My innerwork journey with performance reviews

Ryan Sonnek bio photo By Ryan Sonnek Comment

A year ago, during our performance review cycle, I struggled to complete a written evaluation in less than four hours. Every single word I wrote was agonizingly written and rewritten as it felt like I was carving into a stone tablet of each person’s “Permanent Record”. This year, I had significantly more direct reports, and an upcoming work trip in Amsterdam overlapping when performance reviews were due. I was feeling stressed to put it mildly.

To get the ball rolling, I started building a lightweight primer with an inventory of highlight accomplishments for each team member during the review period. This helped remove some recency bias and refresh context of each team member’s holistic performance. It also had an unexpected negative side effect that put a whole lot of reviews into the “In progress” pile, and didn’t move any all the way to the “Done” pile. stress_level = stress_level + 1

Arriving in Amsterdam, I had a back-to-back schedule of meetings, and a list of recommended sights from co-workers. I REALLY wanted to tour some of the old city. As an American, anything older than 100 years is considered almost ancient, and being able to trace back architecture to the 1300’s, is ridiculously cool. The timeline for performance reviews was closing in, and as a motivational opportunity, I made a personal commitment: “No sight seeing until all the written performance reviews are Done”.

A few days pass with meetings plus jet lag equaling a fair amount of exhaustion. A bit more inventorying work done in the spare moments, but as the weekend rolled around, there were still no performance reviews “Done”. The clock continued to tick. I decided to go into the office on Saturday morning. Alone in the silence, with no meetings or interruptions, I set a new goal: “Stay in this office until the performance reviews are done”.

Was my goal even realistic? I was lacking a benchmark for how long each review was going to take. Would it be like last year clocking in at four hours for each one? Would I be locked in the office until my coworkers found me here Monday morning? To get past this hurdle, I kicked off using Pomodoro timeboxing to give me clear checkpoints for reflection on my progress.

Two pomodoro cycles later, my first review was complete. Woah! The rush of dopamine for moving my first review into “Done” was incredible! Now I had a benchmark of what I could accomplish, and reevaluated my plan. Approximately 1 hour per review was definately viable. Twelve more reviews over two days was within reach. Now, I could restructure my goal from “Do all the reviews right now” to: “Complete half of them today, and half of them tomorrow”. And even better: “finish 3 more this morning and then go across the street for some INCREDIBLE ramen! :)

The rest of the morning flew by. Three more reviews complete, lunch devoured, but my energy level was really low and the only antidote was a power-nap in the incredible built-in nap stations in the office. After waking up, I paused before diving back into the work and asked myself: What was my real goal? The productivity hacks from the morning were definitely effective, but what was the intended purpose of all this activity? I wrote out a BIG BOLD heading at the top of my document…

My objective is to help my team grow.

And then I added the following subheading:

It’s not about me. It’s not about my fear and insecurities of saying something wrong. It’s about helping them achieve their full potential.

After writing out those last few letters of the subheading, there was a literal light-switch moment where my mindset shifted and something “clicked” within me. Why had each review taken four hours last year? It was because I was afraid. Afraid I might say something wrong. My apprehension, hesitation, and procrastination, was rooted in fear. Seeing this statement written out triggered a very real cognitive dissonance between who I thought I was and how I was actually acting. The words of objective was compelling me to act differently. It wasn’t about being perfect. It was about doing everything in my power to help my colleagues grow.

From that moment on, whenever I flipped back to my document, those big words jumped off the page. Writing each performance review was no longer an obligation. It was actually what I wanted to do. It changed the job to be done from “I NEED to complete this performance review because HR is telling me to” to “I GET to help each of my team members grow as a person and professional”. Intrinsic motivation kicked in, and the the afternoon disappeared in a true flow experience.

After completing each written review, I was genuinely excited for upcoming conversations to share my observations with each team member. Even critical feedback had a different feeling. I wasn’t afraid to share critical feedback, instead, I was eager to share my observations, clarify my expectations of the role, and then co-create a growth plan to help that individual succeed moving forward. I felt honored to be a part of these moments for each person.

At the end my trip, I didn’t end up doing any sight seeing, but all of the performance reviews were complete. Was I upset or disappointed? Not at all. It was an opportunity for me to wrestle with my personal innerwork, and I came away feeling like a different person.


It wasn’t long after my trip to Amsterdam that I picked up the highly recommended book: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. The insights I had after reading this book inspired me to write this post as the struggles I experienced on my journey mapped so well to many of the practices mentioned in the book.

At the start of this process, I was attempting to make each performance review Attractive (The 2nd Law from Atomic Habits). I attempted using “Temptation bundling” to motivate myself to complete my tasks and allow me to get to do the “fun” activities like sightseeing. This was effective at helping me be incrementally more productive, but these productivity hacks fell short. The real unlock was when I realized that my behavior was not aligned with my desired intentions and identity. I don’t think I can say it any better than this quote from the book:

Imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to. You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event.