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Annual Review: An Atomic Habit to Bring In the New Year

Out of every book I’ve read in 2020, Atomic Habits by James Clear was, by far, the most influential to my day-to-day life. I’ve written other posts discussing his lessons in the book and reviews, but what I want to focus on today is a practice that he calls the “Annual Review.”

Clear wrote, “Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensure that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary... Each December, I perform an Annual Review, in which I reflect on the previous year. I tally my habits for the year by counting up how many articles I published, how many workouts I put in, how many new places I visited, and more. Then I reflect on my progress (or lack thereof) by answering three questions:

1. What went well this year?

2. What didn’t go so well this year?

3. What did I learn?”

In the past, I have done a similar sort of “Annual Review.” Every year, I write resolutions. Andy and I write resolutions together on the same spreadsheet we use for our budget and we revisit our resolutions when we discuss our budget every month. One of my practices has been to itemize each of the resolutions and write an end-of-year check-in. In other words, was this a successful resolution? Was this a failed resolution? Why? Depending on the resolution, it’s success or failure, and its perceived importance for the future will determine whether a particular resolution makes a repeat appearance the following year.

For most people, doing an Annual Review on 2020 is going to be overwhelmingly out of the ordinary. Regardless of your circumstances, 2020 was not a normal year. The pandemic has gone on and continues to go on far longer than anyone could’ve imagined. It would be easy to call the year a wash; however, that is not a productive or helpful mindset.

The focus, regardless of external circumstances, should be on the factors you can control. Individually, most of us have little control over the pandemic, over the government, over the economy, over [pick your major issue]. That does not make us helpless, it just means we do not have control over every aspect of society. Focus instead on the factors you can control. With your Annual Review, ask yourself those three questions about the factors that are within your control. External factors would have, undoubtedly, influenced your world. How you respond and adapt are the factors within your control.

This practice does not need to be overly involved. It can be a short journal entry, or a list of bullets, or even a cluster map. Perhaps you prefer a bound journal or yellow legal pad or even typed on Word, Docs, Pages, or some other app. Whatever the form, taking some time to reflect on the past year is a palate cleanser and an essential step to take before drafting out a new list of resolutions.

The reason I believe it is important to reflect before writing new resolutions is that sometimes, we simply repeat resolutions out of habit, yet make no serious progress on these goals. For example, “lose weight” is probably the most common New Year’s Resolution. It is often the most failed, too, for several reasons. By reflecting in an Annual Review first, reasons for failures can be identified and avoided for the following year. Writing “lose weight” year after year on your resolutions will not come to fruition without the necessary work. Determining what has worked and what hasn’t will set you up for a more successful new year.

Clear also recommends completing an Integrity Report in the summer, like a six-month check-in for reflection and habits, but with a focus on motivation and integrity. (Detailed blog post on this topic will be posted summer 2021).

“These two reports don’t take very long—just a few hours per year—but they are crucial periods of refinement. They prevent the gradual slide that happens when I don’t pay close attention. They provide an annual reminder to revisit my desired identity and consider how my habits are helping me become the type of person I wish to be. They indicate when I should upgrade my habits and take on new challenges and when I should dial my efforts back and focus on the fundamentals” Clear wrote.

My advice: reflect, then refine.


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