How Daily Reflection Empowers Healthy Habits
Nurturing kindness through bullet journaling and personal accountability.
Posted November 16, 2017
Do you have enough energy to be kind today?
As science shows, almost everything stores energy that can be released when needed. Human beings are no exception. It is far easier for me to move through the world with kindness when my personal battery is full. Those close to me will confirm that my ability to remain kind falters when I am hungry, tired, or emotionally depleted. At these times, I move into a place of self-protection and preservation of my own energy. I become reluctant to share it with others and to be generous with kindness. Perhaps this is true for you too?
What do you say “yes” to each day?
In an attempt to figure out how to keep my own energy levels high, and therefore keep my kindness energy available to others, a couple years ago I decided to create a list of what actions my ideal self would say “yes” to each day and track it daily. Across the years, this list has changed; in fact, I modify it slightly every month. But I keep two principles consistent. First, I never have more than ten actions my ideal self would do daily (this is a manageable number for me). Second, each action roughly falls into one of three categories:
- Health-related actions. These include the usual suspects such as exercise, eating healthily, meditating/prayer, or drinking eight glasses of water a day. Several of these are always on my action list.
- Social-related actions. I realized after a year of making a monthly list, I was missing actions relating to a social life. I added “having fun,” and while it is embarrassing to admit, for a long while this was also the action least often checked at the end of the day! More recently I have added “be a blessing," which is my way of remembering how I may have been of service to someone.
- Value-related actions. I list a few actions that keep me true to my purpose in life, such as writing or practicing a new skill. I know it takes energy to do these things, but doing things in alignment with who I am also energizes me. One tricky item often on my list is “nada mas” (Spanish for “nothing more”), to indicate I didn’t add anything more that day to clutter my life logistically or emotionally. I also list “simplify” to indicate that I actually reduced clutter in my living space (see www.bemorewithless.com for ideas).
For several years, I used an Excel spreadsheet to track what I did or did not do. Last year I started using paper and pens to keep a “bullet journal,” which brought art and creativity back into my daily life (check off “having fun”), and also gave me a new place to keep track of my daily actions. I am providing a picture here of both types of balanced life trackers.
The wisdom and science of using daily reflection to empower healthy habits
The idea of reflecting at the end of each day on what we do or do not do is an ancient practice and one supported by research on how to develop good habits in life. For an example of how this relates to ancient practices, I recommend Paramahansa Yogananda’s (1999) commentary, in which he writes:
“The Gita therefore points out in its first stanza the prime necessity to man [or woman] of nightly introspection, that he may clearly discern which force…has won the daily battle” (p. 9).
From Christianity, St. Ignatius leaves us with the tradition of the Examen, an exercise of reviewing the day with the queries,
“Where was Spirit present?” and “When did I feel far from Spirit?”
This guidance is consistent with current psychological research, which shows that focusing on healthy habits and mindsets is more powerful than spending energy trying to suppress the negative ones (Hansen, 2013). But to do this we have to be willing to intentionally repeat and reflect on the healthy behaviors in which we engage. We know from work on neuroplasticity that neural pathways, which hold the memory of our habits, strengthen or go away depending on how much they are used. When we practice and focus on life habits that keep us balanced and true to ourselves, we strengthen these neural pathways and establish more positive habits.
In our quick-fix culture, it is good to be aware that growing healthy habits take a little time. The “21 days to change a habit” myth is not entirely supported by evidence. Recent research indicates establishing healthy habits takes around two months (or 66 days to precise) (Lally et al., 2010).
Personal reflection as a nightly practice
I encourage you to try tracking six to 10 daily actions your ideal self does that helps you generate the energy needed to be a kind person each day. Then, each evening, without judgment, reflect on what you did or did not do. Over the following weeks, ask yourself what is the impact? Are these practices good for my energy? Do I have more capacity to be kind to myself and others?
If yes, celebrate and continue. If not, adjust, using the data you have collected about yourself.
Hansen, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness. New York: Random House.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674
Yogananda, P. (1999). God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita. Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship.