How to Do a Lightning-Quick Yearly Reflection

It's January, which means, it's the best time to take stock of the past twelve months and plan a little for the next twelve.

A cartoon corgi writing in a notebook.
Image Credit: Dall-E

I've been doing yearly reflections for the past decade, but I started to struggle with the practice in the last few years. As I experienced the positive effect yearly reflection can bring to one's mental health and life, I fell into a common trap of thinking: if doing this much was good, doing more will surely be even better!

Pretty soon, instead of an afternoon or two in a coffee shop, I was spending 30+ hours creating elaborate charts of my life and coming up with detailed plans for the year ahead. It was not only exhausting but the end result was so bloated, I ended up not going back to it during the year.

As it turned out, nobody wants to read a twenty-page PDF about my life and plans—not even me.

Finally, in 2022, I threw everything out and started anew from scratch. I wanted a framework that can be completed in an afternoon and yields a short, digestable summary of insights. I wanted to create a North Star I can return to when I'm faced with tough decisions.

Long story short: a new, Rapid Reflection Framework was born.

I was pretty happy with it last year, and used it again the past weekend—this time around with a few close friends. The workshop went well, my friends liked the system, so now I'm comfortable sharing it with the wider world—and you.

What you'll need for the Rapid Reflection Framework

The motto: "Done is better than perfect."

Look, I'm going to warn you: this framework is quick, so it'll ask you to sacrifice a lot of depth and nuance that a more traditional yearly reflection brings. We're not going to go through every aspect of your life, and try to take stock of everything. We're only looking for the insights that yield the most results to help you craft a North Star.

Try to respect the boundaries of the framework and let them force you to abandon perfectionism. Done is better than perfect.

Part I: The past

Set a timer for an hour.

Take your notebook (physical or digital) and open an empty page. Title it "Last Year" and create two headings: "Positive Peaks" and "Negative Valleys."

Get something that will help you look through your past year. It can be a calendar, the photos in your phone, your journal, whatever. The goal is to scroll through the months and see what you have experienced.

Whenever you get to something that is a 4 or 5 out 5 on the emotional scale, either in a positive or a negative way, add it to the appropriate heading. We're only looking for the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. If something is not a 4 or a 5 on the scale, leave it.

What counts as an experience? It can be an event, a person, a habit, an achievement, or even something you bought or made. Anything that happened to you and elicited an emotional response—either positive or negative.

How many experiences should you list? Based on the workshop I held for my friends, I'd say that you'll probably come up with 20-30 items for the Positive Peaks, and around 10 for the Negative Valleys. (Though don't worry if you get more or fewer.)

Part II: Find patterns in the past

Once your hour is up, set your timer for thirty minutes.

Take a look at the Positive Peaks and Negative Valleys of your past year. These were the high and low points of your life, and they can teach you valuable things about yourself.

Go through the lists and see if you can find some patterns. Is there someone who consistenly makes you happy, or the opposite, someone who drains you every time you meet? Are there events, habits or activities that reliably produce peak positive emotions? Can you learn something from your Negative Valleys? For example, is there a type of situation that seems to be repeating itself and always brings you mysery?

Be gentle with yourself and try not to judge or beat yourself up too much over the Negative Valleys. Also try to avoid going into "at least..." mode when looking at the bad stuff. You don't need to find the silver lining just yet, or come up with a solution. Just see the patterns and give yourself permission to feel bad if shitty stuff happened to you last year.

This part of the framework is left loose deliberately. You're a clever person, and your life is unique—you'll know good questions to ask yourself about your two lists. However, if you need a question to start your creative juices flowing, here's one:

"What surprised you about your lists, and why? What didn't surprise you, and why?"

Take a break

When the 30 minutes of reflection is up, put down the pen (or keyboard) and take a 15-minute break.

Stretch your leg, drink a cup of water, open the window. Try to leave your phone alone, don't check Twitter, Reddit, etc.

Let your mind take a breather.

Part III: The future

Set a new timer for an hour.

Turn to a new page in your notebook or create a new note in your app. Title it "This Year."

Once again, create two headings: "Say Yes" and "Say No." The first will list positive experiences you want more of (or at least the same amount as last year). The second will collect the negative things that would lead to powerful negative emotions, so you'd like to avoid them.

Based on the previous lists you created in Part I, start to write instructive sentences for yourself. For example, if rock climbing gave you powerful positive peaks last year, you could write something like this on your Say Yes list: "Go rock climbing as much as I can."

You can be more specific ("Go rock climbing every week with Alexandra.") if you want, but only if it doesn't feel constricting. The goal is not to plan your next year by the minute, but to come up with a list of experiences that you want to have. Think in aspirations, not super specific goals.

Fill out your Say No list too. If you've found a pattern in your Negative Valleys, now is the time to turn it into actionable advice for yourself. Let's say you saw that saying yes to every request at work led you to feeling burnt out. You could add something like this to your list: "Don't say yes to everyting. – I want to be more conscious of my own boundaries and learn to say no to some tasks at work."

Make the two lists glanceable. Write succinct lines and short paragraphs. The goal is to create a personal manifesto of sorts, you can turn to during the year when you need to make decisions or need a reminder of what matters to you the most in life.

How long the lists should be? Again, 20-30 items for Say Yes and around 10 for Say No.

Do you need to find a place for every item from the Positive Peaks and Negative Valleys lists? No. There will be powerful positive experiences that are not repeatable and negative events that are outside of your control. Most of your items from the past lists will find some kind of home on the future lists, but don't torture yourself to find a place for everything.

Can you add stuff that wasn't on your past list? Sure you can.

What about habits and maintenance activities? For example, what if you don't enjoy exercising but you know that if you go without it, you'll feel bad. Should you put it on the Say Yes list? No, leave them off. This framework doesn't try to answer everything in your life, it wants to give you a North Star to help you see what kind of experiences make you feel strongly—either in a positive or a negative way. Habits and maintenance should be handled elsewhere.

Part IV: Reflect on the future

Once your hour is up, set a final timer for 30 minutes.

Take a look at your Say Yes and Say No lists. Once again, try to find out what they are trying to teach you about yourself. For example, if you see that most of your Say Yes list is about doing stuff with other people, you can note that being around other people is something that's fundamentally important to you.

If you have a friend handy, tell them about your insights. If you don't, write them down in a separate note to solidify them in your mind.

If you need a conversation starter, use the familiar "What surprises you most about your lists? What surprises you the least?" questions.

Part V: Name the theme of your year

Just as good literary works have a theme that helps steer the story, your year should have one too.

Think on it a little bit, then write down the theme of your upcoming year. Maybe it'll be "The year of discovery", or "The year of imagining better worlds", or even "The year when I finally come first in my own life."

Whatever it may be, write it down in bold script and let it fulfill you with purpose.

Closing remarks

Congratulations, you're done.

If everything went well, you didn't spend more than three and a half hours, and you now have two pages: one that shows you the peaks and valleys of your past year, and one that you can use as your personal manifesto throughout the year when you want to decide what to say yes or no to.

Good job!

I hope you enjoyed the framework, and if you have any feedback to improve it, please let me know. I'm always eager to improve stuff.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and have a great year!

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