Looking back: figure out what you’ve done and use it to change your life

“I don’t know what I want.”

I must have said that sentence more times than any other sentence in my entire life. I thought that if I just had enough experiences–or just spent enough time introspecting–that I would have a lightning strike and suddenly just know.

It didn’t happen like that. Instead, through a combination of journaling and introspection, I found clues as to what was bringing me joy and what was bringing me grief. When enough clues appeared, the lightning strikes started happening.

Journalling and introspection

Is it possible that somewhere in your entire history there is some clue as to what you might want or need? Some hint pointing you towards a better life?

I think so.

What I discovered was that I already wanted things. I just hadn’t acknowledged them. And I couldn’t possibly know what they were until I started looking at my life, until I started reflecting.

I reflect regularly. It’s how I remember where I’ve been, ground myself where I am, and gain perspective for where I want to go.

Below I’ve documented a process that can work for an annual review or adapted for a different timescale. Don’t wait for an auspicious date. If you have an inkling to reflect, follow it. It’s not something you ever get around to if it’s not already in your life.

Please start where you are. Put something in your calendar to do a reflection. Figure out what is finishable for you. And give yourself the gift of following through.

And if you get stuck, send me an email. I’ll be happy to talk you through next steps.

Onto it.

Step one: Gather evidence to reflect on

Reflection starts with something to reflect on. The good news is that, even if you don’t keep a journal, there is plenty around you that you can use as evidence on your life.

If you died and someone had to find evidence on what you did in the past year, where could they look?

Here are some ideas:

  • Calendar
  • Google Maps
  • Email
  • Social Media
  • Bank / Credit Card statements
  • Amazon purchasing history
  • Internet history
  • Photos
  • Messages
  • Memory
  • Fitbit / Apple Watch data
  • Other people’s accounts
  • Papers
  • Netflix
  • Notebooks
  • Task applications
  • Task apps
  • Rideshare apps

And, yes, for some of us, there will be journals.

Now there are a lot of evidence buckets above. I’m telling you now that there are too many evidence buckets above.

What you have to do is choose the key buckets to reflect on.

I would start with choosing the buckets that hold the clearest picture of your life. (For most people this would be calendar, photos or social media.)

If you want to do a reflect on a specific category like work, health, or relationships, you might choose a different collection of buckets. Again, you would ask yourself the question: If you died and someone had to find evidence on what you did in the past year, where could they look?

Go on now. Gather!


Step two: Review the evidence

You might want to go back as far as a month, a few months, or a year.

(If you’re unsure, go back to the beginning of last year or your most recent birthday.)

Review from the beginning of that time period until now. Bullet point out anything that seems significant.

If you’re not sure what is significant, here are some prompts:

  • What was worth celebrating?
  • What did you struggle with?
  • What changed you?
  • What recharged you?
  • What got you stuck?
  • What drained you?
  • What seems important?
Photo by Markus Winkler on UnSplash

NOTE: This is gratifying but it takes a lot of brain power. Take breaks if you need to.

Step three: Figure out what it all means

Review all of your bullet points. Take a journalist’s perspective and look for the story. Or take a scientist’s perspective and consider this the data analysis. Or take a detective’s perspective and look for culprits and witnesses.

Some things can’t be captured in the data itself, you have to look at the whole picture and tease it out. Sort of like an optical illusion.

The following questions can be useful in that regard. Take some time to answer them:

  • What patterns can you see?
  • If you were an objective third party, what could you say about this person’s life?
  • What categories of things seemed to come up over and over?

The following questions are choose your own adventure-ish. If you’re a completionist, do them all!

If you look to pick, here’s what I’d suggest for this (and for life): do what your drawn to and and what you resist. You can leave the ones you’re neutral towards.

What you’re drawn to will be useful and the drawing nature of them makes them easier to do. What you resist is likely something worth investigating.

  • What do you want more of?
  • What do you want less of?
  • What could you have done differently?
  • What seemed like a big deal at the time but really wasn’t?
  • How do you feel about how you spent your time and energy?
  • What was your biggest struggle?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What was your greatest learning?
  • How were you emotionally over the year? Spiritually?
  • How did your health change?
  • What decisions are you happy with?
  • What risks did you take?
  • What surprised you?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What did you accomplish?

Step four: The big picture

Now that you know what’s important over a year, try to zoom out your perspective to your whole life. Hold that in your mind as you answer the following questions.

  • What is the biggest problem facing you right now?
  • What is the biggest opportunity facing you right now?
  • What is the best thing you could do for yourself right now?
  • What is important to let go of right now?

Step five: Integrate your learnings

Take your learnings from the previous steps and live them out by trying a few of the following.

  • Create a resolution – an official decision that you will / will not do something specific.
  • Start a project / Set a goal – a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound result
  • Start a habit – anything you want to do on a regular timeframe or triggered by another context/action
  • Define an action and make sure you do it – any one-off action that will improve your life based off the learnings (Book that haircut! Change that lightbulb! Call that guy!)
  • Create a reminder – use Anki cards, schedule emails to yourself, make a phone background, put a physical reminder somewhere you look regularly
  • Set a theme – a single word or single phrase theme over a specific time period (year, month, week) and let it guide your thoughts and actions

Understanding that we underestimate how long things take and overestimate how quickly we can do things, go small and manageable…you can always set more later but it’s really hard to give them up if there are too many!