kennedy writes on Lifehack

“The only way to keep up with the pace of life is to stop. To hop off the treadmill. To reflect on what’s working and what’s not.”

Start your personal annual review by exploring what went well over the past 12 months. 

Write down 5–10 specific successes or events you’d like to celebrate. These can be related to anything you want: personal growth, career progression, learning, health, side projects, or hobbies. 

SuccessCategoryWhy this matters to me
Wrote and published 50 posts on the RescueTime blogCareerMaking time for my most important work (writing) has always been a struggle. This year, I committed to publishing at least once a week and beat my initial goal! 

Try to find events that not only make you feel good about yourself but ones you can quantify as this will help you later on when you’re setting goals for next year. 

If you’re a RescueTime user, your annual dashboard is a great place to kick off this part of your review. 

RescueTime tracks and organizes how you spend all your time.

Look at your top activities from the past year. Does this match up with how you wanted to spend your time?

How consistent were you with your productive time? Are there dips or spikes you can account for? 

Sometimes just seeing the fact that you spent 50 or 100 hours writing/coding/designing is a success in itself!

Bonus: Dig deep into your personal data to uncover hidden progress, working habits, and opportunities for improvement 

Part 2: What didn’t go so well? 

Mistakes, failures, or just missed expectations are a natural part of personal growth. And 2020 has, for most of us, been full of them. But reflecting on things that didn’t go well doesn’t have to be depressing or frustrating.

Understanding how you performed under the stress of a year like 2020 can show you how to continue to adapt and grow in the future.

So ask yourself the same question as before. But this time think about what didn’t go so well. These could be growing pains, stumbles, or even just unfortunate trade-offs from shifting priorities

Because we don’t want to dwell on the negatives, it can help to clarify how you feel about this disappointment and what you want to do about it. 

For example, is this something you feel an urgency to fix? Or is it something you’re ok leaving as is for the time being?

How much of an impact did it have on the rest of your year? Were there unexpected side effects of this happening? 

DisappointmentsCategoryWhat went wrong?How do you feel about it?
Broke my habit of going to the gym a minimum of 3X per weekHealthEverything has a tradeoff. The unfortunate side effect of focusing on my career growth was that my personal health suffered slightly. This is something I want to change. Health is one of my core values and I want to give it more of a focus next year. 

Part 3: What did you learn? 

At this point, you’ve set the stage to distill the successes and disappointments of the past year into clear lessons to take with you.

A personal annual review is as much about action as it is reflection. What did you learn in 2020 that you can use to set smarter goals for 2021?

What did you learn in 2020 that you can use to set smarter goals for 2021?

Looking through the above sections, you’ll probably see some common threads. Do you feel accomplished when you hit work milestones but disappointed with how it took away from other areas of your life that you value? 

Maybe a lesson learned is that balance is more important than arbitrary milestones. 

Or, maybe the lesson you take away is that you’re willing to deprioritize some aspects of your life while you focus on career growth. 

Try to write at least 5 lessons you’ve learned over the past year, each with a short description, context, and how you want to apply it moving forward. 

LessonContextWhat are you going to do with this knowledge?
Balance is more important to me than hitting arbitrary milestones at work.Last year, I sacrificed growth in personal areas of my life, like health and creativity, in order to hit work milestones. But while it felt good in the moment to make progress, I ultimately was left disappointed in myself for making the tradeoff. In 2021, I will set aside time each day after work to focus on some personal task, hobby, or practice that I find valuable. 

Try to look for varied examples. If it helps, here’s a list of potential categories of lessons you might want to consider:

  • Work
  • Health
  • Friends and family
  • Travel
  • Learning
  • Finances

Part 4: What is your ‘theme’ for 2021? 

This is where the personal annual review starts to get fun. 

Using the lessons and action plans you just wrote down it’s time to look to the future and set some high-level expectations of what you’d like to achieve in 2021.

You can break this section down into a few different levels:

Purpose: Where do you want to focus your time and energy the most this year? 

Fill out this sentence:

This year, my main focus will be on _____________________. 

Outcomes: When you look back on 2021, what are 2–3 big accomplishments you’d ideally like to achieve? Alongside these ‘big goals’ what are some smaller ‘must haves’ that you need in order to feel successful?

Answer this question:

At the end of 2021, I will have accomplished:

  1. ________________________
  2. ________________________
  3. ________________________

Theme: What is this the ‘year of’ for you? Is it the year of connection? Experimentation? Creativity? 

Try to find a single theme that brings together all of your dreams and wishes that you can use as a lens to choose your priorities in the coming year. 

Complete this phrase:

2021 is the year of _____________.

(Optional) Set actionable goals for your outcomes and priorities 

Big goals are fun to think about but harder to act on.

For each outcome you want to achieve, spend a few minutes deciding what category it’s under, what specifically you want to achieve (try to use the SMART goal system), what actions are required, and when you want to accomplish it. 

OutcomeCategoryAction requiredDeadline
What do you want to accomplish?What category is this goal under?What steps are required to accomplish this goal?When will you ideally complete it?

With the right approach you can turn even the worst year into a powerful learning experience

Even if you somehow avoided all the garbage 2020 threw at the world, there’s no avoiding the fact that this was a year of uncertainty and stress.

However, by taking a few minutes to reflect on your personal successes and misses you can help reframe 2020 as a positive experience you can take with you into the future.

Lastly, self-reflection doesn’t have to be limited to just the end of the year. If you’d like to learn more about the power of regular reviews (and how to do them), check out our guide here:

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

4 comments

  1. Well, last year was very tough due to covid-19. But I must say your article definitely boosts up our minds. Thank you mate.

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