On Annual Reviews

Reviewing One Year; Planning The Next

There is one ingredient (other than coffee) that is key to a successful annual review — and that’s acknowledging that a year is a long time. Our minds aren’t built to compare events across such long time frames, and a severe subconscious distortion takes place when you try to think about everything that happened in an entire year. The solution to this is to make reviewing your life not just something you do on a yearly basis, but an ongoing process.


Looking Backward

Weekly Reviews and The Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a cognitive bias that was introduced to me in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s the phenomenon which causes people to make judgements about the probability and significance of events by how easy it is to think of examples.

In practice, it means that more recent events are far easier to remember than distant events, and so we see them as more significant and more frequent. So when we do an annual review without prior planning, we often end up reviewing the end of the year rather than the year as a whole.

To avoid this bias, and to try to separate recency from importance or intensity, it helps to review the year’s events as if they just happened.

The way I’ve started doing that is to keep a kind of log, a very compact diary, on a weekly basis. I’ve been doing this for a year now and I feel like it’s really helped me keep things in perspective. Reading through this I’ll often be surprised at how significant things which happened a long time ago seemed at the time. I’ve written about my weekly review process in more detail here.

Looking Forward

Use Systems, Not Goals

Gym attendance statistics are one piece of evidence to suggest that New Year’s resolutions don’t tend to work — the general defeatist attitude towards them is another.

Goals like “exercise more”, “eat less”, “learn to speak French” and “lose 5kg” are almost impossible to realise by themselves. Scott Adams has written and talked about this quite a bit. Describing a system as a way to “continually look for better options”, he writes:

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal — if you reach it at all — feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

To combat this, I use a combination of vague guidelines and rigid systems. Guidelines are idealistic rules which give guidance in decision making, whereas systems are there to implement these rules in a realistic and sustainable way.

A guideline might be something like Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The associated system could be a combination of Beeminder goals to eat less meat and less sugar.

Another set of guidelines could be: “Spend more time with people who help you grow. Spend less time with people you’re indifferent about, and people who hold you back.” This could be implemented as a system by forcing yourself to think consciously on a weekly basis about who you enjoyed spending time with, and who you didn’t.

This year was the first time I implemented these new tools, spending a morning in the local library with a lot of coffee, a notebook and a laptop. I got a lot of clarity out of those few hours, and it got me excited about the year coming up. If you’d like to try this out you might find my other post about weekly reviews helpful.


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For more on cognitive biases, check out the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Buy it now on Amazon (UK/US) or compare prices across multiple stores (UK/US).

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