We’re really the only creatures that can reflect on our experiences and I find it an essential process for creating a meaningful life. Why? Because the learnings and insights I gain provide the raw material for my personal narrative.
We all have a story.
Story is powerful. Actively crafting my story gives me the power to heal my past, understand my present, and drive my future.
I’ve accrued these reflection tools over many years and I know I’ll always be experimenting with what works for me. Most of the tools I’ve used extensively are yearly. This year I started to incorporate more frequent, low effort review practices, so I’m still testing out how they best fit into my life.
The tools linked here work for me and there are many more out there. Try whatever piques your interest, modify them to your needs, keep what serves you, and discard what doesn’t. Integrating any new tool or habit works best when done slowly, trying to do them all would have overwhelmed me and most likely have been counter-productive.
These are the tools I use to understand my own personal narrative. In a future post I’ll share how I translate my results into my own personal growth narrative.
How to do it: Definitely read the full article linked above, but here’s a quick breakdown:
- Rapidly write down 100 wishes and desires for your life, each one on its own post-it note.
- Group and categorize the notes to identify themes. Based on the number of notes in each category, you might be able to identify a trend that indicates what you want your life to be like. If 12 post-it notes are related to getting your finances in order and only 3 are about your creative projects, that might be an indicator of where you want to spend your time.
- Once you see the trend of what you want to bring into your life, you can ask yourself if you are actually taking the steps to make it happen. Are you spending the time you need to track your finances and manage your budget?
- If you really want to geek out, you could do a lot further analysis on the groups you’ve created to get more out of your post-it notes.
Why this works for me:
I find this powerful because the post-its mine deep into your thoughts and desires without asking any specific question. The patterns emerge afterwards. I also believe in the power of writing down what you want to happen in your life and reviewing it regularly. Your thoughts become more concrete by writing them, and then the thoughts turn into behaviors and eventually those habits accomplish the action.
Understanding what you want to prioritize in your life and then adjusting your behavior to make it a reality is the definition of living an intentional life.
- Don’t set a time bound for the wishes — forget new year’s resolutions. These are wishes you want in your life, not just in the next year but an evolution of self over the expanse of your lifetime.
- Do what works for you, I started doing so much of the analysis the first year and then realized it wasn’t a valuable effort for what I needed.
- Keep your notes year over year, just to see what you did and if you still want to do anything that you haven’t accomplished.
How to do it: 10Q is a website that emails you a question a day for 10 days in September. Afterwards, you send your answers to the secure online vault. One year later, your answers are unlocked, returned to you and the process begins anew.
Why this works for me: This is a yearly process and 2017 was my first year using it. I think it hits on two points: really great questions to reflect on and the vault feature. I like the idea of hearing back in a year from my current self and seeing how I’ve grown (or not!). I mean, who doesn’t love a time capsule?
Tips: Do you. Fill in as little or as much as you want. I was really busy when the questions came out this year, so I entered really quick answers that I think I will still be able to comprehend next year. I’m sure more thorough answers would garner better results next year, but this was what made sense for me this year.
How to do it: This is a yearly review process that methodically takes you through a review of your past year and then similar intention setting work for the coming year.
Why it works for me: This is my first year doing this. I like the dedicated time that this exercise required to both look back and put intentions forward. I also liked that it suggests doing this with a group of friends. I think this would be a great ritual to start (alone or with friends), especially if you’re new to doing formal reflections on your life. Here’s what the document itself has to say:
“Planning your year is a good habit. It can help you become more aware of your successes and sorrows and make you realize how much can happen just in a year. By learning from the past you can plan your future in a way that you don’t repeat the same patterns and feel more in control of your own life.”
- Again, do you. I’m all about flexibility and doing what I can. Instead of long paragraphs I wrote pretty quick notes because that was what worked for me this year.
- Truly set aside the dedicated time. I downloaded this packet in the summer and I didn’t get around to filling it out until November. This also has a second benefit of creating a ritual around prioritizing yourself and your growth.
I learned about this from my friend Alice Liu, who is a very wise being that inspires me with how much juice she manages to squeeze from life. I use the logbook on an as-needed basis. It captures my random reflections really well and I’ve been using it on and off for 10 months or so.
How to do it: Use the prescribed format to document your reflections and learnings in one easy to access place like a google doc. I was skeptical when I first saw this tool, it seemed too simple to give me any value. Knowing Alice, I should have known better!
Why this works for me:
- The logbook collects my life lessons in a simple format, in one place (instead of spread out in journal entries and notebooks, on my cell phone, and in the back of my mind).
- The immediacy combined with a format that creates a built-in review process multiplies its value for me.
- I hold onto my life lessons for longer. Alice says it best in her article:
“The most foolish feeling is when you come to an insight after an intense process and realize that you had, in fact, come to the same conclusion five months ago. But you had forgotten about it, so you traveled down a laborious path to learn it all over again.”
- When I’m on the go I use a notetaking app to immediately capture any learnings I have, along with the source and date. The next time I’m in the file I enter those learnings in.
- I like this format so much that I’ve started to use this same file to capture my creative ideas on a separate tab.
There isn’t an associated article or link on this, as I heard about it from my friends. I’m sure there are many variations you could find out there.
How to do it: Essentially a weekly review is spending some regular time each week to journal and express gratitude, write about what you’re learning, set intentions for the next week and reflect on progress against your larger goals.
Why it works:
- I think a higher frequency will create more opportunities to capture the smaller wins and lessons.
- Growth is inherently uncomfortable and hard work. Only focusing on goals without celebrating the wins can lead to its own sense of unhealthy dissatisfaction. Any practice that helps me remember to celebrate my progress is great for self-care. This balance can keep you going in the tough weeks.
Tips: I integrate this on Mondays into my daily writing practice. Figure out how to meet yourself where you’re at. Do you already hop on a computer each morning? Take 5 minutes on Monday morning before you start working to write down your gratitudes, reflect on the past week and set intentions for the next week. You can get a lot more done in 5 minutes than you think!
This originates from the book “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron.
How to do it: Essentially, this is timed free writing of three longhand pages without stopping. The idea is to get all the little worries and concerns that muck up our mental energy out of the way first thing each day. That lets us put all our energy towards the creative work we are doing (however you want to define creative work).
Why it works for me:
- Much like how writing a to-do list gets the anxiety out of your head, morning pages lets you release all that distracted and worried mental energy out, so you can approach the work you actually want to be doing with clarity.
- Writing also seems to be a portal to inner emotions that I didn’t even know I had. When I start to pick up momentum and flow I can feel a sort of wormhole into my inner thoughts open up, and all my subconscious thoughts and worries come out, and so do new ideas, learnings and energy.
- The author insists on writing this longhand onto pieces of paper that get stuffed away somewhere. This honestly doesn’t work for me, I feel like my hands can’t keep up with my brain, whereas typing seems much more my pace.
- I find a sense of urgency is important for me. I have to prevent my over analytical brain from filtering the raw mess of my mind. To keep a sense of urgency I use a website called The Most Dangerous Writing App to push me to keep writing without stopping.
Bonus tip for your reflection process: Calendar everything (with an email notification)! I’ve carved dedicated time out for each of these tools because I find that if it’s not on my calendar it just doesn’t happen. Life does get in the way sometimes, so the email notification leaves a longer lasting reminder in my inbox. So if I do miss something, I have a reminder to complete the task later or reschedule it to a better time.
Fuel for my story.
Reflection gives me the raw materials to write (and re-write) the story of my life, past, present, and future.
Learning about my interests, seeing the events of my life from new perspectives, and understanding what might have driven my decision making all bring me closer to understanding my values. Clarifying my values helps me make better choices now and define a better direction for my life. I’ll write another post about how my values author my story, how that story drives my life, and how it encourages others to join me on my journey.
Please comment to let me know how you find these tools and especially if you have other tools that you find work well for you!