I’ve gathered together a handful of resources here on yearly reviews and setting new years goals. …Just in time for everyone to have wrapped up their new years reflections. Oh well, better late than never, right?
These aren’t particularly cohesive or polished. I recommend you skim through and take the most relevant ones for your situation.
Theory of change
If you’re not familiar with the concept, a theory of change is your best guess at the concrete steps required to cause the change you want to see in the world.
I have a pet theory that the key to becoming a high-impact EA is to develop a theory of change, use that to guide your efforts to build a better model of the topic, and then update your theory of change with your new information. Repeat, throw in some exploration, take care with epistemics, and you’re moving toward high-impact.
I don’t feel like restarting from scratch, so here are some previous resources on the topic:
- Spreadsheet template for making your own theory of change.
- Post on holding a theory of change loosely as a hypothesis that you test and iterate on.
- Post on why you should build models if you want to have a theory of change that actually works.
- Post with a good example of a theory of change from someone who already has a deep model of the topic.
- Post with a section of examples of theories of change.
One big caveat is that I don’t think my previous writing has emphasized enough how much iteration is necessary for good theories of change. Yes, you should be making theories of change right now. But your theories are going to be bad if you’re early in your career or you don’t know an area super well. Get more info and iterate. If this feels hard, reading about lean methodology might help. I liked The Lean Startup best so far. I recently heard good recommendations for The Phoenix Project, Working Backwards, and Sprint (I haven’t had a chance to check these out yet, but might update this later after I do.)
Check your trajectory
A yearly review is a good time to check that you’re on a good trajectory. (Think, “Where do I want to be in five years? Where am I going to be in five years based on my current trajectory?)
Note, I don’t think you necessarily need to spend five years. A lot of the time, you can aim for a much faster trajectory by cutting out all of the bullshit and using better learning methods. Perhaps ask yourself something along the lines of “Could I reach that goal in six months? What would I need to do to make that happen?”
(This feels particularly relevant to me right now, because I want to be building towards expertise. In five years, I want to have a sound body of knowledge and skills that I can leverage for high-impact opportunities. Clearly visualizing possible futures and Backchaining to what I need to be doing now feels important for that.)
Start with brainstorming a bunch of things you could do, based on talking with people and ideas for what are potentially impactful theories of change.
Tips for brainstorming:
- Spread brainstorming out. Setting a 5- or 20-minute timer to do a focused brainstorm is good. But really you probably want to think about it, let your brain do other things, and then come back over the course of a few days (at least). Having a notebook or somewhere you jot down ideas on the fly is good.
- If you already know what your big focus will be, you should still consider at least one alternative goal. Otherwise you’re probably framing your goal too narrowly and might miss better opportunities to accomplish your big focus.
- If you’re not sure what your focus will be – maybe you’re contemplating a big change or deciding what your next big step will be – then it’s a good idea to brainstorm 15-100 ideas. These ideas will probably overlap heavily, include a lot of bad ideas you can cut immediately, and probably include some impossible ideas. That’s all fine. You’re not trying to come up with 100 good options; you’re trying to shake up your thinking and find novel ideas. That way, when you narrow down your list, the top 5-10 are probabilistically more likely to include some really good ideas. Don’t get paralyzed by decisions here. Start looking for the top few ideas in your list, and let go of the lesser ones for now. You can come back to them later if you get new information that makes them seem better.
Once you have a big list o’ ideas, spend a while prioritizing them. I recommend using some of these questions and taking inspiration from a couple of these hamming questions.
Also do some more rapid testing! This little draft from a while back is probably relevant:
Once you have your theories to test, you want to reduce uncertainty at the fastest possible rate. (See also this post on lean startup approach to early-stage research or any of the lean resources in the theory of change section.)
Basically, that looks like using the cheapest tests possible to reduce uncertainty on your key questions. Cheap tests require the least effort, time, or other resources to reduce your uncertainty.
Second, get your hands dirty quickly. You want to move beyond theorizing and actually test your hypotheses as quickly as possible.
If you have one idea that seems better than the others, you probably want to test that. If it seems promising, you keep going. If not, then you try something else.
If you have multiple options that all seem comparably good, then you probably want to try them all a little bit. Imagine you have five ideas that you’re highly uncertain about. You only try the first idea and it’s okay, but you never discovered that the fourth idea was awesome. That feels pretty bad.
Here you want to at least give them all a little shot, but don’t get sidetracked. Your goal is almost never to do them all. Your goal is to reduce uncertainty about which one to make a bigger commitment to. If you’re thinking “but what about flexible career capital?” -- you often want to keep options open, so it can be good to choose plans that leave you freedom to change later. But that doesn’t mean you’re not trying to make any commitments.
Instead, make commitments proportional to how much certainty you have. The more your guess is actually a guess, the smaller your test. For many tests, ideally you could reduce uncertainty in a week. That may seem fast - it’s really not unusually fast. You can try something out, and have a better idea of what to try next in a week. After you’ve already tested something over several increasingly-long iterations and it seems especially promising, only then might it make sense to commit for a year or more.
Complice Goal Crafting Intensives
Probably my most often recommended New Year’s goal setting resource is the Goal Crafting Intensive events. They are five-hour semi-structured online workshops. It is hands down the most structured, comprehensive set of resources for goal setting I’ve found. There are also a group of coaches live on slack to message for questions or encouragement.
I did the workshop several times (both as a participant and coach) and found it quite helpful.
Year Review Templates
These are generally best if you want a general set of prompts to review all areas of your life, including ones you might overlook normally.
The classic template is Alex Vermeer’s 8,760 Hours. It has a variety of prompts, but the central focus is twelve “life areas” to review and plan for. (Similar alternatives: Daniel Kestenholz’s review questions, Peter Slattery’s spreadsheet.)
Ben Todd’s review template wins for most resources and questions. I found his more start-upy and EA than the others.
Personally, I really liked Victoria Krakovna’s life review as an example/template. It feels easier and more approachable than some of the others.
There's a number of books out there arguing that setting goals is doomed, and what people really need are habits. Great habits will solve all your problems.
I'm pretty sure that's overstating the case for habits. (Relatedly, I keep wanting to write a fiction story post about a person who comes to a coach confused about how they're not getting anything done despite having perfect habits - meditation, exercise, sleeping well, eating well, etc. In the end, it turns out they're spending all their time on habits with none left over to make progress on their actual work.)
That said, I don't think the habits books are overstating their case much more than most self-help books. Good habits are the foundation for getting a lot done. If you already have decent habits, I'd probably recommend you focus on output instead of spending most of your time optimizing habits. (If that's you, check out the efficiency audit section.)
If you have terrible habits, I recall The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg being a good starting place. If you want to put a bit more work into making habits sustainable, my post on reinforcing habits gives you broad pointers. Scott Young has an easy little post on habits vs projects.
From “The Great CEO Within” by Matt Mochary
It is important to maximize your energy. You perform best when you are doing things that energize you. Your goal should be to spend most of your time (75-80%) doing things that energize you. If you do, magic will occur.
Get two highlighters, pens, or pencils of different colors (red and green are ideal, but any will do). Print out the last week of your calendar when you were working. Go through each workday hour-by-hour and ask yourself “Did that activity give me energy or drain my energy?” Highlight in green those that gave you energy, and in red those that drained your energy. There are no neutrals, every hour must be marked one color or the other.
When finished, look for patterns of where and how your energy is drained. Now think of ways to outsource or eliminate those activities.
Keep doing this Energy Audit each month until 75% or more of your time is spent doing things that give you energy. If you do, you will be able to achieve far more in less time. Because you will perform far better. You will be in your Zone of Genius.
I often get clients who want to improve their efficiency, to get more done per hour of work. I’ve developed this process to meet two challenges to improving efficiency*:
- I don’t know what their biggest efficiency problems are. Most people learned their day-to-day processes by chance. They tried to do something or were taught one way. It got the job done, and they never revisited it. Since there was little trial and error, there are usually inefficient methods hidden in these systems. But because the specific blind spots differ by job and person, there isn’t a generalizable checklist of most common inefficiencies.
- Trial and error takes a lot of time and attention. I don’t want my clients’ new full-time job to be optimizing their process – I want them to be accomplishing their object-level goals!
My solution is to do a week or so of intense evaluation, then set it aside and go back to focusing on output. This approach was partially inspired by Tara MacAulay:
I think a lot of time-tracking stuff was helpful, but only for a very short period of time. I can get myself to do it for three, four days with a lot of detail, and I can't stick to it for more than that. So I just do that maybe every six to twelve months and get an update. And usually when I do that I try varying a whole bunch of things: like how much caffeine I have, how much sleep I have, I just track everything about my life. I track my mood 10 times a day, I track my productivity level about 10 times a day, and record all of it, and then spend a bunch of time analyzing the data to try and see if there are other things I could tweak.
- Spend a week evaluating what you spend time on. It can be useful to combine this with a week intensely tracking your time. Particularly look for areas you do repeatedly or where you spend a lot of time (increasing efficiency on things you do a lot saves you the most time). Email is a common one for most people. Writing, literature reviews, note taking, thinking time are common areas for researchers. Etc.
- Spend some time trying to identify more efficient methods. You could try:
- reading how-to books/blogs on the topic
- asking colleagues/friends who you think do it particularly well (tips here and here for getting the most value out of interviews)
- trying to work backwards from experts/good examples to see what they do differently
- trying out a few different approaches
- paying attention to each step and looking for ways to improve
- deliberate practice (great example of deliberate practice applied to literature searches)
- Spend some time trying out the most promising ideas you came up with.
…Sorry, these instructions are kind of vague. My internal process is just “hear the topic and ideas pop to the surface.” I feel like The Lean Startup, Five Whys, How to Measure Anything, Essentialism, The Motivation Hacker, and How to Become a Straight-A Student might have been some of the sources that fed into my subconscious idea generator.
Setting “themes” or “seasons” instead of goals
I’m a big fan of concrete goals – clean, crisp plans around what I need to prioritize is super motivating. However, I’ve come across a few alternatives to setting goals that seem intriguing.
One such idea of having a “theme” instead of specific goals. Instead of “read one book a week”, make this the “year of reading” and nudge yourself in that direction.
For me personally, I’m pretty sure this would work out worse. However, I often come across clients who struggle with how strictly to abide by the letter of their goals.
Maybe they said “read one book a week,” but what if they want to listen to the 66-hour audiobook of the Power Broker? I’m all for relaxing the strict wording and giving themselves a couple weeks. So…I clearly have an internal sense of how and when to relax the concrete goal in order to better pursue the underlying motivation.
That last bit is key. I’m strongly against dropping goals willy-nilly. I’m strongly pro changing goals if you get more information pointing you toward something better. Concrete goals are for a purpose. If there is a better way to reach that purpose, then change the goal. (With some caveats -- if you have a habit of changing goals all the time, maybe consider sticking them out and then thinking more carefully next time. Man, “when and how to change your goal” is clearly a tacit knowledge area – I’m having a hard time defining the rules.)
So, if you’re being limited (rather than focused) by having concrete goals, maybe themes or seasons could help you pursue the overarching purpose. I could also see seasons working for maintenance goals or counter goals.
(Maintenance goals: goals that you use to make sure you're not dropping important life areas, even if you’re not trying to change the status quo there. Counter goals: goals that you set so that you're not goodharting on some other goal.)
Damon Pourtahmaseb-Sasi has an example of his experience trying out seasons here.
I'd be extremely interested in write-ups of alternatives to The Lean Start-Up, which I found valuable but also badly dated, with a lot of room for improvement.