Many of us go through our entire lives as total strangers to ourselves, simply because we never pause long enough for moments of self-inquiry. We are so busy seeking answers to other people’s problems that we forget to ask questions for our own well-being. Obviously, this isn’t wise.
Wisdom, after all, is not about knowing all the answers every minute; it’s about asking the right questions. In the long run, the simple questions you ask yourself on a regular basis will determine the type of person you become.
At the very least, you need to set aside some dedicated “me time” at the end of each week – a personal timeout for self-reflection and self-inquiry – to ask yourself questions like these:
1. What pleasant surprises did I discover this week?
Life’s dynamic nature continually renews the possibilities before you; you honestly never can be certain when the next gust of wind will arrive and what it will blow in your direction. Open yourself to these surprises and pay attention. Many of them will bring goodness you never knew you were missing.
Some of your best discoveries will likely come when you least expect them, in places you never even thought to look. What you were not looking for can end up being more than you ever hoped to find. So seek your goals and dreams diligently, but don’t be so unyielding that you develop tunnel vision. Do not blind yourself from all the unpredictable wonders and opportunities passing in your periphery.
You are never too old, too young, too busy, or too educated to find value and joy in new, unexpected opportunities. So stay on the lookout, and keep track of these pleasant surprises. Be sure not to lose them in the haste of your weekly routines.
2. What lessons did my work teach me that I could build upon next week?
This question will help you clarify the distinction between activity and achievement. There will always be routines and mundane tasks that require you to go through the motions, but what else did you derive from your work this week? What was learned that could be built upon? Surely there were successes and failures – ideas that worked and those that wallowed. Think about these events and extract what is useful.
Look at your week from beginning to end. It was not a week of lounging around doing nothing; it was a week in which you had everything to do, and now you have done it. Pat yourself on the back, and then acknowledge the week’s lessons – especially the things that didn’t go your way. If you didn’t get a task done the way you had hoped or a particular solution didn’t work, it only means something better is out there waiting for you next week. And the lessons you just learned are the first step towards it. (Read Decisive.)
3. Are my short-term efforts and long-term goals still aligned?
It’s not what you do or achieve every once in awhile (big picture), but what you do every day (small picture) that counts. Dream big dreams, but realize that short-term, realistic goals are the key to success. What you want to achieve is directly connected to your daily actions. The way you spend your time defines who you are and who you will become.
Therefore, make sure what you are doing (small picture) truly aligns with where you want to go (big picture).
While the pleasure junkies of the world avoid pain and discomfort at all costs, be someone who truly understands the value and benefits of working through the tough situations that others typically avoid. Be willing to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term happiness. Be more interested in something being effective than you are in something being easy. While everyone else is looking for the quickest shortcut, look for the course of action that will produce the real results you want for yourself.
4. What could I have spent more or less time doing?
As Stephen Covey once said, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” In other words, productivity is not just about getting things done, it’s about getting the right things done.
At the end of each week, look at how you have spent your time, and adjust the allocation as necessary for the upcoming week. Do your best to get rid of your schedule’s complexities so you can spend more time on the things that matter. This means fine-tuning and eliminating all but the essential tasks, so you are left with only the ones that add value to your life. And above all, know when to set aside the important things for the vital things, like family. (Read The Power of Habit.)
5. How did fear and uncertainty affect what I did and didn’t do?
Not knowing which path to take can be painful, but nothing is more disheartening than standing still and never making a decision at all. This is why it’s imperative to think about your fears and address them on a weekly basis. You have to stop them so they don’t stop you from moving forward with your life.
So what should you do? Anything… something small… so long as you don’t simply sit there. If you make a mistake, start over. Try something else. If you wait until you’ve satisfied all the uncertainties in your mind, it may be too late.
The bottom line is that you gain strength, confidence and emotional growth by living through every experience in which you are forced to stop and look fear in the face. And once the face-off is over and you realize you’re still breathing, you must say to yourself, “I have lived through period of uncertainty, I have learned from it, and I am better off. AND I am capable of dealing with the next intimidating circumstance that comes my way too.”
6. What mental clutter can I clear?
Just as you don’t move from one place to another without first sorting your belongings, and leaving behind what is not useful or needed, so too should you follow the same process with what you’ve mentally gathered, before moving on. Do some purging and clear some clutter. Don’t carry excess baggage into next week. Eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary may shine bright.
Throw away any regrets, shame and anger that you have accumulated this week, and take only the treasures worth keeping: the lessons, the love and the best of what can be remembered.
One of the easiest ways to sort through your mental clutter, and decide what needs to be discarded, is to perform a simple brain dumping exercise whereby you dump your emotions into a written journal or notepad. Literally think about this week’s standout moments, make a list of how you felt on each occasion, and then review your findings. Clear out the negative clutter that’s lingering in your mind by processing your thoughts, filing the lessons, forgiving yourself, forgiving others, and letting this week go.
The bottom line is that you have to close the door on this week’s negativities, change the record, clean the house, and get rid of the mental dust and dirt. Don’t deny yourself a fair chance at the week ahead. Stop holding on to what was, so you can enjoy what is beginning now. (I discuss this in more detail in the “Simplicity” and “Success” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
7. What is the first logical step for next week?
Next week is a new beginning – a blank canvas upon which you have the delightful opportunity to create. On Monday morning you will be standing at the start of an impressive adventure, with the very real and present opportunity to shape your present and future in exactly the way you see fit.
And as they say, well begun is half done…
What would you add to the list?
What questions do you ask yourself during moments of self-reflection?
Do you use any other self-reflection methods (journaling, etc.)?