How to Reflect and Recenter with an Annual Review

A woman writing in a notebook wearing silver rings. There is a croissant and a cup of coffee next to her.
Reviewing and reflecting are essential in living a deliberate life. Image from Pixabay.

tl;dr — I conduct an annual review of the past year to reflect, celebrate, and recenter my intentions with a rose/thorn/bud setup. Rather than set New Year’s Resolutions, this process maintains my awareness of larger life and career horizons.

In late December/early January every year, I’ve completed an annual review of the last year for the last 5 or 6 years. In its current form, I use the annual review to celebrate and close out the past year, reflect on what was important and challenging to me, and create themes/goals for the upcoming year.

Let’s jump back in time to a situation most of us are familiar with in early January — how to handle new goals and refocusing on priorities?

In late 2013, I felt adrift of my larger goals while working on my master’s thesis. The daily grind of to-do lists and email reminders, combined with the slog of constant thesis revisions, was leaving me wondering about the big “whys” guiding my career decisions. Would I get a Ph.D. immediately or work for a bit? What career did I want for the long term? How would I continue taking care of my physical and mental well-being, something I had only started doing in that year? I needed to hop up several levels to big-picture ideas that couldn’t be answered with to-do lists alone.

But I was feeling disillusioned about setting New Year’s Resolutions as an antidote. My previous resolutions had all resoundingly failed. Plus, key career goals were too big to be a resolution, like getting into a Ph.D. program. What I needed was a more flexible approach to evaluate my career progress and find priority areas for focus (In hindsight, the Getting Things Done part of me now says, “Stevie, there are no immediate next actions to write a thesis when you set that as a resolution in 2012, no wonder you got stuck”, but I digress).

One of my favorite bloggers posted a yearly review — feeling inspired, my annual review was born. The process was oriented around reflection of the past year and a refocus on the present — putting to bed my own anxieties about the future of my uncertain life in academia.

The idea for the annual review ties closely to rose/thorn/bud, an activity I learned from a small group chat. Each week, we would check in with answers to the following three questions:

Rose> What is going well in life? What are you proud of?

Thorn> What is challenging or frustrating you now?

Bud> What future things are you looking forward to?

Rose/thorn/bud can also be applied to design thinking activities and other places where structured reflection could be helpful. Somewhere along the way, I connected that my annual review style was rose/thorn/bud, but at a larger and more deliberate scale. In addition to rose/thorn/bud, I adapted elements of other annual reviews, like YearCompass and James Clear’s annual reviews. I hope you adapt this to suit your needs as 2020 opens us up to a new year and decade of possibilities.

This activity will take 1–3 hours. You’ll need a quiet place to think, your personal calendar or tracking system (e.g. your Bullet Journal), something to log/jot down your ideas, and an (optional) cozy beverage of your choice.

Step 1: What went well, and what did you accomplish this year? (Rose)

The first step in this process is to review your year and pat yourself on the back — what went well or great this year? What are your proud of accomplishing?

Go through your calendar and tracking system week-by-week. Jot down important events, travels, get-togethers or dates, milestones on significant projects, or new hobbies. Anything worth celebrating can be added here! I find as this process starts going, I randomly remember other things that weren’t written down — cooking or sharing a fantastic meal, an impromptu meet-up with friends, or a new gift that brings joy.

As an example, some of my roses for this year:

  • I finished my dissertation and graduated with my Ph.D.
  • I picked up knitting again and made hats, socks, and a shawl, and am halfway through an afghan.
  • I went to three amazing weddings for close friends.

Once you’ve exhausted this, I then reflect on the successes in larger groups, writing about how I feel each area went. The categories I use are personal life and family; work and research; belongings; relaxation/hobbies; social; travel; health/well-being/fitness; emotional/spiritual; relationships; finances; bucket list things that don’t fit; other. Jot down your thoughts in each group — where have you made strides?

Lastly, I like to jot down a few people I’m thankful for, as a recognition that my happiness and well-being are tied to others.

Step 2: What went less well/was Frustrating? (Thorn)

After reflecting on the good things in life, now it’s time to look at the events that were frustrating or difficult. Here, useful questions to help prompt reflection include, “Did something happen that threw me off my game? What did I not accomplish, and why might that have happened? What were my biggest challenges throughout the year?”. Sometimes these will be obvious as some events are majorly disruptive. In situations where it’s not, I also reflect on things that happened along the axes of interest I mentioned earlier, such as finances, travel, and relationships.

Important note: I actively discourage doing the nit-picky process of calendar combing for this step. Rolling through the past year and finding every disappointment is inviting sadness and frustration to this process, and it massively deflates the momentum of measured reflection.

Some of my thorns this year:

  • I didn’t travel for leisure to the places I was hoping to.
  • I had trouble saying no and establishing boundaries in friendships and in work.

While writing through this section, I also reflect on why I’m angry/upset about these situations (if it warrants it). I jot down a shortened summary of my feelings in my planner, and whether I want to forgive someone or work to change my views on events I’m dissatisfied with.

After I finish Step 2, I’ll normally take a short break, by doing something to distract myself for 20 minutes. I find that a break between Steps 2 and 3 forces a bit of meta-reflection in this process, and takes the sting out of some of the sadder or frustrating realizations.

Step 3: What am I hoping to accomplish this year? (Bud)

Get out your IDEO brainstorming hat and dream big, it’s time to have fun envisioning your next year. I like to brainstorm about this for a few minutes. This is my favorite part of the process because it’s playful — What could you do in a year that would be cool? What’s the ideal case of something you’ve been working on? Is there a phrase, word, or whatever that captures this spirit that may serve as a reflective point?

Some of my Buds this year:

  • Knit a sweater
  • Find a tenure-track position that works for my family
  • Deadlift and squat 315lbs
  • Go on a kickass vacation to Italy
  • Reconnect and video chat with 100 people

You’ll notice at this stage, the buds aren’t translated to doable goals or action items. That’s ok, kick around crazy ideas! The goal here is to playfully think up ideas that excite and motivate you, as those will often help determine the larger horizons of planning you care about.

Step 4: Write Out Intentions or Goals (Plant)

Finally, I translate the brainstormed buds into meaningful goals or intentions by “planting” these ideas with explicit, action-oriented planning. If you’re a goal setter, SMART goals will work will here, but make sure to decide on a first action after the goal is set. If you’re more intention or theme-based, jotting down some themes or a word of reflection or how you plan to live your values for the year can also work too.

“Planting” is my addition to the rose/thorn/bud trio, by making it explicit what the next action step towards realizing the buds could be. This is important in wrangling in how to accomplish the wild ideas you may have had in Step 3 and showing how they can be actioned on. This is inspired from the Getting Things Done approach of identifying concrete next actions is essential in accomplishing larger goals.

Back to my personal examples, one of my intentions in 2020 is to knit a sweater — so I “planted” it by planning to looking up three patterns I like on Ravelry in January, deciding on an appropriate pattern in an appropriate difficulty.

Writing out your intentions doesn’t commit you to accomplishing them — in March, if you realize these aren’t important anymore, drop it! These plants shouldn’t be handcuffs that constrain well-being, but opportunities for reflection and adjustment. Curate your garden and tend to the plants that bring you joy.

Summary

Our lives can quickly become complicated in the day-to-day processes of managing our careers, homes, and relationships with loved ones. I’ve found the annual review to be one of the best forcing functions for gratitude and appreciation of the life I have, reflecting on the opportunities for improvement, and playfully creating new avenues to live.