It’s almost 2019, word nerds! Time to start thinking about what the new year is going to do for you and your writing career. In the past, I’ve written about setting goals, writing a mission statement, and seeking education. I’m a big believer in resolutions, and I like using the new year as a clean-slate opportunity to evaluate my future plans. But I realized that with all my talk about missions, education and goals, I’ve never written a column about a key component to the growth process. Before you make goals, especially goals that have a chance of succeeding, there’s a vital first step. That first step is reflection.
This past year, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to experimenting with reflection. I’ve had reflective states last a day or a few hours. I’ve experienced them on road trips and at the library. At first I happened upon them by accident, but recently I’ve become more intentional with my reflective time, and this practice has rewarded me greatly. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you today.
Why reflect on the past if you’re looking to move forward? Just ask Terry Pratchett:
“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going.”
The past is the only place to look if we want to understand who we are: our habits, our wants and needs, and our tendencies. This is true when studying societal history as well as personal history. If you want to know who you are, look at where you came from. The past can reveal patterns in your behavior, and the behavior of others around you, that can aid you in identifying problems and potential solutions.
This is a vital part of the goal-setting process, because the first step to making an achievable goal is making it reasonable. And it’s not likely to be reasonable now if it hasn’t been reasonable in the past. Unless your life circumstances have drastically changed, you’re not going to start running every morning at five thirty if you’ve never enjoyed running before. It’s better to acknowledge that something just isn’t right for you so that you can find the things that do work for you. You might even be surprised by yourself if you look deep enough.
When to Reflect
Many people feel drawn toward reflection when a major calendar event is approaching (like New Year’s, or a birthday). But my most impactful reflections come when I’ve been feeling dissatisfied or stuck. Those two feelings perk my antennae and tell me to start preparing for my next reflective state. Are you feeling frustrated in an area—or two—of your life? You may benefit from setting aside time for reflection.
Preparing To Reflect
Reflection can be a difficult mental state to step into. Here are a few ways that I prepare for it:
- Stepping away from my biggest project for a few days to get some perspective.
- Leaving town, even just for the afternoon.
- Participating in a mindful activity, such as a walk in the park without headphones, or eating a meal without distractions.
- Journaling about what I want to accomplish during my reflection.
- Setting aside a length of time that I can be undisturbed.
How To Reflect
First, set yourself an intention for your reflection. Do you want to figure out how to get over writer’s block? Do you want to think of ways to inject creativity into your workday? Are you searching for ways to connect with friends? Try to hone in on the source of your dissatisfaction. I often have two or three things I’m grappling with.
Next, create the time and space, away from work or family, to think about them. You can journal or draw, you can talk out loud, or just let your mind dwell on the problem for a time. You can sit and meditate on it, or you can take a long walk. You don’t even have to be thinking about your intention directly; sometimes the best intuition comes when you allow your thoughts to run in the background while you pursue some other activity. Choose a method that speaks to your senses and personal learning style. Eventually, your thoughts will start to untangle themselves, and answers will emerge.
This is the part where you actually do something about the answers you’ve received, whether it’s setting a new goal, clearing something negative from your life, or confronting a problem. Reflective states should end with growth-oriented action. Decide on a few small steps that will help you move forward. Put them on your to-do list right away. Then encourage the process one step at a time until you’re living the life you envisioned during your reflective state.
How Reflection Worked for Me
Last spring I was feeling a great deal of overwhelm and stress from balancing work and home commitments. I was also dealing with the worst writer’s block I’d had in years, and struggling constantly against negative thought patterns. Those three things were deeply related, but it wasn’t until I forced myself to step back and reflect that I realized that I’d been attempting to fight one beast with three heads.
I took the whole day off from work and drove all the way to another state to purposely clear the way for reflective thoughts, and that gave me the breakthrough moment to help me bring all my problems under one umbrella and figure out how to move forward. Six months later, I’m in a much better place because I took that one day to reflect. I consider it the most important thing I did for myself in 2018.
I’d like to wish all of you a most wonderful 2019! If this column piques your curiosity and you have further thoughts or questions about reflections or the reflective mindset, please contact me via email (leannesowul[at]gmail[dot]com) or Facebook (Words From the Sowul). I’d love to discuss more with you.
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and the Perspective Post newsletter, and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and personal essay, for which she won the Scott Meyer Award in 2017; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul[at]gmail[dot]com, at Facebook.com/sowulwords, or on Twitter @sowulwords.