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What's Working? A 5-Minute Exercise for a Better Life

This short reflection helps clarify your values and priorities.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”*

Life is composed of time and attention.

Every season, I spend five minutes reflecting on the things in my life that are bringing me joy, the things that are bringing me down, and the things that are making my life just a little better. Every time I do it, the trajectory of my life takes a turn for the better.

Take a Piece of Paper

Begin this exercise with a piece of paper or an open journal page. Divide the page into four quadrants. In each quadrant, write one of four phrases:

  • What's working?
  • What's not working?
  • Do more of...
  • Do less of...

Then fill it in.

What's working? I use this section to reflect on things in my life I'm happy with. More importantly, I think about why those things are making me happy. Notice this whole list is about making change.

What specific actions am I taking that shape my life for the better? The things I list can be profound (donating platelets) or trivial (making soup on Wednesdays). Be specific, and let your mind roam. Knowing what brings you satisfaction helps you think concretely about making more things like that happen.

What's not working? One of the things I've learned is that small irritants steal joy and attention. Let your mind dwell on them here.

Maybe it's opening a kitchen cabinet and having a pile of old yogurt containers fall out. Maybe it's the exercise plan you aren't following. Maybe it's how you're interacting with a co-worker or something you're spending a lot of time on, but is not making you happy. List it. You can't change something you're sweeping under the rug.

Do more of... Now we're taking action. Where do you want to spend your time and your attention?

This can be different from what's working. I really like having soup for Wednesday dinners and family tea on Sundays, but I don't want to do more of that. But I do want to go to the movies more often and spend more time writing up my research.

I love this quadrant because it asks me to think about what things make me happier and how I can put more of them into my life.

Do less of... Identifying time sinks and attention sucks can be just what we need to make time for what makes us happy. I'm not going to have time to play more ukulele if I don't spend less time scanning Facebook.

Why I love this exercise

I love this exercise because it helps me reflect on small and big things. It doesn't have to go in order—I flit from quadrant to quadrant. Each item reminds me of something else (much like the pretty good organizing system). It is a standard spread in the Bullet Journal System.

This exercise is also flexible. In addition to using it seasonally, it is an exercise I often introduce to individuals or teams working on projects when we're just a few weeks in and again mid-way through. When finishing a project, it's a good way to reflect on what you want to bring with you to the next project. It works with kids frustrated with school or even their friendships and social life. It is a fantastic exercise for job seekers.

And then... I find this exercise helps me reflect on where I want my attention to be, and where my time is most profitably spent. As a developmentalist, I know that many small changes over time are what create our lives.

The next step is an action plan. Having spent five or ten minutes planning, I can identify one or two things I want to change immediately, a few more for the near future, and some to think about for the future.


* I am not sure who wrote my opening quote. I have seen attributions from Lao Tzu to Benjamin Franklin to Margaret Thatcher to Gandhi. But I believe strongly that how one spends one time and where one focuses one's attention is what creates our lives.

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