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Writing better self reviews

November 2, 2020

Writing self reviews can be hard. For a lot of people, talking about themselves and their accomplishments feels a lot like bragging. Or it might just be hard to remember things that happened a few months ago. Or sometimes people are unsure what the expectations are for a review, and don't know what should be included to maximize their growth.

I've been lucky to have had a string of great managers in my career who helped me think more clearly about the self review and gave me tips to write them more effectively. Here are things I've learned that not only make self reviews easier to write, but have also led directly to raises and promotions.

Impact over volume of work

It's so tempting to write a self review that lists every single thing you did during the half. Look at all this stuff! Of course I deserve a promotion and praise and money!

The problem is that – much like building software – each thing added dilutes everything else. Too many small moments muddy the water of your major accomplishments.

Focus on the most impactful work you did (see: most impactful to the business, not to you personally). If you really feel it's necessary, add an appendix of sorts that serves as your vomit-list of all the smaller things, which in aggregate might match the weight of one higher-impact contribution.

Map impact to levels

If your goal is to get a promotion or grow within your organization's career ladder, you should explicitly map your contributions to the level you're operating at and the level where you want to be. Here's a rough outline I've used in the past:

Here's where I think I made the biggest impact this half, meeting or exceeding expectations for {CURRENT LEVEL}:
1. Most significant point of impact
2. Second most significant point of impact
3. Third most significant point of impact
Here's how I think I met expectations for {NEXT LEVEL} consistently throughout the half:
1. Most significant point of impact
2. Second most significant point of impact
3. Third most significant point of impact

Mapping your contributions directly to expectations helps you to understand if your organization actually values your work. But more importantly, by articulating where you are operating at the next level up, it makes it easier to answer the question: do I deserve a promotion?

Not being explicit about how your contributions meet the expectations of your target level just means that your manager will have to do this on your behalf, in their own words.

Bring reviewers along for the ride

I'm a big believer in "no surprises at review time." Any negative or constructive feedback I give or receive should never be new information. I would consider it a failure of organizational culture to be entirely blind-sided by downwards or peer feedback. Mid-cycle reviews, ad hoc feedback, and a regularly scheduled 1:1 with a manager all exist to help people work out problems in the moment, with compassion and kindness.

This "no surprises" principle applies to both negative and positive reviews: I never want my manager to be surprised by any significant work I have been doing throughout the review cycle. This increases the likelihood of that manager missing context, not having time to understand the impact of the work, and fumbling a clear explanation of that work during calibration meetings.

Bring your manager along for the ride by proactively sharing your work and contributions throughout the half. No surprises at review time!

Work journaling

It seems safe to assume that at one point or another almost everyone has hit review season and thought to themselves: what the hell did I even do this half? It's okay to do that once, early on in your career. But don't let it happen twice.

I recommend keeping a list of ongoing accomplishments and achievements throughout each half. Write things down as they happen. Your future self will love you. Personally, I have a section in Things called "Self review notes" and I just quickly jot down a new to-do item whenever I make some contribution at work.

Then, when it comes time to write my self review I actually tick each item off as "done" whenever it gets included. This gives me a clear, chronological list of things that my past-self deemed important, and it makes the writing itself as trivial as expanding to-do items into sentences.

Another strategy here that I have been learning from Marshall Bock on Design Details (episode 363 to be specific) is to maintain a "work journal." This is an ongoing document that includes notes from all of your day-to-day work. I recommend listening to the episode to learn the basics, but one of the best ideas in this practice is to use a short list of verbs to describe your day to day work. For example, participated in or contributed to or shipped.

By doing this, you can simply command + f the document during review time and look up a specific verb to see all the instances where you were doing that kind of work.

Regardless of the tools or system, just keep a note of things as they happen. I recommend reviewing these notes monthly, aggregating items with similar themes, and deleting things that felt important in the moment but didn't have as much impact as you had hoped.

Make manager advocacy easy

Performance reviews don't live in a vacuum. They are compared, calibrated, and discussed across many people and levels of the organization. It takes time, energy, and attention from managers to clearly and concisely communicate your impact to people who may have been less involved in your week-to-week work (like a skip-level manager). Because of this, it's important to make it as easy as humanly possible to help your manager advocate on your behalf.

To do this, it's better to keep your review short. But in that shortness, the actual structure of your review makes a difference. Bullet lists are easier to parse than walls of text. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

I think to myself: "how would my manager give an elevator pitch to another manager about my contributions this last half?" In other words, if my manager had to summarize my impact in a sentence or two, to someone who knows nothing about what I did in the past six months, what would that sound like? To make this easier for them, I like to open my self review with a 2-3 paragraph section that describes my themes of impact for the half.

Follow through

Most self reviews will have a section that asks something to the effect of: what will you do to grow in the next half? And you'll fill that out and hit submit and go on with your life.

Those things you said you wanted to improve are now your goalpost for next half. You should review those notes regularly and check in to see if you're on track. If your goals changed, you must ask yourself "why?" And if you're falling behind, it's a nice kick in the pants to get back on track.

I always start writing my self reviews by re-reading my previous review. Did I actually do the things I said I was going to do? Did I grow in the ways that I wanted to six months ago? This approach keeps you accountable to yourself, and demonstrates that you are intentional about your growth within the organization.

If you don't follow through here, then you're just bullshitting.

Recap
  1. Only write about the things that had the highest impact on the business. And yes, impacting the culture of an organization counts as impact on the business.
  2. Map your work directly to expectations for the level where you want to be. Make your promotions intentional.
  3. There should be no surprises at review time. Bring your manager along for the ride throughout the half so they have context and clarity about how your work has impact on the business.
  4. Don't wait until the day before your review to scratch together a list of your contributions from the past six months. Keep an ongoing list of your accomplishments, add to it daily, and curate monthly.
  5. Make it ridiculously easy for your manager to advocate for you when you're not in the room. Make the themes of your impact crystal clear, and make your review easy to read.
  6. Follow through on your previous reviews. Fill in your gaps that you identified six months ago. Show intentional commitment to growth by doing the things you said you were going to do.

A small favor

Was anything I wrote confusing, outdated, or incorrect? Please let me know! Just write a few words below and I’ll be sure to amend this post with your suggestions.