Why You Should Write Next Year's Performance Review Now

If your workplace is like most, December brings two rituals: a Secret Santa gift exchange, and that awkward conversation known as the year-end performance review. You sit down with your boss and discuss what you've spent the 2000 hours a full-time worker puts in annually doing. You discuss what you should do better.

It's simple enough, and so the practice is widespread, though it has its critics; Samuel Culbert of the UCLA Anderson School of Management called the performance review a dysfunctional pretense in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, and wrote a whole book, Get Rid of the Performance Review!, calling for its demise.

In many cases, this "prime cause of low morale at work," as Culbert put it, is a waste of time. But the concept of a year-end review, if tweaked slightly, can actually be an incredible time saving tool. At least that's what I've discovered from interviews with high-performing men and women. These people seem to manufacture accomplishments. A key reason is that they know, in any given year, what they intend to do.

One easy way to get your head around that? Write next year's performance review now.
Yes, even though it's still 2010, there are three reasons to conjure up what you'd like to be saying at this time next year.

  1. A prospective review forces you to identify what matters. In every line of work, there are certain accomplishments that everyone agrees are a Big Deal, and would make for an excellent year. In my profession, landing a book contract is pretty exciting. Maybe for you it's bringing in a major new client, getting a grant, developing the marketing plan for a new drug, or figuring out a way to trim production costs by 10 percent. At the end of next year, you want to be sure you have a good answer to the question of what you've actually done with your time. Writing your review now keeps you focused on the goal.
  2. A prospective review also reminds you what doesn't matter. Unless you're providing email customer service, you probably won't write "I answered all my emails within 2 minutes" as a big win for the year. Yet how many of us spend hours at work each day staying on top of email, as if that's how we'll ultimately be judged? Emails, meetings, phone calls and such are all tools to do our work. They are seldom the actual work itself, even if they provide an easy sense of accomplishment.
  3. A a prospective review teaches us how to create effective schedules. Ultimately, productivity is about advancing toward our goals at the level we live life: one hour at a time.
So look at the 2-3 major accomplishments you want to list in the review. Then start breaking them down into smaller steps. If you're looking to land a new client, for instance, one task might be to figure out anyone you know who knows somebody who works there. Get that on your calendar, and boot something else, if necessary. After all, if it's not important enough for your year-end review, it's probably not a top priority -- and should take less of your time than it currently does.

What do you hope to list in your 2011 review?

Laura Vanderkam, a New York City-based journalist, is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). Her previous book, Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues, was selected by the New York Post as one of four notable career books of 2007. She is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors.
Image courtesy of Flickr contributor Kristian D.