The Reflective Spiral of Personal Growth
Every single day you make choices that affect your life.
“Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.” — Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Some choices are small, but pile upon one another to create a mountain over a lifetime. Saving and investing $5 a day can mean having millions in 50 years. One cigarette is no big deal; a pack a day has a short-term impact; decades later, you have lung disease or cancer.
Other choices feel huge, but change your life’s trajectory only slightly. Breaking up with your first love is the worst possible thing ever at the time; fifty years later, it is often just the final note of a sweet old song.
Reflective practice helps you make better choices and move your life in the direction you want it to go. One easy-to-remember model for reflection is to ask yourself three questions: What? So What? Now What?
What? This is your data-collecting phase. Identify what has happened and what is currently happening in your life.
So What? This is the phase in which you make meaning out of the actual events. You examine your feelings, identify how your activities fit into your values and life goals, and evaluate what has happened. What has gone well? What would you change, given the chance?
Now What? Based on your evaluation, what are your plans for the future? Envision how you will maintain the good things in your life and what you will do to make the changes you would like.
This model scales to any level, from big picture life goals and values down to daily activities.
The big picture
I like to use a mind map to examine the “what” in my life. You may have seen the map I made a year ago. It looks like this:
My priorities are basic. You can see that I put my “what’s” into four categories that sometimes overlap. I have my relationships (the hearts), home (green), self-care (clouds), and Messy Desk Consulting, which is a little bit self-care, and a little bit social since I do it for love, not money.
As I look at those categories, I can see where I was when I made the map. I notice that I left out a huge section of my life, my 9to5 job (apparently, I put it out of my mind when I made the map).
My “so what” tells me that my heart is very much in that passion project, and I want to pursue it further.
My “now what” from this map — put more time and effort into Messy Desk Consulting.
Make SMART(ER) goals
At the next level, you operationalize that big picture “so what” into doable goals.
As we spiral down into creating actionable goals, we ask ourselves, “so what?” again. This time, I realize that my “focus more on Messy Desk” is only a direction that doesn’t prescribe action.
I translated that direction into an objective: build the foundations of my freelance and coaching work to segue out of the 9to5 in a few years.
That means my goals and milestones for last year were steps toward the Messy Desk objective: 1) Write and publish The Messy Planner (done); 2) Establish masterclasses related to planning (done); 3) Work on Messy Desk output (writing, marketing, infrastructure) every day (ongoing).
Now and then, spiral back to your goals and reflect on them within the context of our life’s big picture. Nearly everyone uses New Year’s to think over the past year and make resolutions for the coming year. Using this process annually is useful, but adding quarterly or monthly reviews keeps your attention fixed on those goals throughout the year.
I’m due for an annual reset of my goals, so here’s how my review at this level of the spiral goes:
What: I’ve met my publishing and masterclass goals for the year. I have picked up the pace of writing/marketing/infrastructure.
So What: This still feels like the direction I want to go, but I spent less time with my spouse than I would like during the last month as I pushed to finish The Messy Planner.
Now What: My goals for the next quarter 1) Have a weekly digital-free date night; 2) Make the goal for Messy writing/marketing/infrastructure six days a week, with one day off; 3) Focus on marketing this first book and building portfolio for the first quarter, and move into creating the next book next quarter.
Each week, I like to think through the past week and decide what I will focus on for the coming week. This reflection can follow the same pattern:
What: This week, I worked on marketing, posted my About Me and one Everything Shortform piece on Medium, reworked an article for publication on Vocal, went back to my 9to5 office, and ran a staff retreat. I also had a lovely date with my spouse.
So What: I can pat myself on the back for getting that much done while regaining some life balance. I’m actually surprised I published as much as I did. However, it was not a good plan to schedule an in-person retreat for all staff (even masked and distanced, in a well-ventilated space) during times of COVID.
Now What: Next week, I want to get at least two full-length articles to completion and work on my mailing list and landing page infrastructure. For the 9to5 job, I need to manage workflows and publicize closures now that we are all quarantined and tested again on Monday.
Be sure to gather hard data in your “what” phase. Your memory is fallible. I review the daily log in my Messy Planner to see what I’ve done during the week; I also check in on the various platforms where I publish. When I started writing my “what” for this week, I honestly thought I hadn’t published anything and felt bad about that. Knowing I’d published one full-length piece and two short forms helped me feel better about my progress toward my goals.
This is the point where we review those individual choices we make every day. In this case, the “what” is much smaller. When did you wake up? What did you eat? What was your focus for the day? What did you do? What do you notice about the day’s events?
My day yesterday was spent in a Zoom meeting, so reviewing it would bore you to tears.
Let’s imagine a much more fun day:
My hypothetical what: I woke up at my happy time of 7:30 with my cat rumbling in my ear like a semi idling. Had a breakfast hot pocket and a cup of coffee. I Sat down at the computer and started playing Stardew Valley (because of, awesome update). Played, on and off, for about 6 hours. I ate…I dunno what all, but chips and cheese were in there somewhere. I watched TV with my spouse in the evening. Drank a bottle of wine.
So what: My first thought is to beat myself up for wasting a day. But I really do need the downtime. I had a good time playing the game, and I feel more ready to get back to work tomorrow. The day didn’t move me toward my goals, except maybe the time with my partner. I made some not-so-great food and drink choices, too. I’m grateful that I have the free time to do these things.
Now what: I just call this one of my days off on my Messy Desk goals. That means I won’t take another day off for the rest of the week, but that’s OK. As for food and drink, I plan to pay more attention to eating veggies and less fatty food in the future. I do feel ready to move forward with more clarity. I was getting bogged down before.
Taking time to reflect allows you to shape your life, rather than just letting it happen to you. You have control over each choice. You can choose to play video games and eat chips all day, and it is not a problem now and then. Still, you want to ask deeper questions when you stop making progress toward your goals. Make sure your “so what” includes an interrogation of why you are doing what you are doing. Have you hit a barrier in reaching your goal? Or is the issue that you don’t really want the goal?
Now you see the reflective cycle in action as it spirals down from big picture to daily practice. At each level, remember:
keep an eye on your big picture goals;
consider the balance of your life and how the parts fit together;
feel gratitude for the good in your life;
enjoy the sense of accomplishment when you move toward your goals;
making tiny changes daily adds up to a big difference in the long run.
Taking time to reflect and plan at each level of the spiral may seem complicated and time-consuming. It really isn’t. Just remember “What? — So What? — Now What?” and take a few minutes to think about where you are now and what you want to do in the future. Each time you practice reflection and act on your insights, you make choices that accrue for your future.
This post was originally published on Medium.