At the end of the year, many of us start thinking about how to make sense of all we’ve experienced over the course of the last 12 months…particularly this year, when so much has happened!
Meaning making is an important part of wayfinding and of being human. Reflection is something that helps metabolize and integrate our experiences rather than repress and ignore them so that we can live life with more psychological clarity and emotional centering. It’s also something that helps us access our own inner wisdom and learn our way forward, so that we can make decisions about how we show up and live our lives that evolve rather than repeat over time.
So I’m all for reflection…especially at the end and beginning of years.
At the same time, misconceptions abound around what reflection is “supposed to” or “has to” look like in order to be meaningful and effective. And many of these misconceptions actually keep us from reflecting. Ever felt like you’re supposed to attend an expensive meditation retreat to do reflection well, but you don’t have money to do that? Or maybe you’ve felt like you need a lot of time to reflect well – but you’re already stretched thin at work or with your family responsibilities and that doesn’t feel possible? Or maybe you associate reflecting with journaling – but you don’t like writing or you can’t stand the look of your own handwriting?
I’ve definitely felt all of these pressures around reflection, and I’ll be honest: for a long time, I didn’t “do” reflection because it either felt like work or something that was going to drain my bank account. But now I love reflecting. I do it all the time and look forward to making sense of my experiences – because I’ve let go of needing to reflect in the ways society tells me I should. Instead I’ve found rituals and practices that honor who I am and play to my strengths, motivations, and resource constraints. And I’m happier and more aware for it.
While I think the best reflective practices are the ones we each design to fit the context of our lives and personalities, here are a few design principles to get you started thinking about what might work for you. These principles guide how I think about what’s in and out of play when crafting a reflection ritual (hint: anything that helps you get started reflecting is in play!) It’s kind of like my reflection ritual design manifesto.
Reflection rituals can:
Be simple or complex: Whether you reflect on a single guiding question or several, the most important thing to give yourself credit for is taking a moment to step back NOT how fancy and complicated your reflection is. Reflect at the level of complexity that feels doable for you given the time & energy you have. Writing down one thing you are grateful for each day is as valid and valuable a reflection as going on a silent retreat and journaling for 60 minutes a day. Don’t overcomplicate the process. You’re not being judged on how much you produce when you reflect.
Play to your strengths & personality: Pick a medium that feels energizing & inspirational to you and plays to your strengths and personality. If you love art, get out your markers and paint set and do a visual reflection. If you’re a list maker, write in bullet points. If you’re a writer, grab a journal. If you’re a dancer, dance. If you’re a photographer, use your camera. I know someone who loves making bento boxes and makes one at the end of each year that reflects how she felt about the previous 12 months! Each year I make a felted animal that reflects the year. I also know people who get out their computer and write. Ultimately, choose mediums that reflect who you are, what you’re good at, and what you love to do to help you reflect.
Happen anywhere: Who says reflection has to happen at a desk, in front of a computer, or with a journal? While these are common ideas we have about how reflection is supposed to look, there’s no rulebook that says reflection has to happen anywhere in particular, so get creative and pick an environment that sparks your imagination. Take a walk in the woods, find a cozy nook, grab a blanket and watch the waves by the beach, sit by the pool, snuggle up in your favorite chair. I know someone who reflects in her walk-in closet because she loves to be surrounded by all her things. I often reflect while road biking or crafting because I notice my mind feels freer when I’m doing something athletic or creative. Wherever you reflect, let it be in an environment that unleashes your creativity not blocks it.
Take whatever time you do (or don’t) have: You don’t have to go on a week-long retreat off the grid and away from your phone in order to reflect on your year. Heck, you don’t even need to take a day off. If you want to and have the time and resources to, great…but this isn’t a necessity. You can reflect for 20 minutes while drinking your morning cup of coffee every day – or once a week or once a month or once a year. You can reflect while in the shower, while driving home after dropping your child off somewhere. Use whatever time you have. Reflect all at once, or break up your reflection into small pieces. See if you can barnacle your reflection onto something else. I have a friend who spends the 6 minutes it takes him to brew coffee each morning to reflect. I’m less structured about my own reflection – I tend to put on music in the car when I’m driving and let my mind wander or to go for walks and check-in with myself. Whatever time you have is enough…if you use it, so use it!
Done on your own or with others: Reflection sometimes gets a rep as a solitary activity – something we do in a quiet space, on our own, without talking. And it can be – for those that are served by that kind of reflection. But for verbal processors and extraverts, reflecting alone and in silence can feel hard and thus never happen. If you’re someone who has a hard time reflecting on your own and how benefits from saying things out loud or bouncing ideas off of someone else, then find a friend or trusted colleague and reflect with them. Grab coffee, take a walk, have a meal together, go for a car ride. I’ve done some of my best reflecting with my fiancee while on the go. We’ve talked about our year while hiking Torres del Paine & walking from Central Park to FiDi. We’ve also done it while standing in line at the airport, driving to the local grocery store & biking through our neighborhood.
Feel good to you: Many people I know don’t take time to reflect on their experiences because they don’t know how to do so in ways that feel right sized or motivating to them. In the end, the most important thing when you’re reflecting is that you do it, that you actually take time to pause and check-in with yourself. The how is less important…and the how is what often trips us up and prevents us from actually getting started reflecting. We come up with these big grandiose ideas of what it means and looks like for us to reflect and they usually don’t play to our strengths or fit within the constraints of our contexts so we get overwhelmed and then never actually pause to take stock of where we’re at. This is the hurdle we all need to get over – the getting started hurtle. And we do this by designing ways to reflect that actually play to our strengths, excite us and work within the realities of our lives.
So if you find yourself not reflecting even though you’re committed to doing so, think like a designer and ask yourself:
What if I could reflect on my year & set course for the next one in a way that felt simple & energizing to me?
Then follow your instincts and see what happens.
Keep in mind, when it comes to making meaning of our life experiences, the most important thing is that you do it! It’s far less important that your reflection rituals look a certain way. So permission to do you here – make your reflection practices work for your life. Make them something you look forward to, something the energizes, enlivens, and sustains you. And if that means that you’re reflecting in a way that nobody else around you would, that’s okay. In fact, that’s hella cool – share what you’re doing so that it inspires others and gives them permission to be creative. I’d certainly love to hear what you’re designing!
One last note…if you’re looking for some support in what to reflect on, sign up for my newsletter and get my free end & beginning of year reflection guide. It’s full of simple and creative ways to think about what this year has meant to you and will help you land your year with some intentionality and consider what matters most to you in 2021.