For me, an annual review is an evaluative narrative reflection on the past year and year ahead. Basically an annual review is a way for me to take account on the broad outlines of the positive’s and negative’s from the past year and set some intentions for the year ahead.
Overall and once again, I am extremely grateful for my previous year and the previous previous years before that. 2022 was another positive year for me. I had the opportunity to work on a range of creative projects and I continue to embrace challenge and growth. I stayed healthy and was surrounded by supportive relationships. The dips were relatively shallow and I remain optimistic and energized. My creative and productive northstar remains seeking and cultivating flow and, while my yearly projects and goals shift over a year in time, prioritizing my days around focused work on hard challenges that tend induce deep engagement and my best creative output continues to be beneficial.
Even though it’s been a couple years since I last did a public annual review, I decided to return to the format. For this year’s annual review, I will again focus on reflecting and answering three questions:
- What went well this year?
- What didn’t go so well this year?
- What am I working toward?
Additionally I’ll share briefly what I consider an annual or yearly review and how I think about and undertake mine.
QUICK NOTE: What is an Annual Review? How to do a Year-in-Review?
Before diving into my actual annual review itself, let me share my approach, general mindset and questions I use.
Reflection? I position my annual review as a deeper reflection moment, and it is part of a broader system I use around goal management and self-tracking, two topics I have written on extensively. Even though a yearly review is largely something I do for me alone, it’s still a chance to tell a story with an audience since I might share it with friends or look back on what I wrote as a future self. The social dimension in any reflection should not be negated or forgotten. While I do bring in data, especially in the early stages, I consider an annual review more like a a social conversation with myself about what I noticed in last year and what I want to care/focus/prioritize in years ahead.
Where’s the data? Data rarely tells a story by itself. Data visualizations and charts using my self-tracking data are useful and really set the frame in which I consider any time period, but data (as most data folks like data scientists will tell you) doesn’t just tell a story. Personal data should be positioned to provide evidence to backup and contextualize the specific story or argument one plans to deliver. Ironically sometimes it’s a photo or a memory that can provide a powerful reminder about what mattered or stood out over a previous year.
What are the core steps? For me an annual review is a form of reflective goal setting and personal identity storytelling. Mentally it is a two-step process: first, I look back (ideally using data when possible) and, second, I look forward. From my review, notes, and data-driven reflections I then try and summarize and “storify” it all. Some years I’ve kept my annual review internal and personal, while others I’ve published it and included a few photos and thoughts. I recently stumbled into re-reading the public ones and honestly the forced context of a public sharing really improved the end product so I figured I’d leverage that for this latest release. Looking back I wish I had stuck with doing these annual reviews in the intervening years.
Template and Core Questions: Even though there are many questions possible and different yearly review templates, I still find my original questions to be good choices. Here are the questions I ask:
- What went well this past year?
- What didn’t go so well this year?
- What am I working towards?
The first two questions cover the year before and the last one for the year to come. All three ask me to notice, select, summarize and evaluate. All three deploy aspects of mindfulness, cognitive attention and a certain rationalization that I find valuable.
With that approach in mind, let’s get started.
What went well this year?
Released my first music album: I wrote, produced and released my first music album! Take Life Chill by Stellar Mammals is an ambient, chill release with cinematic and soundscape vibes. Amongst all the professional and personal work products of the last year, the release of this album stands out. I took up musical doodling at the start of COVID-19 pandemic and over time my learning and output steadily improved. I really enjoyed just listening to sounds and creating collections that went well together. I created a lot of crap (think hundreds of demos) but amongst the suck-y stuff I found 6 or 7 songs I felt good about and spent a month or so finishing and releasing. Music production is definitely time consuming but finding flow in the doing and finishing to share were both rewarding stages. I can’t wait to share my next songs and upcoming album release. Give Stellar Mammals a listen on on all platforms including Spotify and Apple Music. If you want to support my music journey and upcoming release, please purchase the full release on my bandcamp page:https://stellarmammals.bandcamp.com/.
Consistent Exercise and Sleep: Even though I’ve tracked my sleep for years, this past year I was actually a period where I become much more self-aware about amount of sleep that I need. I stayed more consistent on getting enough sleep and exercise almost every day. In fact, according my sleep logs, I even increased my nightly sleep average from 7h15 to nearly 7h30!
Designed, Built and Released 4 Web Products: I shipped four new web products in last year. Professionally my “product” work spans UX research, design, product management and software engineering. After a couple years mostly in one or two of these dimensions either as a software developer, PM, or UX designer, it was great to be present and deliver value across all of these roles and areas. I love shipping product so companies (including my own) can move forward. It’s a joy to see new marketing sites, clinical trial software and other customer-facing web products get born.
A Year of Intermittent Fasting: My big health and longevity change in 2022 was skipping breakfast and starting intermittent fasting. Caloric restriction and fasting are widely documented as one of the most beneficial longevity and health practices we can do. In the past I’ve leveraged longer fasts of 36 to 56 hours or more as a deeper health reset. Intermittent Fasting (IF) takes a more manageable approach towards increasing your daily fasting window, i.e. when you don’t eat, so your body has ample time to process what you ate. As I documented in How to Develop a Fasting Habit: Behavior change and tracking my progress with Zero, I used a bit of tech to manage my initial habit change. Eventually I’ve come to see intermittent fasting as a good way to manage when and how much I eat. It gives me less to manage in the morning and I like my cognitive and overall energy levels I experience now in the mornings.
Digital Marketing: Hacked Traction and Grew Customers: After years and years building products without customers, I’ve leaned into traction building and digital marketing in recent years. 2022 saw my best numbers on several personal and client projects in a range of industries from BioTech to Travel and leveraging different traction channels and iterative approaches. I’m a huge believer in data-driven iterative growth marketing and traction dashboards for growing businesses at any stage. It’s incredible to see brand new products and services go from zero customers to thousands of subscribers and hundreds of initial sales.
Travels: Sailed to Catalina and Visited Family in DC: After a decade and half living and traveling abroad, COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns gave me a chance to enjoy just being somewhere, namely in my case Southern California. Being so close to the beach and great year-round weather makes it a hard place leave. That said, 2022 gave me some amazing travel experiences including beautiful coastal trip from Humboldt County and Redwoods, sailing to Catalina (and scuba diving!) and a wonderful family trip to New York and Washington, D.C.
58 Books Read: I’ve come to recognize the benefits of reading as not just learning but as a way to cultivate attention and relaxation. I think the key is making it a habit and having a selection of 3-5 books to dive into at any one time. Check out my 2022 year in book review for some recommendations and thoughts.
Besides these, here are three more shorter things I’m appreciative of:
- Flow / Spent My Time Well
- Reliable Organizational and Time Management Routines
- Great, intelligent and passionate collaborators
What didn’t go so well this year?
I tend to be a “glass half full” kind of guy so in reviewing my year I struggle to immediately recognize what didn’t go well. That said, by thinking and reflecting on the hard stuff and ignored challenged, I tend to see areas for greater understanding and personal growth. So what sucked or didn’t go well this last year?
Exercise Injuries: I once again suffered a couple of bodily setbacks. In fact, I managed to sprain both of ankles in the span of 2-3 weeks leading to a long recovery. Fortunately I had some alternative activities like canoe-ing and cycling but it was hard to have such a setback after only a couple months of running and training. Looking forward I should prioritize running and exercise readiness with regular stretching and strength training.
Lack of Traction from Startup Project Partners: After a long exploratory design period, it was exciting to get early traction with one or two partners on running a pilot for a product I had been building. After a couple months of designing and building for one particular partner, sadly the collaborative pilot was essentially “scraped” by our startup partner. Even though it was unexpected in the broader context of tech layoffs, this was unfortunate for us and honestly was pretty depressing. We hadn’t read our partner’s intention as well as we thought and ended up with a lot of feature and dev work that may not fit with others. I’m glad we pursued these partnerships but I would benefited from de-risking earlier and signing something more binding with the partner, before we committed so much time, money and resources.
Upset Neighbors: After living abroad from over 15 years, it’s been a new experience to live and work in the United States again. Even though I’ve internationalized and speak 3 foreign languages, I’m still culturally an “American.” This past year (for specific reasons I’ll leave out) I had several difficult interactions with some of my neighbors. Every neighborhood has its challenges and, in spite of doing my best to be a positive, conscientious neighbor, I still managed to piss of a few neighbors. I really wish we could all live together harmoniously but sadly some people seem to get joy out the suffering of others or attempting to dictate how others should live. I don’t regret putting myself out there but it still hurts to be criticized for mostly personal preference reasons on “how the neighborhood should be.” So it goes.
Managing Expectations on Personal/Client Products: Arguably my biggest challenge as a product developer is managing expectations and progress over time with external clients and partners. As a technologist and designer I can craft pretty impressive opportunities and features, but I sometimes struggle to get stakeholder buy-in, especially in terms of budgets and deadlines. This means I end up overpromising and underdelivering. As I work on new and existing projects, I want to strive to setup realistic plans and goals before we get stuck building on a limited budget for a creeping scope. Ultimately, I need to articulate more clearer that we all get on the same page and have the time, resources and money to build what is needed and is most valuable for all.
Not Enough Time Offline, Being Present: As my time logs from 2022 indicated, this past year was pretty heavily centered on project work and a good deal of reading too. The extent of my deliverables really show how reliably and consistently I showed up and delivered value. Fortunately I largely stayed out stressful firefighter mode. That said, looking back I feel like I didn’t have enough moments enjoying just being present. Whether it was at the beach or sitting in nature, I really want to allow my body, mind and being to enjoy more offline time, sitting patiently.
What am I working toward?
Shipping Product: I continue to believe that shipping product through design, research and building are essential for a combination of “paying the bills” and feeling a positive life momentum in my own life. If I show up daily in some capacity as a product person and deliver value that moves my products forward, I can generally assume I’m doing the right kinds of things. So I should continue to ask myself: Did I work on product today? If not, why not? If so, was it the most valuable product area to make progress?
Finding and Capturing Customer Value via Marketing Experiments: Having spent nearly a decade building web and mobile app products, I’ve shipped multiple products with no customers. Though I might get paid for what I built, it’s deeply dissatisfying to build something without customers. Over the last 4 or 5 years I’ve had several opportunities to expand my product builder role into a product marketing role. Through several startups (including two or three in Biotech and Health) and several established companies, I’ve learn to “hack traction” and grow customers and sales. Even if marketing isn’t only job, I still want to continue to “think like a marketer” and remind myself that before we can build a good product, we need customers that are looking for the value we are building.
Keep Writing and Producing Music: Music production is one of my favorite hobbies and passion projects. I’ve recently written and produced several new songs. So for 2023, my music achievement goals are 1.) Complete my second album, 12-15 songs) and 2.) Distributing/selling some beats (10-25 / yr) through different platforms. Beyond any specific target, I want to keep learning new instruments, developing production techniques (like recording vocals), and keep trying new music genres. At the end of the year if I spent 3-5 hours on music per week I’ll be happy and likely will have something to share too.
Spend More Time in the Water: Even though I live a short walk to the beach and ocean, I sadly don’t jump in and swim as often as I should. At least once the weather improves, I’d like to go swimming 2-3 times every week and strive to do 5-10 scuba diving days this year.
Externalizing My Learning: A couple years ago I completely reorganized how I took notes and managed learning over time. Inspired by a book on taking smart notes, I integrated a few different tools to build a kind of “second brain” which I documented in The Plain Text Life: Note Taking, Writing and Life Organization Using Plain Text Files. I’m a huge fan of this approach where I take notes from books, articles and academic papers and then process them into smart notes and eventually blog posts, presentations and book chapters. Unfortunately, even though I’ve learned tons in last year, I’ve not been as consistent on externalizing my learning. So one objective for the year ahead is to share out what I’ve learned in books and projects through my blog and book writings. Whether it’s biology of aging, product development, philosophy or some other topic, by externalizing my learning I not only instantiate what I am learning but I get to give something to others too.
More Regular and More Abundant Creative Writing: In looking back on my time usage from mid-2021 to end of 2022, I was disappointed to notice that I hadn’t spent much time writing. I admittedly had managed to build products, start a business or two and even release a music album, but as a long-time writer and blogger, I’d like to get back into the habit of writing just for writing and hopefully trying to share more completed posts and chapters too. For example, I have several half-finished posts on goals, growth hacking and learning music production I hope to spend more time writing and releasing soon. Let’s make writing a more regularly thing!
That’s it for my year in review. All in all it was a great year. Admittedly not everything went perfectly and there were setbacks and disappointments. Many of the things I hoped would be successful didn’t quite go as planned. I continue to strive to be a meaning creator and builder in my own life and world. What matters is the act of creativity, rather than expecting success, popularity or uptake. Who knows what the next year holds? Personally, I can’t wait to start executing on these intentions and continue to learn and evolve.