How to Structure Personal Annual Reviews (& Why Everyone Should Do Them)

How to Structure Personal Annual Reviews (& Why Everyone Should Do Them)

Dustin Lien
December 14, 2020

So much happens in a year, and we forget most of it. Even really important stuff becomes fuzzy over time, and we can’t remember how we got where we are now, or see any life trends. That’s why I started doing personal annual reviews 7 years ago.

What's worse than forgetting details of the past, is that when we don't regularly review our lives, we don't learn from mistakes or successes as quickly, which means we repeat mistakes and miss patterns of success that are helpful. Not just in business, but in relationships, health, hobbies, and personal growth too.

It’s also really easy to have ideas of what we want to accomplish in the current year, but make minimal or no progress. With no target, there’s no focus.

In 2014, I saw Nathan Barry (Founder of Convertkit) post an annual review on his blog, and I found it really useful to read. Learning from other people is cool.

I decided to start doing personal annual reviews myself that year, so I took certain parts of Nathan's annual review structure that I liked, and created my own.

You can see all of my annual reviews here if you’d like.

I've tweaked the structure over time as I've found other elements to work in or exclude. That's part of the fun—it's mine, so I can do it however I want.

With that in mind, I'm going to break down how I structure personal annual reviews each year. Feel free to straight-up copy it, or make it your own.

The Elements of a Personal Annual Review:

Before we break down the review section by section, let's talk about the overarching elements, and why they're important.

Your Categories

I personally set goals and review them in four areas of my life:

• Business

• Personal

• Health & Fitness

• Spiritual Growth‍

Choose whatever categories you'd like for your reviews, but for me, I've found those four to cover most of the important things I want to measure and track each year.

Your Theme for the Year

I borrowed this idea starting in 2016 from Noah Kagan (Founder of Sumo).

He chooses a word of the year every year representing something he wants to focus on. I modified this idea a little bit, and I choose a phrase rather than a word.

I've found it really effective for being able to recall my theme throughout the year as a mantra of sorts when I'm struggling in whatever area it is I want to be improving.

  • My 2020 theme: Action in the midst of uncertainty (If only I knew how universally relevant this would turn out to be...)
  • My 2019 theme: Lead by example, especially when it's difficult
  • My 2018 theme: Unleash
  • My 2017 theme: Level Up
  • My 2016 theme: WORK HARD‍

My qualifiers for choosing an annual theme:

  1. It must be actionable
  2. It must be something I can recall and use daily
  3. It must apply to multiple facets of life‍

Think of your theme as your overarching focus for the following year.

Reviewing the Previous Year

Each review has two main parts: Your review of the previous year, and your goals/focal points for the upcoming year.

Even when writing your first annual review, you can still think back on the year across your categories and write down observations. The second review is where it gets easier because you'll have your goals and focal points to actually review.

Across each of our categories, you'll review how you did.‍

Setting Goals or Focal Points for the Upcoming Year

For each category, set at least one thing you're going to focus on improving. It can be a goal, or just a general area of focus.

Criteria for effective goal setting:

1. It must be measurable and trackable

It's easy to say "I'm going to focus on being a better friend", but how will you know if you actually achieve that or not? Instead, you might set a goal of texting or calling your close friends at least twice per month.

2. It must not be arbitrary

In the past, I’ve found myself throwing around goal numbers just because they sounded good. “10,000 subscribers” “1 million dollars” etc. - but why? If a goal doesn’t have a specific reason behind it, I won’t stick to it. Pick numbers for a reason.

3. It must be something you can personally control the outcome of

If you can’t control the outcome, you’re likely to be disappointed and discouraged, and then you’ll quit. If you can control the outcome, you’ll experience consistent small wins, and you’ll keep going.

I can’t control if my business makes a million dollars next year. I can do things that influence the likelihood of that happening, but there are too many variables to actually make sure it happens. Since I can control some activities that influence revenue, I should set a goal around those activities. I need to write an entire blog post about this to break it down, but just know that if you can control it, you can achieve it.

Non-effective goal = Make a million dollars.

Effective goal = Send 3 sales and marketing outreach emails per day.

You might opt for more of what I call “Focal Points” or “Focus” ideas instead of goals. For example, in 2020, I had a personal focus set to “Improve enough at playing golf to not feel embarrassed.” It’s not measurable, but I can still tell if I improved enought or not at the end of the year.

Personal Annual Review Outline

Section 1: The Disclaimer

I post the same disclaimer every year to let readers know that while they might find parts of my annual review useful or interesting, it's mostly for my own documentation and diligence. Feel free to borrow my disclaimer:

Just so you know, these reviews are really for my own introspection and reflection on what went well during the year, what didn’t, and what I want to accomplish the next year. I’m making it public because I think people might enjoy reading it, and possibly learn from it. That being said, some of it won’t make sense to you why I’m sharing it, but that’s because it’s mostly for me.

Section 2: Table of Contents

A table of contents is a newer addition for me from 2019. It isn't really that useful for the writer, but readers might find it helpful to know what information is in the review before starting to read it so they can jump straight to the sections they're interested in.

Section 3: Overview of the Previous Year

A paragraph mentioning some highlights and/or lowlights from the previous year that you want to mention. Maybe things you didn’t have explicit goals set for, but that you think are noteworthy.

Section 4: Previous Year Theme Recap

What was your theme the previous year, and how did you do living it out?

Section 5: Previous Year Category 1 Goals Review

State your goals from the previous year for one of your categories, and review how you did.


2019 Business Goals Review

Goal #1: Grow company revenue by 300%

This year, we had our best year yet, and I’m really proud of it. Our total revenue compared to 2018 didn’t increase 300%, but our recurring monthly revenue did! In previous years, most of our revenue came from one-off course sales or short-term consulting, so it’s a big relief on payroll and company bills to have dependable recurring revenue.

Section 6: Previous Year Category 2 Goals Review

State your goals from the previous year for one of your categories, and review how you did.

Section 7: Previous Year Category 3 Goals Review

State your goals from the previous year for one of your categories, and review how you did.

Section 8: Previous Year Category 4 Goals Review

State your goals from the previous year for one of your categories, and review how you did.

Section 9: Previous Year Closing Thoughts

A paragraph concluding your year, and how you feel about it as a whole.

Section 10: Upcoming Year Opening Thoughts

A paragraph setting the stage for how you’re feeling about the upcoming year, and where your head is at. This helps to set the stage.

Section 11: Upcoming Year Category 1 Goals

State your goals and/or focal points for a category.


2020 Personal Goals

2020 Personal Focus #1: Improve enough at playing golf to not feel embarrassed

2020 Personal Focus #2: Log 125 hours of practicing piano”

Section 12: Upcoming Year Category 2 Goals

State your goals and/or focal points for a category.

Section 13: Upcoming Year Category 3 Goals

State your goals and/or focal points for a category.

Section 14: Upcoming Year Category 4 Goals

State your goals and/or focal points for a category.

Section 15: Upcoming Year Theme

State your theme for the upcoming year, and why you chose it.

And there you have it. Remember, it’s your personal annual review, so you can do it however you’d like! I hope this at least gives you a template to start with.