How to do a New Year Review and Why it Could Be the Best Thing You Do All Year
The post-industrial myth of ceaseless, machinated productivity tells us there is no time to slow down and reflect. But this is not only a harmful belief, it is misguided, based on a false economy of time.
We are not at our most productive and effective when hammering away every hour of the year. Rather, it is when we lift our heads up to remind ourselves of where we are going and why that we may find fresh motivation and correct where we have gone off course. There is in fact no better way you could spend your time than conducting a year reflection.
Read on to find out how to conduct your own review, and how doing my own review has already created profound changes in my life.
As the sun dissolves over the horizon of another year, there can be a sense of meaningless oscillation, the next year emerging again on a cold January 1st morning, everything made new and yet just the same.
Some forgotten part of our shared cultural mind understands that this is a time of renewal, a time to reset and start again. In our youth, we make resolutions, only to find with experience that these have normally fallen by the wayside within a month or less. So we say that we don’t believe in resolutions, that the new year is just another day with no more significance than any other, perhaps a fad to get people coughing up for gym memberships and wellness courses.
We think this scepticism is wisdom, but underneath this belief, we find a deeper resignation, a belief that we cannot really change, that we are not really in the driver’s seat, that circumstance dictates who we are and what we can become, and we are just leaves in the wind.
Much of the reason for this malaise comes from the fact that we have forgotten how to conduct rites of passage (along with many other traditional practices that gave life meaning). We think that change should just happen when we decide it should, through a naked act of will.
And then we get disappointed when nothing changes. Because we have forgotten that, though the agent of change is ourselves, the rite of passage is the vehicle or catalyst for that change. It is a primer to our psyche to do the necessary work, a symbol and reminder that a threshold is being crossed.
For that reason, the ideal time to conduct an end-of-year reflection is... well... it's at the end of the year isn't it. But if you've missed the boat this time round, don't worry. You can create other milestones: the start of February, the start of Spring, or even just the first time you manage to get out in nature and take a step out of the hubbub of modern life. The point is to create some kind of symbol which can buttress your intentions for the year. A physical, tangible inflection point.
By consciously reflecting on your year, you are giving your subconscious mind the raw material it needs to begin to change itself. You are holding a mirror up to yourself so that you may begin to dress the accretion of tiny wounds that you have accumulated over the year, and to appreciate the ways in which you have grown stronger and deeper.
This is where the primary importance of an end-of-year reflection lies. It is an investment of time, energy, and most of all intention into the process of change we want to go through. It is an indelible signal that we send to ourselves: Hey, I’m serious. I want to learn. I want to change. I want to grow.
Without this process of deep, intentional reflection, the resolutions that we make are just more random impulses, knee-jerk inclinations towards addressing the immediate sensations we are experiencing, like when we go on a diet just after stuffing ourselves to bursting at Christmas, or vow not to drink after getting absolutely trolleyed on New Year’s Eve.
By taking the time to cultivate and hone in our intention, and allowing it to combine with the cultural and circadian signals we are receiving, we send ourselves an unequivocal and powerful signal of where we want to go. A New Year is an incredibly powerful symbol of new beginnings, of second, third, tenth chances. Of hope.
Here’s how to use it.
End of Year Reflection Step 1 - Gathering materials
Firstly, it should be obvious that the best solutions come from properly understanding the problem. We will fail to understand all of the ways in which the year before was a success if we bulldoze straight into the next one.
You must luxuriate in the year just gone: immerse yourself in it, relive it in reverie, put it on like an old dear coat you are about to store deep in the wardrobe.
This means gathering materials (I got the idea from Jonny Miller's excellent Reflecting Forwards template):
Journal entries. Social media posts. Text and voice note conversations. Articles and songs you may have written. Music, film and books you have consumed. Reviewing key events, whether those be weddings and funerals or something more specific to you. Promotions, redundancies, proposals, breakups. You can review your calendar to remind yourself. Ideally, speak to a friend to jog your memory and see things from a different perspective.
If you made any intentions or goals for the previous year, reflect on whether you achieved them. Try not to be binary. It’s less about whether you achieved something outright and more about whether you progressed towards it or not, how you related to it. Steer clear of solutions for now. You are just reminding yourself.
Focus on what is emotionally salient. What sticks out. The joy and the despair. What felt like wins and losses. The wins that didn’t feel so good after all (which will indicate where you’re not moving towards the right goals). The losses that, in the end, felt ok (which will indicate where you are dealing with difficulty well, or where you are emotionally blocked).
Give yourself time. Find a space where you are alone and won’t be disturbed. And let the year wash over you.
Don’t worry about retaining any specific bits of information. Here you are getting a bird's eye view of the year, an intuitive sense of how it went, what it meant.
The more time you have to spend on this the better really, because the time you do spend will strengthen your intention to use last year’s mulch as fertiliser for the coming one. Remember, you're sharpening your axe, so that you can cleave through the year ahead like some kind of ninja lumberjack. And remember too that, ultimately, not only will your productivity improve through an increased sense of clarity and direction, but so will your sense of integrity and general wellbeing.
End of Year Reflection Step 2 - New Year Reflection Questions and Journal Prompts
There are a million ways you can cut up and categorise your year. How should you decide which is the best for you? Ideally, what you are looking for is a sense of wholeness, a sense of having surveyed the entire landscape of the year.
A powerful approach is to use existing psychological modelsto determine whether you nourished yourself in each of these areas. You could use Mazlow’s Hierarchy of needs, asking yourself if you satisfied each layer of the pyramid before turning to the next. You could use Plato or Freud’s tripartite division of the mind and ask yourself if you were in right balance between these competing factions. You could use Integal Theory's Four Quadrants to see which aspects of existence you were neglecting.
If we take the Four Quadrants for example, you could ask yourself questions like:
- What thoughts did I obsess over/get stuck in last year?
- What emotions were most common?
- What moments turn out to have created the most significant memories?
- Did I look after my body in the way I would have liked?
- What did I learn?
- Did I live in accordance with my values? Why/why not?
- What events pulled me out of integrity?
- What relationships drained/nourished me last year?
- Did I connect with and care for the environment around me last year?
- Did I grow my social network in a meaningful way?
- Did technology have a positive or negative influence in my life overall?
However you want to divvy it up, the point is to explore your year from multiple angles which will create novel and meaningful insights. I used the King, Warrior, Magician, Lover schema (again from Jonny Miller’s end-of-year reflection template). This schema is not only a way of comprehensively analysing one’s internal landscape but also creates a sense of depth and objectivity thanks to its basis in Carl Jung’s archetypes, which Jung argued were real, primordial structures in the mind.
If all of that sounds a little heady and you want some more straightforward journal prompts, you can just split your life into headings which affect your wellbeing and analyse each of those.
Health, Spirituality, Work, Home, Relationships, Finances, Learning, Tribe/Community. Ask yourself:
- Am I happy with how this area of my life is going? Why/why not?
- Did I have any goals in this area? How well did I stick to this goal? What helped/got in the way?
- What keeps me from giving the attention I would like to this area of my life?
(I used this free To-doist end of year reflection, which is pretty comprehensive and also slots into their software so that you can tick it off as you go.)
If you’re a real admin geek like me, you can combine the two, in order to look at different areas of your life from different perspectives and get an exhaustively thorough take on the year.
Don't force the answers. Let the questions percolate into your subconscious and trust that the deeper truth will come.
Again, remember that the time spent on this is not time wasted. It is extremely productive, slowing down to become stronger, clearer and more integrous..
End of Year Review Step 3 - Reflecting Forwards, Deep Insights and Goal Setting for the Year Ahead
If you're going to make your own questions for this section, the only rule is that they should now look to the year ahead, rather than to the one behind. (If you want a helping hand, the templates I used above (Reflecting Forwards and Todoist End of Year Review) already do this for you.)
After asking, 'how did it go?', we are now asking 'and now what?'
By this stage, the undulations and apparent vagaries of the year just gone should be viscerally apparent to you. Stuff you pushed out of your consciousness under the great banner of 'busyness' will have floated up before your mind's eye as some image of the self some part of you has known all along.
You will see where you were not showing up as you would have liked, where you might have let others down as well as yourself, all of the ways you were subtly sabotaging yourself. But you will also see the ways in which you have grown, the hardships you endured, the successes you achieved, the beauty and love that you shared and generated.
The process of deciding what you want the year ahead to look like and how to achieve should unfold naturally, therefore. You are asking, essentially:
- How can I limit or get rid of the bad stuff (or sublimate it by turning it into good stuff!)?
- How can I get more of the good stuff (yes yes, without craving or clinging to it, etc etc)?
This process should be relatively straightforward once you have completed steps 1 and 2, flowing naturally from it. So I think it would be more useful to share some of the insights that came up for me and the resolutions that emerged almost automatically from them, so that you can see how powerful this shit really is!
New Year Reflection Insights
What's cool about the insights that come from reflecting on a whole year, is that you will see how they are woven into each other, how one blindspot leads to another, how mistakes compound. What this means is that once we catch one of these threads, we can begin to reverse any negative momentum we have generated.
Insight 1: Samsara
One lesson that became clear pretty much immediately was the almost farcically predictable pattern of peaks and troughs throughout my year, of productivity followed by inertia, of joy and ease followed by despondency and listlessness, and round and round again.
While this was something I was broadly aware of already, seeing it there in the brute fact of my own prose brought it home to me in a much more concrete, visceral way, a testifying witness to my own procession along the Wheel of Samsara. This hard evidence as to the existential trap I was caught in was immeasurably valuable. As humans, we are naturally inclined to self-deception, in order not to face up to difficult truths and undertake the work we are obliged to undertake in their light. Undeniable proof is a necessary first step to begin to make change.
Insight 2: Spinning Plates
Perhaps most significantly, I noticed that I had WAY. TOO. MANY. GOALS. I had eight different areas of my life that I was trying to excel in, from work to fitness to meditation to relationships and so on, with ambitious targets set for myself in all of these areas, all of which I was tracking and trying to push the needle forward on every week.
The image of a man forlornly sprinting around between his many spinning plates comes clearly to mind, and again I was brought face to face with the naivety-bordering-on-madness of my pursuits.
Insight 3: The Fallacy of Instrumental Living
Perhaps the subtlest but most profound insight that came to me was my realisation of what I call the ‘fallacy of instrumental living.’ This is essentially the modern-day approach to life where everything is done for the sake of some future reward or purpose, as opposed to for the innate pleasure or meaningfulness of whatever that thing is itself.
I had lived my entire year in order to accumulate enough points to tell myself at the end of the year: ‘That was a good year’. This points-data was then to be analysed and harvested, and repackaged into a projection for what would constitute the success of the next year, and on and on again, keeping me on the treadmill of ‘self-development’, but ironically meaning I would never arrive where I was to enjoy all of the fruits of my labour. (This is the nub of what Oliver Burkeman is alluding to in his excellent ‘time-management’ book, 4000 weeks, which you can read our summary of here)
I realised that I was meditating so that I could tick it off my list and get closer to my goal, and not actually to learn how to be in the moment, which is arguably the only and entire point of meditation! When every activity becomes something to tick off, nothing is worth anything anymore, and our lives end up drifting by as we are off elsewhere preparing ourselves for them to start.
(If you've read some of my other stuff you might be saying: wait a second, didn't he have this profound insight last year? To which the answer is: yes. Yes I did. And I will probably confront the uncomfortable truth of it many times again before I'm done with it. But the more we can really get in touch with how we are not living as we would like, the more likely we are to change, and that's precisely what a new year review is good for. Get off my back!)
NEW YEAR GOALS AND COMMITMENTS
Thanks to conducting the steps above, it was very obvious to me what needed to change. I definitely had to adopt a less is more mentality. And so I asked myself what I could take away whilst still moving meaningfully to where I want to be.
Rumi — 'Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.'
What I took away
The first thing I decided to strip way was alcohol. I will be doing a sober 2023. Having gone through a deep reflective process, I had to acknowledge the undeniable connection that the repeating cycles of positivity and negativity and my alcohol usage.
Either I would celebrate moments of success and connection with alcohol, thereby increasing my likelihood of sliding back into a state of lethargy and dejection; or, I would find relief in alcohol when the chips were down, only exacerbating the situation.
I also realised that I associated fun and - to an extent - happiness with alcohol. That sharing a drink with friends was the conceptual high point around which my life revolved, that I was working and even meditating through a lens of grave necessity, waiting for these brief moments where I could actually enjoy life. I realised, quite simply, I didn't want to get to the end of my life realising I'd never figured out how to love the smaller moments, because these moments are really what our lives are.
Thanks to the deep process that I went through in reflecting on the year just gone, the resolution has arisen quite effortlessly. It does not feel like some grand and solemn vow of self-abnegation, but rather a natural response to the trouble and difficulty which alcohol has brought to my life in the past. Something that I have grappled with quitting for my whole adult life has - for the moment at least - taken itself off quietly into the corner, aware that it has been seen in the full light of day and can no longer whisper its false comforts in my ear.
I’ve also made a commitment to checking my phone once a day. Again, thanks to my review, I could viscerally perceive how my inability to reach my goals and really enjoy the moment was so closely linked to my absolutely frazzled attention span.
I realised I had done very little deep work over the year, because I would turn to my phone in any moments of despondency or weariness, hoping for a little pick me up. Of course, mostly this would fail to materialise, and then, much as with alcohol, I would comfort myself for the disappointment I felt towards myself and my phone through more use of my phone. Great work, me!
And so, I've set my status on Whatsapp to say: ‘I check this once a day. Call me if anything urgent’ so that, now, I can’t convince myself that there is some secret emergency happening on my phone that demands I put down whatever it is I am doing and address it now.
What I added
Even my adding was a form of taking away, because I had added SO MUCH to my plate last year. Again, last year, I had eight goals! Eight!
Eight goals is absurd. It’s like doing one of those dances where you pat your head and rub your belly, while also balancing on one foot and putting your finger to your nose and reciting the alphabet backwards and winking on every third breath with alternate eyes. Or something like that.
This year, I have one goal. (What it is is actually a secret, but I'll give you a hint: it's about being committed to making High Existence as awesome as possible;))
Rather than thinking about every single thing that I wanted, and ending up with none of them, I took the time to feel into my deepest desires, to listen to what was really calling me, to recognise where the greatest opportunity was.
And so as with what I have stripped away, the goal has arisen almost of its own accord, dawning upon me like a slowly rising sun, not some desperate concoction fumbled together in the dark.
I've cheated a bit though by also having a theme for the year. Themes are different to goals because they're not about where you're heading. They're more like the mood that you want to keep returning to while you get there.
Themes are a hugely important part of a new year review. It is likely that, especially if you are conducting your first review, you will make all sorts of grand plans and commitments. Your magpie eye will be distracted by all kinds of shiny objects, which all seem achievable and aligned in the giddy, open possibility of the imagination.
But your mood will dip, your goals will shift and your time will compress along with your responsibilities, and it is at this point that you will need something to return to. Some stabilising force that can bring you back into alignment and remind you of the direction in which to put one foot after the other.
This is the purpose of a theme. It is your north star. It is both inspiring and accessible to you. It is clear but not limited. It is deeply aligned but also broad enough so that you know it will continue to be a point of orientation even as the more surface-level targets shift and bend.
Try to distil all of the insights you have gained from taking the steps above into a theme, and you will have an ever-ready support to living just as you intended.
My theme was simply connection, with a commitment to focus on the deeper wisdom of the heart, rather than the restless solutionising of the mind. It felt like the natural response to the year just gone, emerging, again, of its own accord.
In line with my commitment to simplifying and streamlining things, in practice what this looks like is a whole lot of metta, loving-kindness meditation. This basically involves sending good wishes to oneself and then outwards to others, in widening circles of inclusivity, from our nearest and dearest all the way out to our enemies, from our meditation cushion all the way out to the farthest reaches of the universe.
It is my hope that the metta can fill a hole that the alcohol and phone-use previously tried and failed to occupy. By treating the wound at its origin, I hope to heal the symptoms automatically.
If I've not already made it eye-rollingly clear, I want to stress again that these changes could never have even been attempted without this end-of-year review. We will wait to see how they unfold, but I know that the motivation I feel and the spontaneity and ease with which they have emerged is entirely because I took the time out to conduct this reflection.
I hope that reading this prompts you to do the same.
Are you ready to make this the year you finally become who you know you can be? Try our legendary self-development obstacle course, 30 Challenges to Enlightenment, designed to transform you into a more enlightened version of yourself.
Ronan is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, beauty and deepening human connection and community. His mission is to help people come alive to realise their deepest gifts.