How do you make sure that next year becomes better than this year?
How do you make sure that you learn from what you’ve gone through this past year? How do you know whether what you did worked, or didn’t work? How do you make sure that you don’t repeat the same mistakes in the year to come?
Introducing the Yearly Review
The philosopher and poet George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That’s why I like to do something called a yearly review. By taking the time to remember what happened this year, it gives me a chance to make the next one better.
So how can you do a yearly review? It involves:
- Time alone
- A willingness to reflect
- A list of questions to answer
There are two parts to doing a yearly review:
- Reviewing the past year
- Setting goals for the coming year
In this post, I’ll cover the review, and I’ll write about the goal setting process in the next post.
10 Questions to Ask in a Yearly Review
The two most basic questions to ask yourself come from Chris Guillebeau’s yearly review process:
- What went well this past year?
- What didn’t go well this past year?
Just answering those two questions alone can take you a long way. I added eight more to my own yearly review to do a deeper dive into my year:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What am I most grateful for?
- What challenge am I proudest of overcoming?
- What do I regret most?
- What did I enjoy most?
- What are the key lessons I learned about life?
- What are the key lessons I learned about myself?
- If this coming year was my last on Earth, what would I want to stop doing the most? Why?
- If this coming year was my last on Earth, what would I want to do the most? Why?
These aren’t random questions. I chose them to help me recognise my victories, learn from my defeats, acknowledge my strengths, expose my weaknesses, appreciate my blessings, and think clearly about what to do and what not to do in the year to come.
You don’t have to use all of these questions. You can pick and choose, or use your own. The point is to start thinking about the year you’ve just had, both the good and the bad, so you can learn from it.
3 Tips for a Yearly Review
I’ve been doing yearly reviews for years, and I’ve found that doing these three things help me do better reviews.
1. Set aside time to be alone
It’s best to set aside a block of time to do the yearly review, instead of writing during small slices of time here and there. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
2. Write in something you can keep and find later
I used to do my yearly review on loose sheets of paper, until I realised that I’d always lose them. Then, I started writing in a notebook, which was better because it kept my writing bound together, and I could find it on the shelf easily.
I suggest you write on something that you can safely keep and easily find. It’s a bonus if it’s something which you will see often, like a notebook on a shelf, so you can pick it up and read through it from time to time.
These days, I write on the computer, because I type faster than I write. I use Day One, a journaling app, in which I can safely keep the review and find it again.
3. Look through the year’s photos before reviewing
I can’t always remember what happened this past year, especially things that happened in the earlier months.
I’ve found that scrolling through my photos helps me recall what happened through the year, so I like to look through the photos on my iPhone, Mac, and Facebook, before I start reviewing.
If You Have a Partner
If you’re married or have a significant other, I suggest that you share this exercise with him or her, then share what you’ve learned.
I’ve found that reviewing our year together has helped to deepen my relationship with my wife. I prefer to do the review on my own first, and then talk to my wife about it, but I can also see some couples preferring to do their yearly reviews together. How to best do it is really up to you.
I’ll share what I learned from 2015 below, but you have everything you need to do your own yearly review now.
Bring this list of questions with you. Clear some time to be alone. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed. Write in something you can keep and find. Bring your year’s photos with you to help jog your memory.
Be ready to learn, remember, appreciate, laugh, cry.
What I Learned in 2015
So, what went well for me in 2015, what didn’t go well, and what did I learn about life and myself?
In the interests of brevity (my 2015 review clocked in at 3,216 words), I’m not going to share everything I wrote. But I’ll share the most important parts, in the hope that they might help somebody else in their own process.
I won a photography award!
My first travel photography feature, In Search of Old Japan, won the Media Publishers Association Singapore’s Online Photography of the Year award for 2015.
I received the good news when I was in Seoul, shooting for my second travel photography feature, Craftsmanship in South Korea. It was a bittersweet mix, as I got the news during a very trying time.
My wife got sick and I couldn’t be there
My wife went through an especially tough time this year. Just before I left for South Korea to shoot my feature, she suffered from headaches for days, then one day half of her face became paralysed.
I thought she might be having a stroke, and rushed her to the hospital, where a doctor assured us — to our relief — that she wasn’t having a stroke.
It was a condition neither of us had heard of, called Bell’s Palsy. Bell’s Palsy isn’t well understood, and there’s still no clear explanation for what causes it. The good news is that most patients naturally recover, the bad news is that recovery might take 10 days to six months.
But even knowing that she had a high chance of recovery didn’t make life easier for my wife. She suffered from terrible headaches and vomiting. She couldn’t eat or drink properly. One eye kept tearing up, as it couldn’t close fully. It was difficult for her to go out. It took a toll on her, emotionally as well as physically.
The worse part of it is that I couldn’t be there for her, during the first week of her illness. Everything had been set up for my visit to South Korea, and I couldn’t cancel at such short notice without significant problems.
We both got through this time with the help of family, but suffice to say, it was a stressful time for us. She took about three months to mostly recover, and another three to fully recover. We put a few of our goals on hold, as we focused on getting her healthy and strong again.
The night I brought her to the hospital’s Accident and Emergency ward is burned into my memory. I was afraid that something serious was happening to her, and it struck me with tremendous ferocity how we need to appreciate the people around us, because tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us.
2015 made me very grateful for life
What happened to my wife made me realise that there is nothing more important than our health and the people around us. Not a single thing or any amount of money can make you happy when you’re ill, neither can they bring back anyone when they’re gone.
So, I am most grateful for the people in my life; my parents, my family, my friends. I’m grateful that we had one more year together, and I hope we get many more.
2015 made me especially grateful for one life
If there’s one relationship I’m feeling most grateful for now, it’s the one I have with my German Shepherd, Momo, because it’s becoming clearer how our time together is ending.
At 14, Momo is old for a dog, and he’s aged rapidly this past year. He can hardly see or hear, he has trouble walking and looks tired most of the time. It breaks my heart to see him this way, and to accept that he won’t be around for very much longer.
But I am so grateful for all the years that we did have together. Anyone who’s had a dog knows what I’m talking about — your dog changes you forever, and always for the better.
I had my victories too
I’m proud of how my second travel photography feature Craftsmanship in South Korea turned out, especially considering that I shot it with a smartphone.
These travel photography assignments have been difficult — while you do your best to prepare beforehand, there’s so much else you can’t plan for, so I always feel like I’m teetering on the edge of failure.
But successfully completing two of these features has given me more confidence in my ability to overcome these and other challenges.
Going through these tough times made me realise something about myself
I tend to let the negative voices in my head run rampant, which makes me doubt my abilities. I also tend to be pessimistic, seeing why things wouldn’t work instead of why they could.
While negativity has its place — it’s a good tool to help you troubleshoot problems — I realised that I tend to worry too much, because things have turned out fine. I have overcome challenges, I do have the ability to do good work, and things can turn out well.
For the year ahead, I want to balance out the negative voices in my head with more positive self-talk. To be kinder to myself and to have more confidence in what I can do. To see how things can turn out well, and to let myself look forward to better things ahead.
I want to stop wasting time in the year ahead
Another thing I want to stop doing is to stop wasting time surfing the Internet.
I have a bad habit of procrastinating when I need to get things done, by going from Facebook to Twitter to Google to YouTube and back again. Those are hours I could have spent better, and can never get back.
If this coming year was my last on Earth, I would want to spend it with family and friends
In the year ahead, I want to spend more time with my loved ones. Let them know how much I appreciate them, and how awesome they are.
Experiences are more important than stuff, but they don’t just happen, you have to make them happen. I used to plan for special occasions, but somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it.
I also stopped taking as many pictures of the everyday moments like I used to, which is a mistake. Later, when these moments are gone, you’ll always appreciate having something to remember them by.
There’s one more thing I would keep doing, even if it was my last year on the planet
I want to keep writing and making pictures. It’s my own way to creating more beauty in the world, so that I can make it a little better than I found it.
It’s Your Turn to Do a Yearly Review
If you’ve read this far, you’ve seen how doing a yearly review can help you learn lessons from the past year, as well as highlight where you can do better in the next year. I encourage you to give it a go.
What will you write in your yearly review?