It’s not the most uplifting time of the year.
January may start off with sincere intentions of fulfilling new year’s resolutions, but by February, many of us feel dragged down by low energy and mood.
Motivation starts to wane, and you feel like curling up under a weighted blanket and distracting yourself with Netflix until the sun returns.
But just because you don’t feel like bearing the cold wet weather to go to the gym or meet with friends, doesn’t mean you have to put your goals on hold.
Solitary time indoors is the perfect opportunity for in-depth self-reflection and life planning.
Honest, purpose-driven self-reflection is the precursor to goal setting — it helps us figure out what we want, and more importantly — why we want it — what matters most to us.
But where do you start?
The following are 3 powerful exercises in self-discovery that will help you connect with your deeply held beliefs and emotions, uncover what matters most to you, reflect on past triumphs and struggles and plan an inspired route to your goals.
And the best part: they can all be done under a weighted blanket with a hot cup of tea or coffee.
#1: Expressive Writing
Some of us are able to articulate our inner feelings, beliefs and struggles with passion and clarity. But for some of us, thoughts and feelings are more vague and undefined. It can be hard to put a finger on why you feel unmotivated, doubtful, anxious, or just plain stuck.
Expressive writing is writing for the sole purpose of putting your own thoughts and feelings into words. There are no other goals — this writing is for your eyes only, and it doesn’t need to be in any type of formal structure.
I’ve been writing expressively for about 15 years, and I’ve come to rely on the practice to help me understand how I truly feel at any given time, and how I can best move forward.
When I sit down and start typing, I begin to peel back layers of defensiveness, anger and frustration that often cover up deeper feelings of jealousy, unworthiness, hurt and fear.
When I am able to touch the truth of those innermost feelings and beliefs that lie at the core of my psyche, I am in a better position to identify what really holds me back from moving forward, and brainstorm solutions.
The process of change can only begin with a genuine connection and knowledge of our own feelings. Practicing expressive writing can help strengthen and clarify that connection.
How to Get Started
Open a blank document on your computer, or grab a notebook and a pen, and just start writing your thoughts in real-time — this is also called “stream of consciousness” style writing.
Just let your thoughts flow freely from your mind and onto the blank page.
If you feel stiff or stuck, start by recounting the happenings of the day, and how they made you feel.
Making a daily or weekly habit of writing about the specific events of your life is called journaling — and it’s a great form of expressive writing.
The website Journal Smarter has some excellent prompts to get you started.
On the topic of expressive writing in general, James Pennebaker has written several books — one being Opening Up by Writing it Down.
Pennebaker is an expert in using expressive writing to heal from trauma.
#2: Core Values Work
You might have an idea of what you want out of life — to make more money, more friends or earn a degree.
But have you ever thought about why you want those things? What do your goals say about who you are?
Maybe making more money for you means getting to have more freedom in life. More friends means love, connection and empathy. Getting a degree means attaining wisdom and competence.
Underneath all of your desires, you’ll find your core values — the unchanging qualities of being that are most important to you.
Core values are much more than goals — which are ever-changing and aren’t always met. Your values are life directions — they can serve as steadfast guideposts to return to, even when goals aren’t met or life events intervene with your plans.
Some examples of core values: Authenticity, compassion, faith, creativity, balance, discipline.
Taking the time to deeply contemplate your values and create a list of them is a great starting point for goal-setting, and more importantly — they create a pathway to a more authentic and meaningful life.
How to Get Started
There are varying processes to uncover your core values, but my favorite way to start is to list the important areas in your life. Your list might look something like:
When you’ve got a list of no more than 10 different “life domains,” list the values you most wish to express within those areas. For example:
- Marriage: Love, connection, intimacy, empathy, trust
- Work: Discipline, creativity, focus, flexibility
After you’ve got all of them listed, choose one life domain and list a few actions you can take to move toward those values within that domain. For example:
- Going on date nights to increase connection and intimacy
- Having a nightly conversation before bed, to cultivate empathy and build trust
Once you have your list, take one action and set a “SMART” goal for it.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
If you’re unfamiliar, you can find an excellent guide on how to set SMART goals here.
Here’s an example of a “SMART” goal incorporating your values:
“I plan to increase connection and intimacy by going out on a date night with my spouse once per week for the next 6 months.”
If you are interested in learning more about discovering your values, the book The Clarity Method by Life Coach Tim Brownson is a great source.
I am also a huge fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which aims to help people reduce internal suffering and move toward what they value.
A Liberated Mind by Stephen C. Hayes is a good ACT book to start with.
#3: The Yearly Review
The past can become a giant blur when you have a busy, active life. Months tend to fly by without much reflection, and before you know it, it’s a new year.
You might feel like you expended a lot of energy, yet you aren’t much closer to where you want to be in life.
A yearly review is a written reflection of your goals or endeavors during the previous year — what worked and what didn’t, and the lessons you learned.
It’s similar to an annual review you would get at a job — only this one is more personal, and you don’t have to show it to anyone unless you want to.
Conducting your own yearly review helps you acknowledge and celebrate the personal wins that are usually forgotten, while also bringing unhelpful habits and thought patterns into focus.
How to Get Started
Habits blogger and best-selling author James Clear has published his own annual reviews each year since 2013, and he uses a simple, easy-to-replicate format. His review aims to answer these 3 questions:
- What went well this year?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What am I working toward?
The exercise isn’t meant to be a way to criticize and berate yourself — it’s an opportunity to honestly explore your strengths and triumphs, and valuable lessons learned from mistakes.
If you find yourself stiff or stumped on how to answer these questions, just start with the life domains you listed in the previous exercise and answer each question within that domain.
Preparing to Bloom
Winter days may be dull and gray, but they don’t have to go to waste.
You can use this quieter time to do the inner work it takes to move toward a vital, meaningful life.
Expressive writing uncovers your deeply held beliefs and emotions.
Values work connects you with who you are, and what most matters most.
The yearly review brings an honest perspective to your past, and a hopeful plan for the future.
It’s tough to imagine the vibrant colors of flowers when you’re smack in the middle of a cold and bleak winter — but think of self-reflection as the careful planting and watering of seeds that will help prepare you to bloom when Spring finally arrives.