This book excerpt from “The Bullet Journal Method” is a step-by-step guide to reflection as a process of regular reviews to keep yourself on track with your goals.

Ryder Carroll
Dec 18, 2018 · 9 min read
“The Thinker” — photo by Joe deSousa.

One of my favorite sculptures is called The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. It’s the one with the naked guy sitting on a block, resting his head on his hand, you know, thinking. Like a lot of Rodin’s work, it feels unfinished. Some surfaces appear rough; others lack detail. The visibility of these millions of minute choices imparts immediacy and humanity to his work — it’s as though we can see the artist himself thinking.

Like a block of marble, our lives are finite. They start out rough and formless. Each choice we make places a chisel to the stone. Each action irreversibly chips away time. No action is so insignificant that it can’t benefit from our attention. It’s the lack of attention that’s often responsible for the rubble of cringeworthy decisions weighing on our conscience.

To be sure, making bad decisions, no matter how smart or wise you are, is an unavoidable part of being human. Life is also an unruly medium. It slips, it shatters, it shifts, it crushes. Sometimes we even find ourselves on the receiving end of the chisel. It leaves us all rough around the edges. The beautiful thing is, as long as you’re still alive, there is always material left to work with. Like The Thinker, your life doesn’t have to be big, polished, or perfect to be beautiful. That said, we can do better.

Many poor decisions are born in the vacuum of self- awareness. We get so caught up in the doing of things that we forget to ask why we’re doing them in the first place. Asking why is the first small but deliberate step we can take in the search for meaning.

The search for meaning often begins later than it needs to. Because it seems like such a monumental or esoteric undertaking, we tend to avoid this form of inquiry until it’s forced on us by some shade of crisis or circumstance. Exploring our why from these dim places leaves us at a disadvantage. Our ability to see and think clearly is shrouded by our suffering. Soul- searching doesn’t need to be confined to the dark seasons of our lives. It can be a gentle part of our everyday. It all begins with becoming mindful of how we’re investing our time and energy — the things our Bullet Journal is faithfully recording for our reference.

You may be thinking, Analyzing my to-do list isn’t going to answer life’s big questions. Maybe, or maybe it’s because we’re untrained in the art of asking these types of questions. To understand the big intimidating whys (What is the meaning of life? Why am I here?), we start by asking the small whys: Why am I working on this project? Why is my partner irritating me? Why am I feeling stressed? In the Bullet Journal, we do this through the practice of Reflection.

Reflection is the nursery of intentionality. It grants us the protected mental environment we need to reclaim some much-needed perspective and begin to ask why. Through Reflection, we cultivate the habit of checking in with ourselves to examine our progress, our responsibilities, our circumstances, and our state of mind. It helps us see if we’re solving the right problems, answering the right questions. It’s by questioning our experience that we begin to sort the wheat from the chaff — the why from the what.

Don’t worry, Reflection is not an invitation to flagellate yourself for past failures. It’s an opportunity to harvest the rich information embedded in your lived experience and use it to fertilize your future.

Our lives are lived in seasons of more, seasons of less, seasons of triumph, seasons of loss. Each season sees our needs change. We live, learn, and adapt. So, too, must our definition of meaning. Things that grow in one season rot in another. If we blindly hold on to the past, we’ll be forced to sustain ourselves with the expiring beliefs from seasons gone by. No wonder we’re often left feeling unsatisfied, empty, starving for substance.

In order to live fulfilling lives, we have to embrace the shifting nature of our experience by making our search for meaning an ongoing practice. This is why the Bullet Journal method has multiple Reflection mechanisms built right in. This is where the method shifts from a system into a practice by helping us continually chip away at what is unnecessary to reveal what is meaningful.


In Practice

Maybe you’re thinking, Ryder, I want to be a more reflective person, but I never have time. I need to be in the right headspace to think deep thoughts. My thoughts are all over the place, and so am I.

If you’re Bullet Journaling, then you’ve already begun. By keeping different types of logs, you’re not only organizing your responsibilities, you’re also documenting your thoughts and actions. It’s a passive form of reflection! All you need to do now is transition at your own pace from passive reflection to active reflection.

Daily Reflection

Throughout the day, you’re using your Daily Log (page 86 in The Bullet Journal Method) to simply capture your thoughts. Now it’s just a matter of coming back to them. That’s what Daily Reflection is designed for. It allows you to bookend each day with two dedicated times of active introspection.

(All illustrations by the author.)

AM Reflection: A Time to Plan

In the morning, or before you dive into your day, take a few moments to sit down with your Bullet Journal. If you’re one of those people who wakes with a mind swelling with thoughts, now’s the time to relieve that pressure. Offload anything that’s bubbled up overnight. Clear your mind to make room for the day ahead. For those of you breakfast zombies, the AM Reflection helps get the gears turning.

Next, review all the pages of the current month to remind yourself of any open Tasks. This helps you focus and clarify your priorities and plan accordingly. You’ll into your day with confidence, clarity, and direction.

PM Reflection: A Time to Review

Where the AM Reflection favors planning to gear up for your day, the PM Reflection leans toward review to help you unwind. Before you go to bed, sit down with your Bullet Journal and scan what you’ve logged throughout the day. Mark completed Tasks with an “X.” If a Task is missing, write it down. Again, you’re unburdening your mind.

Once your journal is updated, bring your attention to each item individually. Here’s where you begin to ask: Why is this important? Why am I doing this? Why is this a priority? And so on. This will help you surface distractions. Strike out the Tasks you’ve deemed to be irrelevant.

Finally, take a moment to appreciate your progress. Acknowledge the simple ways in which you’ve won the day. The PM Reflection can be a wonderful way to decompress before you sleep, relieving stress and anxiety through a sense of progress, preparedness, and purpose.

TIP: You can use your Daily Reflection as your daily digital detox window. After your PM Reflection, implement a “screens off” policy that lasts until you’ve completed your AM Reflection the following morning. It’s a simple way to get yourself into the habit of unplugging.


Monthly and Yearly Reflection Through Migration

Technology is always moving us toward a more seamless existence. The less friction, the better. That’s great when you’re ordering pizza. You don’t really need to understand all the miraculous tech that allows that hot cheesy goodness to appear out of thin air at your doorstep. Convenience, however, often comes at the expense of understanding. The less time you spend examining things, the less you know about them. When it comes to understanding how you spend your life, it’s important to slow down and take the time.

Migration is designed to add the friction you need to slow down, step back, and consider the things you task yourself with. On the surface it’s an automatic filtering mechanism, designed to leverage your limited patience. If something is not worth the few seconds it takes to rewrite it, then chances are it’s really not important. In addition, handwriting triggers our critical thinking, helping us draw new connections between thoughts. As you migrate each item, you give yourself a chance to identify unconventional relationships or opportunities by holding each item under the microscope of your attention.

For everything we say yes to, we’re saying no to something else. Migration gives you an opportunity to recommit to what matters and let go of what does not. As Bruce Lee once said, “It is not daily increase but daily decrease; hack away the unessential.”

Consistency

I’m often asked how much time I spend on Daily Reflection. On average, I usually devote 5 to 15 minutes per session. It’s not about how much time it takes; it’s about being consistent. If you find yourself failing to check in for Reflection, reduce the amount of time you spend. Take as much or as little time as you need to make it part of your daily routine.

The goal is getting into the habit of checking in with yourself, asking small whys. Over time, you get better at answering these questions. You’re refining your beliefs, your values, your ability to spot your weaknesses and your strengths. Slowly but surely you start to weed out distractions, which results in you steadily becoming more present and aware.

Awareness

In his beautiful commencement speech “This Is Water,” at Kenyon College, author David Foster Wallace talked about the day-to-day and how “the so-called ‘real world’ will not discourage you from operating on your own default settings, because the so-called ‘real world’ of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.”

He’s talking about how, if we’re not careful, we can start to go on autopilot, which can greatly diminish our experience of the world. During Reflection, we get in the habit of switching off our autopilot by examining our experience. This form of inquiry requires us to ask questions and not take things at face value. It encourages us how to think about ourselves and the world in a more considered way.

Through consistently engaging with our experience, we become aware that even the dullest moment can have a hidden depth. As you cultivate your awareness, “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.”

Summary

When you go to the optometrist, you’re asked to read symbols off a chart through a large metal device filled with lenses known as a phoropter. As you read, the optometrist switches lenses, asking you which brings the symbols into focus. Is it better now? Click. How about now? Click. The purpose is to find an array of lenses that alters the way light hits our retinas so that we may see with greater clarity.

When it comes to living a more intentional life, Reflection functions as a phoropter. It’s the mechanism that helps improve our perception, but in order for it to work properly, we need to add the lenses. It’s likely you already have some of your own, like your values and your beliefs. Reflection, however, is a rich and ancient practice. Each tradition offers its own lens through which we can correct our shortsightedness and sharpen our insight when we reflect. In the chapters that follow (in The Bullet Journal Method), I’ll introduce you to the lenses I’ve found most useful. Let’s explore these lenses designed to help us pull our life into greater focus.


Read the entire book, The Bullet Journal Method, on Amazon or from BulletJournal.com.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Ryder Carroll

Written by

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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