It’s the time of year when lots of people are reviewing their results from one year and making plans for the next. For most people, that means making New Years resolutions. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m not a big fan of these resolutions. Personally, I would rather just make the decision to change something as soon as I know it needs to change. Why wait until an arbitrary date just because it happens to coincide with the changing of the year?
If that works for you, great. Whatever it takes to inspire you to make a positive change in your life can’t be too bad. But studies have shown that less than 75% of people who make New Years resolutions manage to maintain them even through the first week, let alone long-term (maintaining them past six months drops to less than 50%).
Personally, I find that making and reviewing plans on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis works much better. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to maintain a change for a month at a time than an entire year. And if something comes up that I want to change, I’m conscious of that a lot sooner than if I only really think about it at the beginning of a new year.
If you’re used to looking at your situation and making plans once a year, it might seem like a lot of time and effort to do it every month. It’s really not, however. My monthly reviews generally take me an hour or two. I spend anywhere from four to eight hours quarterly and a couple of days annually. Here’s what I’m looking at for each of them…
Monthly Review Cycle
I use an app called Todoist to track all the things I need to get done. I follow a method laid out in a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen for the most part. Part of this method is the review process. It’s basically a matter of going through everything you’ve got on your plate – tasks, projects, things you’re waiting to hear back from someone else about, etc. – to ensure you’re not forgetting anything and that everything you’ve got on your list is still relevant.
At the end of every month, I go through everything in Todoist in detail to look for gaps or things that I thought I wanted to get done but with some distance, realize really aren’t necessary or important.
I also go through my journal and review what I accomplished, didn’t accomplish, complained about and was excited about over the previous month. I use an app called Day One as my journal but this could be a paper journal, notes on my iPhone or any number of different formats.
I try to journal something every day and while I don’t always hit that goal, by the end of the month I’ve always got a pretty good record of where my head was at on any given day. I always get some interesting insights from these journal entries when I read back through them later. And it can be very interesting to see patterns when I look back at a whole period of time (this gets particularly interesting when I’m looking at longer periods of time on a quarterly and annual basis).
I typically carry a notebook and pen everywhere I go for making quick notes so I also scan back through that at the end of the month to make sure I haven’t jotted down an idea or something I need to do and forgotten to follow it up.
Having reviewed all that gives me plenty of insight about where I need to put my focus over the coming month. Particularly when I start noticing patterns that aren’t necessarily good for me, such as constantly mentioning how tired I feel in my journal because I’m not getting enough sleep.
Quarterly Review Cycle
My quarterly review cycle builds on what I do monthly. I do all those same things, but for the entire three month period. This is partly why this review takes longer, there’s more information to go back through.
The quarterly review harkens back to a book I read a couple of years ago called The 12 Week Year. The premise of the book is that instead of making annual goals and plans, you should work in 12-week cycles (which of course works out to about three months, or quarterly cycles).
This gives you the ability to change direction more often if something isn’t working because you’re planning and reviewing things much more often than you would if you did it annually. It also creates a stronger sense of urgency since you’re never more than twelve weeks away from your target deadline. If you set your targets in January, and expect to hit them by the end of December, there’s a lot of room for procrastination, at least until you get past the mid-point of the year. If you set them in January and have a target of the end of March, there’s not a lot of wiggle room.
My quarterly plans include some mid-range goals that get me closer to my longer-term goals, whether that’s business- or work-related or personal items. I also “theme” each month in the quarter, based on an article I read on the Productivityist website a couple of years ago (A New Year Plan for Busy People).
The themes help me stay focused on a particular target and having a different theme for each month helps me avoid getting tired of dealing with one thing for too long. I recognized that problem in myself a while back (that I don’t like doing the same thing over and over for too long) so I try and plan my quarter to avoid that problem.
These themes don’t mean I do one thing to the exclusion of all else, but I’ll have a primary focus for the month that I try and spend as much time as possible working on. This is often based on the season and what is happening in my life at any given time. For example, when my kids are out of school for summer vacation, my theme might be something family-related rather than something that’s going to take up most of my spare time and keep me from doing stuff with my kids.
Annual Review Cycle
I do my annual review at the end of the year but it could just as easily be done any other time. I know someone who works on a February to January basis, for example. His reasoning for this is that he likes to take some time off over the holidays at Christmas and New Years so by ending his year at the end of January, he has a couple of weeks after his time off to tie up loose ends before the “new year”.
Other people consider September the start of their year. In my part of the world, kids are in school from September through June, with July and August off for summer break. September feels like a new year to most people with school-aged children because so many things start up after a couple of months’ hiatus. I had a boss many years ago that called September the “psychological new year” and that idea has always stuck with me.
Regardless, I do my annual review at the end of the year. I take a couple of days in the downtime between Christmas and New Years to go through the last twelve months and to make some plans for the upcoming year.
I go through all the same things I do on a monthly and quarterly basis:
- Projects and tasks waiting to be done
- Journal entries
- Memo books
But just as the quarterly review takes longer than the monthly one, the annual review takes that much longer again. This is where it’s really easy to spot patterns, both good and bad, however. Looking at an entire year of journal entries makes it really clear when something is happening over and over again.
For example, when I went through all my journal entries from 2017 last week, it became clear to me that I didn’t get nearly as much writing done as I had intended. In the moment, it was easy to overlook the fact that I was letting other things get in the way but when I looked at my entries from the whole year, there was an obvious pattern of saying yes to too many other things and then feeling bad for not getting the things that meant the most to me done.
Or even started in some cases.
On top of the things I already mentioned, I also review several other things in my annual review:
- Photos I’ve taken throughout the year
- My goals for the previous year
- Fitness and health over the year
- The monthly and quarterly reviews done throughout the year
- Subscriptions I’m paying for
I take a lot of photos so I just scan through them but it’s interesting how a picture can sometimes trigger a memory or an idea that I’ve either forgotten about or never considered at the time.
I review my goals on a regular basis anyway, but at the end of the year I look at what was successful, what wasn’t, what I want to continue working towards, what I want to drop and how I’m going to refocus in the upcoming year.
I’ve written about how I lost nearly 60 pounds in 2017. A big part of that success was using several tools to track my progress, the Apple Watch being one of the most valuable for me. I’ll write about what I use to track this information in more detail another time but by the end of the year, I’ve got a pretty good amount of information about my health and fitness, which helps me make decisions about what to keep doing and what to change.
Reviewing my reviews always gives me new insights that weren’t obvious to me at the time, so I go back through the monthly and quarterly reviews again.
And reviewing my subscriptions helps me find places I can save a few bucks every month. It seems like there are more and more things that have a monthly or annual cost associated with them and over the course of the year, I always end up signing up for a few more. While $2 or $5 a month doesn’t seem like much, a bunch of those little charges can add up pretty quickly. Reviewing them all at once can make it more obvious just how much is going out the window every month.
Some Helpful Resources
That pretty much lays out my personal system for reviewing my life on a regular basis. I’ve developed my way of doing it over time but most of it comes from ideas I’ve found in other places. I’ve linked to a few of those articles already but if you’re interested in diving into this topic a little more, here are some resources I recommend checking out:
- What To Include In Your Annual Review from Lifedev.net
- How To Do A Simple Productivity Audit from LifeHack.org
- 33 Rules To Boost Your Productivity from StevePavlina.com
- Jumpstart Your Journaling – A 31 Day Challenge from ArtofManliness.com
- How To Conduct Your Own Annual Review from ChrisGuillebeau.com
- Plan Your Year from Shawn Blanc. This one is a paid product but it’s worth the money if you want an easy-to-follow plan. I don’t get anything from recommending it, I just think it’s a helpful tool if you’re not sure where to start.