Career Corner: To Plan for 2020, you need to look back on 2019. Here is how to do it.

As I write this I’m thinking about things I need to wrap up before the end of the year.   Have I kept a good record of my expenses and income? (Tax season is soon!).  Do I need to do some office cleaning – not just dusting, but discarding old files, papers, books, etc.?  (Both the physical ones and virtual ones!)  Are there colleagues that I’ve promised to connect with in the past year but failed to do so? Now might be a good time to plan a coffee with them in January.  Most importantly, did I live up to commitments or objectives that I made in 2019?

Evaluating the past year can be a precarious endeavor.   Many shy away from it, thinking that it will be a disheartening experience.  We all have at times fragile egos and going through a list of things we didn’t do but wanted to do can be emotionally fraught.

If we committed to sending out a specific number of resumes, or completing a certain number of applications and didn’t do so, what does that say about our commitment to change?  Maybe we have good reasons we didn’t get it done.  But good reasons are sometimes poor excuses.

Our goal should be setting a positive course for 2020.  If reviewing past efforts cause you to despair, then doing it is probably not a good thing.  However, we can only make a course correction when we recognize what we are correcting from.  And looking at the past is necessary to do that.

So here are some tips for thinking about the past year, and planning for 2020.

  1. Make sure that you are in a good place before you reflect on the past year. Don’t do it when you are tired, hungry, or dealing with other stress.   Put on some empowering music or find a meditative spot.   Give yourself enough time.  Make sure you are uninterrupted.
  2. Have paper and pen in hand. (I would not use a computer – might lead to surfing).  Make two simple columns — plus (“+”) and minus (“-“).  And objectively make lists of the things that went well and things that didn’t in the past year.  Sometimes you find that things will appear on both the plus and minus sides.  That’s okay.  Some experiences result in mixed outcomes.  For instance, attending a conference might have allowed you to make connections (“+”) but was much more expensive than you had planned (“-“).
  3. After you’ve done this, set it aside. Now do something else (preferably relaxing, enjoyable, or involving exercise).
  4. Come back to the list later: maybe a few days later. Look at the list again.   What changes would you make?  There are possibly some new items to add or revisions of some things required.
  5. Ask yourself: Are the things on the minus side still applicable? A priority a year ago may be irrelevant now. If something is still important, think about the impediments or obstacles that prevented you from accomplishing it?  The impediment or incorrect assumption you were operating under would need to be adjusted or corrected before you engage in that activity again in    For instance, maybe you had committed to scheduling three informational interviews per month, but either didn’t know enough people to meet with or didn’t have enough time.   If you recommit to informational interviews, you will need to identify more people in advance and find more time.  Otherwise, you will again not meet your goal.

    David J Smith — career coach, author, and Fulbrighter

  6. With items on the plus side, are they still relevant for 2020? If you committed to taking a course on webpage design and you did it, then it would not be on your 2020 list. What new things (remembering impediments, see #5 above) might you commit to?
  7. Now you are prepared to make your list of 2020. Think about both specific things you might need to do and more generalized perspectives or learning you might engage in.  Setting a numeric goal for applications is different than a general commitment to learning more about a specific field of work.  Both are valuable but have different ways of evaluation: one based on metrics, and the other based on an improved knowledge or comfort level (which might be hard to measure).
  8. Make sure your list of objectives and goals for 2020 is available to you all the time. Place the list on your refrigerator or integrate it into your online planner.  You must be reminded of what you committed to in multiple ways.
  9. Get to it but be prepared to make adjustments and changes as you work through it on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Changes are good.  They recognize your astuteness in seeing changes in your situation.   Adding new things to the list acknowledge that new opportunities or awareness should be incorporated into your thinking.
  10. Finally, quickly forgive yourself when you don’t meet a goal or objective. No one is giving you a grade for what you do.  And sometimes life necessitates making changes.

Last November 2018 I wrote about the need for reflection, and in December 2018 looked at planning for 2019.  Take a look at those pieces again.

Have a great new year, and best of luck with your career goals.

—David J. Smith

David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at He can reached at

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