The Making of the Personal Review: Behind the Scenes

Earlier, I just released a personal review. I try to do these every three months to give my life some direction and continue to strive for something. These reviews, and the broader effective altruism movement in which I operate, together give my life a lot of purpose.

Some people have asked me how I make these personal reviews. I’m here to tell you. I like my workflow a lot and it works well for me, but I’m not endorsing this as the “best way” to create a personal review, and other things might be better / more efficient, or work better / more efficiently for you in particular.

Really Quick Summary

  • I have goals.
  • I track time in Google Calendar.
  • I use GTimeReport to export my Google Calendar for the desired date horizon.
  • I go through my time report and combine things into categories.
  • I publish those categories and compare them against my goals.

Having Goals

The first step to writing a personal review is having goals you want to review your progress against. Putting some thought into this is important.

Some people will tell you that it’s not important to have goals.

…Zen Habits says the best goal is no goal. Maybe that works for him, and it’s not like he isn’t accomplished. But he found goals to get in his way. I like goals.

…Some say to focus on systems (daily processes that get you closer to your goals) instead of goals – I think this is mostly right, which is why I focus on systems a lot. But I don’t forget the goals; the reasons why the systems are there in the first place.

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But many people don’t yet have goals. They yearn to do something, but they don’t have a goal.

So the first goal is to get some goals. But where to start?

  • Do more of what you enjoy: Maybe you want to make time to practice guitar or learn computer programming, but are having trouble fitting it into your schedule? Maybe you want to excercise? Commit to doing more!

  • Do less of what you dislike: Maybe you want to cut down on junk food, or lose weight? Maybe you want to oversleep less or hold less grudges? You can work to eliminate the negative in your life.

Tracking Time

I personally track every minute of my day with Google Calendar. My calendar ends up looking like this:

Scheduled day

This allows me to plan for what I want to do and record what I actually did all in the same place, which is very convenient for me.

But there are other ways to track your time. You could track time spent on goals directly in Beeminder. Toggl also looks nice.

Exporting and Compiling a Log

At the end of your review period, you can then compile how well you did on your goals and compare them to how well you wanted to do. Toggl and Beeminder both let you see your totals pretty easily.

Google is less easy – I did my first review by hand, but then I discovered GTimeReport to export my Google Calendar for the desired date horizon. GTimeReport makes an Excel Spreadsheet that I can then tabulate into goal-related categories. There are other Google Calendar export services as well.

Reflect!

The last step is to reflect on why you succeeded or failed.

If you succeeded – congratulations! – how are you going to repeat, and build upon, your success?

If you failed – sorry to hear that – how are you going to avoid failure in the future? Was your goal just too hard, or were you missing an important system to prevent yourself from failing?

Be honest with yourself, but kind. Work out ways to do better.