Complete a Creative Annual Review to Improve Your Work

How to complete a Creative Annual ReviewYour boss makes you do an annual review at work to make sure you’re doing your best and constantly improving — why wouldn’t you want to complete a creative annual review for your own work?

Every December, I set aside several hours (generally spread out over several days) to complete a personal annual review and a creative annual review and set goals for the following year, based on Chris Guillebeau’s method. This year I’m incorporating methods from Robert Pozen’s Extreme Productivity to organize and prioritize my goals. I assess all aspects of my creative life — creative work, process, skills, relationships, business — for what went well and what could be improved.

(Article last updated December 2017)

(See my 2017 creative annual review, assessing my writing and illustration for the year and outlining changes to my work practice in 2018.)

Why complete a creative annual review process?

  • Refresh yourself on the creative work you completed over the past year, looking at it “from a distance” so you can see the body of work.
  • Recognize areas for improvement.
  • Appreciate how your work has changed and improved.
  • Accountability for your long-term goals and career aims.

Overview of the creative annual review process

  1. Review the previous year
  2. Set and prioritize objectives for the next year
  3. Set and prioritize tasks associated with each goal for the next year

Stage One: Complete a review of the previous year’s creative work

  1. Start with what went well and accomplishments. This always makes me feel good — I’ve always accomplished more than I thought. Looking through your work over the past year is a good refresher.
  2. Move into things that didn’t go well. Assess regrets from the previous year: what I wish I’d done more of and what I wish I’d done less of.
  3. If you had goals for the year, check in with them to see how you did. It can be interesting to see how your priorities change over a year (or a quarter, if you do quarterly reviews).
  4. Take a step back and identify a theme for the year in your creative life, encompassing your creations, practice, and reputation/exposure.

(Check out my guide to how writers can use self-assessment to improve, and my own writing self-critique.)

Next, you’ll take your review of the past year to build your goals for the next year (and beyond).

Stage Two: Set creative goals for the next year

Hand in hand with review of the past is goal-setting for the future. I work my way through a few steps to identify and refine specific goals.

Step One: gather all possible goals, actions, and dreams

In the first step, you’re going to gather a massive list of all your possible goals and tasks for the next year, along with new dreams you have for the future. I use my annual review as a launchpad for brainstorming these possibilities.

Review what didn’t go well in your creative work the previous year

I start with my just-completed annual review (see a detailed self-assessment I did in 2016 for fiction writing and graphic design or my 2017 creative annual review) and revisit why some things didn’t work out.

For issues with your creations, figure out what’s lacking. For example, I feel like I’m good at photographic composition, and reasonably good at post-processing, but I lack the technical abilities to capture the image I want in the field. One of my goals is to improve my technical skill at photography — later in the goal-setting process, I’ll identify steps to take to achieve that goal.

For issues with your process, consider what you could do differently in future similar situations. For example, I feel like I didn’t follow through enough on a volunteer graphic design project I did; on reflection, I over-committed myself during a time of year I’d rather be spending my free time outside than working on a project for someone else (summer). So in the future, I might hold off on taking projects during the summer, or set looser schedules. You could also consider tools, like self-tracking, that might help you improve your process.

Check in on the previous year’s unachieved creative goals

Check in on goals for previous year and see whether the goals I didn’t achieve are still desirable and feasible.

Review your someday/maybe list

See if past ideas warrant getting pushed up onto the coming year’s list.

Revisit long-term dreams and big picture items

Check in on your bigger goals for the next several years or your creative ‘life list’. (See my life design process for identifying priorities and choosing life hotspots.)

Step Two: Organize your goals and tasks by timeframe

handwritten notes for creative annual review process

Some of my handwritten notes on creative tasks and objectives for 2013. On the right, I’ve started dividing my list into objectives and associated targets.

You should now have a (long) list of everything you want to accomplish in your creative life over the next year (and probably longer).

Pozen’s technique has you classify each item identified in step 1 as either a career aim (long term goal, 5 year range, broadest goal), objective (general step towards achieving a career aim, 6 month – 2 year range) or task (specific activity to achieve an objective, short time range). You’ll probably have a blend; I wound up with a lot of tasks, quite a few objectives, and just a couple career aims.

For example, one of my career aims is to earn a name for myself as a graphic designer. An objective that will help me earn a name for myself is to improve my graphic design skills. One task towards improving my graphic design skills is designing a document for letterpress printing.

assign tasks to objectives assigned to your top priorities

Achieving your career aims: developing objectives and assigning tasks

To divide the career aims from the objectives and the objectives from the tasks, I set up a document with several two-column tables. Each career aim had its own table. In the left-hand column of the table, I placed objectives that belonged to that career aim. Then I put all the targets for that objective in the right hand column.

Creative career aims, supporting objectives and associated tasks, developed through creative annual review process.

My main creative career aims in 2013, along with supporting objectives and associated tasks. They have not yet been prioritized.

I found that I listed objectives that didn’t seem to belong to any of my career aims, and targets that didn’t seem to belong to any of my objectives. At this point, don’t worry about ‘floating’ targets (or consider whether they’re actually objectives). But do fit objectives to a career aim — create new aims if need be.

Step Three: Prioritizing your objectives

In this step, you get to ignore the tasks and focus on the objectives. Give each objective a priority ranking on a scale from 1 to 5 in terms of its importance, using the following steps as a guideline:

  1. Consider how effective each objective is for achieving your career aim in terms of effort/cost and impact. How much work will it take, and how well will it advance your long-term goals?
  2. I want to make sure I’m doing the right things — and a good check is figuring out the Why to your list of Whats. Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul recommends assessing your justification for each of your goals to ensure you’re working towards what you want, not what you think others want. Consider whether you want to achieve each goal for yourself or because you feel it’s expected of you or what you “should” do.
  3. Which objectives do you want to complete? Which excite you most?

Try to choose your top three to four objectives as projects to pursue for the coming year (or first quarter, as appropriate). You can check in on those next quarter if you’ve finished the top ranked objectives. Lowest priority objectives can go on your “Someday/Maybe” list.

Step Four: Make objectives measurable

Now I have a rough prioritized list of what I’d like to accomplish — but these might be loose objectives like “improve my technical photography skill”. To realistically achieve this objective, I need to make the objective measurable (defined enough that you can check it off). Refine each objective to include a standard that will allow you to say you’ve accomplished it. You will need to be specific.

For example, I might refine my objective “improve my technical photography skill” to “learn how to use graduated filters to photograph landscapes.”

Phase Three: Choose Tasks and Habits to Accomplish Your Creative Objectives

Step One: Identify specific action items for each Objective

Next, identify concrete tasks you can complete towards achieving each objective. You probably already have some tasks assigned to each objective, but you might need to add more.

You can also use creative habits to help you achieve your objectives. See how I used process goals and habits to push for the major objective of finishing the first draft of my novel (second half of linked article).

Step Two: Rank your tasks

Rank each objective’s tasks in terms of effort / cost and impact. Just like in step three, consider which you want to do, and which will best help you in reaching your objective.

Prioritize your top three or four tasks for each objective.

Step Three: Make your tasks measurable

Your tasks are probably already measurable, but if they’re not, adjust them as you did with the objectives in step four. What you probably haven’t done yet is assign due dates for each task. You may want to use Guillebeau’s spreadsheet (downloadable from this page) to track your tasks and target dates.

Step Four: Choose a theme for the year

Looking at the objectives and targets that you prioritized, set a theme that summarizes your creative dreams for the coming year. In the past, I’ve had “Year of Exploration and Creation,” “Year of Reputation,” and “Year of Intake.”

Recap of the Creative Annual Review Process

You’re finished with your creative annual review! At this point, you should have:

  1. Your review of the prior year’s creative ups and downs.
  2. Your measurable, prioritized creative objectives and tasks for the coming year.
  3. A list of someday/maybe creative objectives (and tasks) that are lower priority.

In a couple months, you can check in with your objectives to make sure you’re on track and reassess tasks. While I used to do quarterly check-ins, more recently I’ve done weekly progress reports (for my novel revision) and monthly reviews to keep myself on track.

What else do you do to keep on track with your creative goals? Do you complete a creative annual review process — if so, how is it different from my approach?




About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

4 thoughts on “Complete a Creative Annual Review to Improve Your Work

  1. Tracy, just wanted to say you thank you for this article. I’ve been working on an internal design team for 2 years now and since we’ve grown I’ve identified the strong need for a concrete goal setting, tracking and review process not only for me personally, but for the team I work on. This will be a great starting point for me.

    Thanks again,

  2. Pingback: A Writer's Critical Self-EvaluationCascadia Inspired

  3. Its a very useful coloumn for us(Graphic Designers) as we generally always busy in making designs , adaptations so we actually dont focus on goal setting or probably dont know how to set goals. This is very very helpful as there are many things very clearin this which were in our mind but we never jotted down sso nicely.

    Again thank you for such anwoderful article.
    Design Manager

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