Harry Smith

End of Year Reviews

Tools for thinking about the year ahead. What changes to focus on and avoiding the common traps of new year resolutions.


You should do a weekly review to prepare for the week ahead. You should do a monthly review to stay on track. But nothing will give your more guidance than the end of year review.

  • What do you care about?
  • What do you want to do?
  • Are you enjoying it still?
  • Is this important to you?

The answer to these questions and so many more take time. Dedicated, uninterrupted, personal time. Without answers you stumble blind through the weeks and months. It is imperative we reflect on them with honesty and depth. Meaningful change happens in the timescale of years, not weeks or months. Anything more granular than a year has too much noise to be useful.

It is inherent to the process that it be personal. No end of year review can match your unique matrix of goals, restrictions, ambitions and needs. Over the last few years I’ve collected a few tools for thinking them through.

Setting (or not) goals

Goal setting is too prone to dreaming up ideal end states and relishing in unactioned ambition.

“Lose two stone” or “Get a promotion” are end states. The result of work we are yet to do. It’s the easy stuff. It makes us feel good about the year ahead, rather than getting ready for the year ahead.

You’ve got no idea what life will throw at you in the next 12 months. It’s going to land you where it lands you. The results, the lag measures of progress, are not in your control.

Instead of setting goals, start measuring the actions that lead to them. How many meals did you cook? How many takeaways have you avoided? How much exercise are you doing? A lead measure is always within our control. It’s the training that wins the game.

Approach a goal as the body of work it is, not the single moment of success you dream of. Your year ahead is a journey, so plan it like one.

The Six Things

The ‘Shape Up’ project management method, breaks the year into six cycles:

  • 6 weeks of work to complete a well defined problem
  • A 2 week cool down period to catch up on administration and other work

This cadence of work means that a large organisation can maintain velocity. Without getting bogged down or drawn out. For us individuals, it gives a few useful tools for thinking about achievement over a year.

Our lives are not a product, and unlike a company most of our projects run in parallel not one after another. Life doesn’t have the luxury of letting you do one thing at a time. Hobbies, projects and side hustles get blocked as we wait for time and resources to be available. Our six week cycles blend together over the course of a year.

Even with this parallelism we can use the same framework as a tool for thought. Suppose that you have six things that you want do next year. If you were able to seperate them out, how much could you get done in a cycle? Everyone has unique constraints on their time, so the answer will vary. For some it will be what can you do in six weekends. Or it might be thirty one hour evening sessions.

Once you’ve figured this out, it gives a good picture of how much might be able to achieve once life muddles it all up. The two week cooldown periods end up accounting for the realities of life. And some well earned rests, there is a lot of value in varying intensity throughout a year.

Interrogate the results. Are they surprising? Is it more or less than you expected? Could you combine cycles, doing five things instead of six but spending more time with one? How do you feel about the time you’ve made available in a six week period? Are you excited about it?

The aim of the exercise isn’t to plan the year but give a realistic framework of what would be possible. Use it to mould and inform your decisions, not replace them wholesale. If you got six big things done next year you’d be flying.

Habits (An Alternative to New Year Resolutions)

It surprises no-one that the New Year Resolution is a load of bunk. If there is one thing you can be sure of, it’s that you won’t stick to them.

A New Year Resolution is a ridiculous proposition. You are going to make a decision to change a lifetime of behaviour right this second. And it’s going to work. That was all it took! If only you knew it was that easy you would of stopped all those years ago. Now you’ve made that resolution you’ll never fail!

Until of course, you do. And now you have to take a long hard look in the mirror. You tell yourself “better luck next time!”.

No. Not better luck next time. Dust yourself off. Get back up. And go again. And again. And again!

Choosing a new habit is better than choosing a New Year’s Resolution. Why? Because habits are failure-tolerant.

We expect a habit to fail on occasion. But we know it is part of the process. Over time a habit grows in resilience. Each time it fails and restarts it becomes more embedded. A resolution has to succeed every time to be successful. Failure becomes destiny if you expect success every time.

Top of Funnel Changes

You can make big changes by looking for small changes at the “top of the funnel”.

A top of funnel change is one that changes a core behaviour that filters down into everything you do. It’s a little hard to put into words, but once you understand it you’ll look for opportunities to use it all the time. Let’s examine it through example.

Learning to cook is a top of funnel change.

If you learn to cook to even a basic level the benefit will trickle down to so many other areas of your life:

  • You will save vast amounts of money which you can turn to other projects
  • You will have more energy as you find that the easiest and cheapest meals to cook are the healthiest
  • Getting organised to cook your meals will instill organisation as a way of life
  • Sharing cooking and eating meals with others will bring your relationships closer
  • Learning and improving a skill will energise you
  • Avoiding daily decisions about what you will eat and when will make you efficient
  • You won’t turn to takeaways to fill the gaps when tired or rushed.

But a top of funnel change doesn’t have to only big skills. Small improvements to oft repeated tasks also make dramatic impacts. Consider the original inspiration for this section. Increasing your mouse speed on your computer (The Four Hour Work Week).

A top of funnel change is one that makes tasks more efficient, more effective and more enjoyable. It’s developing skills and tools that compound with each other. Even a handful of these changes can make profound “down funnel” improvements. This is the secret sauce of the ultra effective. The sharpening of the saw. Why do executives have assistants? They are the ultimate top of funnel improvement.

If you are looking for areas to start make changes I would think about: diet, daily exercise/stretching, productivity systems, routine, computer skills, improving your tools.

The Smallest Concrete Step

Any end of year planning runs the risk of being nebulous. Be predisposed to action. It is too easy to conduct an end of year review and all a sudden it’s May and nothing has happened.

This is another reason the dreaded resolution is so popular. It feels like doing something right now. You get to front load all the good feelings and success of something you’ve yet to achieve. “I’ve quit smoking!” you declare to all, but you’ve done no such thing.

There is a better way. Take those targets, goals, six big things, whatever they are. And write down the smallest concrete step you can take to making them a reality. And I do mean the smallest. For example, if you were to say “Write a Novel” then all these steps are too big:

  • Write an outline
  • Name the characters
  • Do the worldbuilding
  • Design a Cover

I’m talking small, bite size, almost silly, steps.

  • Create a folder for your novel
  • Create a file called “character ideas”
  • Create a file called “scratchpad / notes”

Here’s the trick. Developing the characters for a novel is a huge task. Creating the file write them in is tiny. But when you do that tiny little step, and that document is open, you’ll start writing some character ideas.

This works for every project and task in life, but it’s very effective for the start of the next year. “Choose a business idea” is huge. “Write a list of business ideas” is getting better. “Start a business idea document” is so easy, so small, so tiny that you’ll pluck it off your todo list at the end of a long day and actually do it.

One tiny step closer to success.

Rules of Thumb

These reviews are about making decisions. Lots of them. You can’t do everything and you can’t do nothing (I hope!). Rules of Thumb are great for decisions. Embracing one of them in your process is making decisions in advance of the inflection point. This keeps you moving fast and on track, ignoring the noise of your daily motivation and mood. Here are some that I apply at the end of the year:

  • If you have the choice between doing something that is hard, and something that is easy, choose the hard thing
  • 50% chance of failure is a good level of challenge
  • Move towards discomfort
  • Health, Mind, Wealth - in that order
  • Change is better than stasis
  • Happiness & Learning over Career & Compensation
  • To add a good habit, you need to kill a bad one to make time
  • The default answer is “No, I’m not interested”
  • If you can’t remember the goal without checking your notes, you don’t care about it enough to pursue it

A New Year for All

The turning of a new year is a big moment. The ultimate clean slate. When everyone accepts a new beginning.

But don’t waste the momentum on a half cocked resolution, conjured at the asking on the 31st of December.

Get out a pen and paper and start scribbling away. Understand yourself. Understand your desires. Explore it on the page.

Get after it!

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

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