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October 16, 2018

It's tempting to charge ahead into tomorrow with only the occasional glance over our shoulders, yet there are real benefits to be found in pausing to take a thoughtful look back. 


"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." ~ from Abraham Lincoln’s House Divided speech


Without peeking at any reference material, can you rely right now on your own memory and perception to think accurately about:

  • Whether you were having trouble sleeping a year ago?
  • Your New Year’s Resolutions from 2015?
  • Why you keep trying but can’t seem to form (or break) an important habit?
  • The state of your relationships a few years ago as compared with today?
  • How your past will influence where you’ll be personally and professionally in another couple of years?

The probability is high that, unless you’re blessed with an unusually sharp memory, these past details are fuzzy at best.

The busyness of daily life includes both excitement and tedium, but without a deliberate effort to create it, space for mindful reflection and review becomes an increasingly scarce commodity.



We’ve all completed research projects for school or work that required us to closely examine a person’s history and find the significant patterns and themes of their life. Consider this one of your most important assignments: to study your own life and discover your significant themes.


For a basic review session, plan to take up to sixty minutes to focus on the past few years. (We’ll discuss a deep-dive review next week.) You could break up this basic review into even smaller chunks, if time is at a premium; perhaps set aside 20 minutes each evening over a few days rather than investing a solid hour at once.

First have your current supplies handy. A calendar for this year and next, a fresh notebook, and a few pens and highlighters should get you started.

Reach into the closet or file cabinet and pull out your old calendars, planners, journals, photo albums, and any other record of your life from the recent past. Don’t go rummaging into the attic just yet; basic records from the past several years will suffice for now.

Get out your laptop too, if you’ll need to refer to digital calendars, but be careful to avoid being derailed by the distractions of the internet. (Airplane mode is your friend!)

Gather your materials and head to a quiet place where you can spread out and work undisturbed. A cup of tea, ambient music, or a burning candle can help generate a calm, contemplative atmosphere; use any external reinforcements you need to boost your internal focus. If home is full of distractions-- human or otherwise-- consider a quiet nook at the library, a local park, or a coffee shop.

Begin paging through your reference materials. Remember, this isn’t a deep dive, so don’t let yourself get bogged down. At this point, simply skim and find the highlights.

  • Look for negative things that have become commonplace to you; have they been going on for an extended time? (For example, is your insomnia new or has looking back helped you suddenly realize that you’ve been fighting sleeplessness for a year now?)
  • Look for positive things; what were the highlights of your life last year? Whether it was exotic travel or a weekly trip to the farmers market with your sweetheart, can you incorporate more of those highlights into your future planning?
  • Did you spend your time over the past few years in ways that feel meaningful to you now? If you find yourself wishing you’d spent more time outdoors, or reading, or enjoying live music, how can you make that happen this year?
  • If you’ve tackled the same unwanted habit over and over, have your tactics been similar each time? Instead of doing the same thing that you can now see you’ve tried three years in a row, are there new ways you could address a long-standing issue?
  • How were you thinking about your relationships last year? If they’ve flourished, why is that? Or if you’re having the same fights the same way all the time, is there a new way to disrupt the norm and address destructive patterns?
  • What goals have you set over and over, but not fully accomplished? Can you see patterns there? Would a small tweak to the process (or the goal itself) lead to more satisfaction?


Now that you’ve skimmed over your reference materials, take a small pause before you advance. Is there anything that surprises you about looking back on the past few years? Is there a memory that felt minor when it was formed but today makes you unexpectedly happy, or a small event that feels tragic now? Make note of these peaks and valleys, and think about why they’re standing out above everything else.

Equipped with these fresh insights, you can take your new calendar and fresh journal and begin to thoughtfully design your upcoming year. Think deeply about what you will want to read in this year’s journal at the end of next year. This is your chance to choose that reality and actively create those memories for yourself!

Reflection is worth the investment of time required: looking into the past can help us live a calmer, better-informed present, and plan more strategically for the future.

Next week, we’ll discuss how to take the review practice even further with a deep dive into your personal history.

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