One sentence summary: If reflection isn’t a habitual part of your life, you’re living life wrong.
Reflection is the most important part of my day. I am frequently distracted by the world’s buzzing. I get caught up in work, my students, my marriage, my daily tasks, entertainment, media, and the million other bits of noise that vie for my attention. If I only react to the things that come across my desk, I go to bed haggard and start the next day exhausted. On bad weeks, this cycle repeats until I’m able to reset myself on the weekend.
I’ll bet this sounds familiar. And here’s the thing: This life is seductive. It may not sound like it here, I know, but living this life (and all of you have lived it at some point) leaves me feeling a sort of hollow exhilaration. It makes me feel useful.
But this feeling is a lie. It is an illusion cast by the society we operate in. The truth is that living a reactive life is a lazy, narrow-minded way to live--and one that is sure to lead to disaster.
This is why reflection is such a powerful tool.
We have all had the experience of being unhappy and pulling the hand brake. It is this dissatisfaction (and violent reaction) that leads to sudden u-turns in our life. We drop out of school, get divorced, go cold-turkey from some substance or another, set an unachievable New Year’s resolution, and we think we’ve corrected our course.
And for the most part we have. When something isn’t working, the only logical response is to change it. Still, changes on such a large scale introduce a level of disruption into our lives that is neither productive nor healthy. A lifetime of pulling the hand-brake makes for a very rough journey. Hand-brake reflection is suboptimal.
I don’t need to sell you the product of reflection. You are where you are today because--at least at times--you have stepped back from your life and found certain aspects of it unsatisfactory. Instead, I’m here to advocate for a process that can make you a more thoughtful, healthier, better human. Ready? It’s simple:
Make reflection part of your daily process. That’s right. Every. Fucking. Day.
This is because reflection is the killer-app for self-improvement. It is not just useful, it is a mandatory component of a well-examined life.
The alternative to hand-brake reflection.
First, I haven’t always been reflective. I charged through my youth and teen years with my head down. From an early age, my path was obvious: be an excellent student, make popular friends, get a hot girlfriend, a high-paying part-time job, and get into a great university. From there would come the new, hotter girlfriend, grad school (hell, maybe law school), a new new hotter girlfriend, baller job, hot girlfriend becomes hot wife, huge house, raise, and so on. And why not? I was smart. I was motivated. It all seemed so doable.
Looking at that list now, I hate that guy. I mean, I went to a good school, and I have a house and (somehow, miraculously) a smoking hot wife, but the ‘dreams’ of my youth are the vapid, materialistic dreams of a total stranger (who is kind of a douche). Those are the dreams of a young man who has failed to grow.
So what accounts for the difference between the in-the-cloud dreams of my 15-year old self and my current awesome life? Some of it is hand-brake reflection (quitting a job, uprooting my life). Most of it, though, is the result of a rigidly-observed, steady process of thoughtful (and gradual) self-improvement.
Staying on target.
In his Oral Biography Harry Truman discusses at length how he has always been envious of farmers. When asked why he responds, “Because farmers have the luxury of being able to think.”
Growing up on the farm, my daily job was to feed the cows. This wasn’t a difficult job, but was long and monotonous. It involved steering a wheelbarrow full of silage around the barn and navigating to cluster after cluster of cows waiting to be fed. One wheelbarrow fed four cows. We had 100.
This was before every teenager had white plastic cords growing from their ears. I didn’t listen to music, audiobooks, or any other media that would distract a steady train of thought. As a result, it gave me time to just think.
I didn’t have any other choice. I was alone, I was bored, and I was stuck with nothing to entertain me but my thoughts. I did this every day for ten years. With nothing to distract me, I would occupy my mind with thought. I would think about what I was good at, what I was bad at, what I was happy about, and what needed to be changed. I would think about good relationships, bad relationships, an--vitally--how to become the person I wanted to be. The more I thought, the more I strayed from the douchey dreams up above. I was a new person by the end.
Really think about that. When was the last time you took some time to just think? I’ll bet it was a while ago, and I’ll bet it wasn’t for long. Not only that, but I’ll bet it was--at least is some small way--transformative.
Now imagine making that small transformation a habit. Think about making it a structured part of your life to which you held yourself accountable to every single day. Sound hare? It isn’t. It is, however, life-changing. Here are some healthy habits that have kept me on track:
I get bored. I practice it. I get good at it. I Turn off my music, my podcasts, my audiobooks, and my reddit feed. In fact, I ditch the dopamine dispenser in my pocket altogether. When I drive or ride to work, I do it with the radio off. You cannot maintain a train of thought with a constant stream of disjointed information coming in.
Allowing yourself to get bored will flex your reflection muscle. You will get in the habit of assessing your day, your relationships, your life, and anything else that needs to be assessed. Your mind will become more nimble and dexterous. You will be able to hold a thought for more than 17 seconds.
Walking the dog
But boredom doesn’t have to be boring. The great thing about thinking is that it only occupies your brain, leaving the other 49/50ths of your body free to be wildly productive. Embrace this.
Think while you workout. Think while you do the dishes. Think while you shower. Get in the habit of thinking in small sips and long draws. In the evenings, I walk my dog--rain, snow, or below-freezing temperatures. My wife, my dog Charley, and I set out from our back door and walk until we are exhausted. Then we turn around and walk home. During this time we talk about our days, our lives, our goals, and our dreams (well, my wife and I talk..Charley mostly pants and eats snow). Not only does this walk give us a steady and regular forum to work through our thoughts, but using our walks for this activity gives us someone to bounce our ideas off of. The exercise and relationship strengthening is just bonus.
It is the most centering thing I do all day.
My bullet journal
But the most rigid observation of this is a formal reflection I do at the end of each day of teaching. This is the one I never miss. I keep track of my day in a stupid simple bullet journal.
I call it a bullet journal, but it’s a far cry from the adult summer camp art projects that are all over the internet. The left side of each page is devoted to my daily calendar and tasks. It has a breakdown of my calendar, blocked out with things like, “English 9” “AP” “Writing Center” and “Writing”. Within each of these blocks is a list of bulleted tasks that can and should reasonably be be completed in that time. This keeps me on track as an intentional actor as I work through my day.
The right side, though, is the more important piece. It is my reflection. The entire page is reserved for a formal reflection of what went well, what went poorly, and what I would change about my day. This is a habit I’ve been in for nearly four years. In that time I’ve gone from a shaky, second-career teacher, to a master of my content and rock-solidly assured of my classroom practices.
The results have been transformative
Reflection leads to growth. It is as simple as that. If you do not pause to examine your life, you will find yourself caught up in the tide and simply reacting to the world around you. You will be swept up in the tide of life, and ten years from now you will find yourself washed up downstream wondering how the hell you got here.
But reflection doesn’t happen by accident. Good reflection is planned and purposeful. It is also daily.
Reflection makes me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better human being. It will make you the best version of yourself.