A few weeks ago I asked for some feedback here and on several other forums, in a post called “The Most Important Thing”. My question to everyone was, what is the ONE THING you could do, if you could do nothing else, that would have the greatest effect for good on as many areas of your life as possible. I already had something in mind, and I expected to see a few variations of it in the feedback. Instead, I got a huge range of suggestions, and it was easy to make a good argument for ANY of them as being fundamentally important and productive.
In particular, the comments here focused on habits of mind. Open-mindedness, acceptance and love. All of which, I think, are basically aspects of the same basic state of mind. It’s impossible to argue that this state of mind isn’t fundamental to EVERY kind of positive change. And yet I’m going to argue (stubborn person that I am) that another habit is equally important. This habit is regular self-reflection.
It can be in the form of journaling, planning, or even a form of meditation. But speaking for myself, if my first and foremost habit isn’t regular self-reflection, then I constantly loose ground.
It’s interesting that as I’ve discussed new years resolutions with people this year, I find fewer and fewer people making them (or at least admitting to making them). There’s a broad disenchantment out there with the very idea of a program of self-improvement. People have failed at their resolutions time after time, year after year. They don’t want the pain of another failure. And so they’d rather not try. There are some respects in which giving up striving is a great idea – especially if what you have been striving after is an ego-based goal. I wrote about that conflict a few days ago in The Purpose of Purpose.
But surely not all growth and development needs to be ego-based. There are plenty of wonderful things to do just for the joy of them that still require some organized commitment – for example, to develop the mental outlook of open-mindedness, acceptance and love mentioned above. To treat yourself to a healthier lifestyle. To learn a new language, or skill. To practice meditation. None of these things is a one-time activity. You may need reminders. This is where self-reflection comes in. I’ll explain my preferred method for this. You can adapt it however you see fit.
You’ll need a small notebook. You can, if you prefer, opt for some kind of more elaborate planner with more organization to it. This might be particularly important if you have a lot of complex responsibilities to manage. For myself – a notebook does fine. I like the moleskine style notebooks. I usually settle for the cheap knock-off variety from my local discount or office supply store. But they’re not that expensive, so perhaps you can treat yourself.
The basic procedure is this. Every day, you set aside 15 minutes for reflection. EVERY day. This is the one key habit on which all my other self-development hangs. Take this time every day no matter what – as if your life depended on it. Take the time even (this is VERY important) if all you have to report to yourself is “I did absolutely nothing yesterday. I forgot all my goals and projects and just vegetated in front of the TV with junk food and I’m glad I did”. Self-reflection needs to be absolutely, completely non-judgmental. The important thing is that you reflect. You should view your life as if you were a saintly, accepting, compassionate outsider.
The only absolutely essential things to include in your self-reflection are the answers to these questions: What did I do yesterday? What would I like to do today? And these must be written down in your little notebook. If you reflect at night, then the questions may be: What did I do today? What would I like to do tomorrow?
As you get used to the procedure, we can elaborate a bit. Once a week, use your daily reflection time to set some weekly goals. Use an index card as your placemarker and list your repeating goals on it (such as taking a walk everyday). You can also use the book to journal, to record your daily thoughts, dreams, meditation notes and to capture stray ideas and tasks as they come up. I find that even though the day’s events and activities are all jumbled-up in my notebook, I can always find anything I wrote down easily.
As you progress with this practice, you will begin to notice patterns. You will notice that you seem to be avoiding some tasks and goals, and you can gently and objectively ask yourself about it. Is it something you really don’t want to do at all? Explore that. Are you noticing, in your review, that certain people and situations cause problems in your plans. Certain behavior patters may emerge where you can, with loving detachment, notice the cause and effect that operates in your life.
But the key point is to keep up the habit. No matter what. Let me show you why I think it’s key. Suppose you make a new-years resolution to exercise every day. In the normal course of things, you will probably go regularly for a week, then taper off to a few times a week, and then, a month or two down the road, gradually drop it. Another failed resolution. But if you are re-visiting this goal every day in reflection, one of three things is going to happen. In the first case, you will be reminded to exercise and it will become a permanent part of your routine. In the second, you will start to notice the long stretches of time when you don’t exercise and you will be forced to confront how you feel about it. Is the type of exercise wrong for you? Is the time of day not working? Is there a way you can work exercise into your day without using excuses to avoid it? Wonderful. You adjust your goal and keep with it. Or, in the final case, you may simply decide to admit to yourself that you aren’t ready to make that commitment yet. But you make this choice by facing it in daily reflection. You have learned something which you would NOT have learned if you simply let your exercise goal gradually fade away. And you will be able to revisit your decision in future goal-setting sessions during reflection.
I welcome any comments or suggestions on his basic framework – or other methods that suit you better.