One of the more extraordinary and wonderful things that happened to me in the last decade was – as some of you already know – appearing as Lauren Laverne’s castaway on Desert Island Discs last summer. But one of its lasting legacies (other than the e-mails which are still coming in) from people who enjoyed it is that it reminded me of the importance of self reflection.
Mostly, we bumble through life getting stuff done. It’s only when something big happens – the loss of someone close to us, a scary health diagnosis, getting fired – that we tend to re-assess life. And important as I know in my heart of hearts that it is to take time for self reflection, it wasn’t till I had to sit down and think about my life in order to share with Lauren Laverne and three million plus other people that I really and truly thought about some of the things (good and bad) that have happened to me.
I felt bad and a bit guilty about that, actually – until I heard a recent episode of the same programme with film director Asif Kapadia, who said exactly the same thing: that it wasn’t till he had to prepare for the programme that he really thought about some of the family issues he’d experienced, and talked through them with his sisters. (It’s a great listen, BTW – and you can find it on the Desert Island Discs app, first broadcast 1st December.)
And it strikes me, as we kick off a new decade, that it’s the perfect time for some true ’2020 vision’ – in other words, taking the time to look back at our lives and really process some stuff, with the aim of making some changes and perhaps changing tack and doing more of the stuff that makes our spirits soar, and less of the stuff that drags us down.
Now, you can’t really do this while you’re driving along, or doing the washing up, or watching The Crown. In order to practice self reflection effectively, you need to disconnect from the world a bit and really do some thinking. Disconnecting from the world is vital, to allow time and space for self reflection. You need somewhere you can focus. (A shed, a corner of a café where you don’t know anyone, a park bench. Though maybe not the park bench in January.) It might look like you’re day-dreaming, to others – but actually, you’re deliberately taking time out to reflect on events, thoughts, feelings and actions. Things we did and didn’t do. What worked, what didn’t, what we regret. (Personally I try not to regret anything, looking upon everything that didn’t work out as a lesson in how to do things better next time.) We spend so much of our lives trying to get to know other people better – friends, family, colleagues – but frankly, turning that lens on ourselves is something most of us rarely take time to do.
And writing stuff down really helps. Preferably on nice stationery or in a beautiful notebook, which I know sounds really shallow but there’s a point to it: it says something about your intention that you’re honouring it with a new notebook and your favourite pen. A long-term stationery nut generally, I’m a massive fan of the ‘tools’ for self-reflection and goal-setting offered by kikki.K, a chain founded by Kristina Karlsson, who’s also written a great book that’s perfect for anyone who wants to change their path, called Your Dream Life Starts Here. They also make journals and planners to help you map everything out and ‘grow’ – after, that is, you’ve spent a bit of time on self-reflection. (Apparently this is something Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey take time to do regularly, and frankly, if it’s good enough for them…).
What I promise you’ll find is that self reflection is great for getting a different and calmer perspective on things that seemed upsetting at the time. It can help us look at where they sit in ‘the grand scheme of things’, and my experience is that even things that feel very overwhelming while you’re in the centre of a storm can look quite different from a place of calm.
Most importantly, it lets us see whether what we’re doing now, the path we’re taking, is in sync with our long-term goals. And if we don’t have long-term goals…? Trust me: if you don’t have a life plan, you’re really not alone here. For years I had a straw-in-the-wind approach to life, trusting to the universe to point me in the right direction and taking advantage of opportunities that were offered to me. As it happens I did pretty darned well, with that approach – but actually, Desert Island Discs really made me think about what I want to be doing in future, the difference I want to make, and about changes I could make to my life to make it fit my purpose. This awareness of priorities makes it so much easier to chase our goals or change path so the direction we’re headed in fits more with who we are today.
The bottom line is that we live in a world in which we’re obsessed with getting stuff done. The treadmill of list-ticking, getting from A to B, filling the fridge, refilling the fridge, fulfilling our commitments to bosses/partners/friends/colleagues, of powering through chapters so that we’re caught up with our reading group – and so on and on and on and on – means that we have to make time for self-reflection. So that’s certainly something that’s top of my own ‘To Do’ list for 2020, bumping lots of other less important actions off the bottom.
Of course, I still pinch myself that I got asked to do that radio show, as a life-long fan. (Literally. I listened to it with my Mum every Sunday while she was cooking Sunday lunch.) But the best thing that came out of it really was being forced to do some self-reflection, and to hold a mirror up to my life without waiting for a massive life-changing event to happen. So my challenge to you for 2020 is: imagine you’ve been asked to share your life with millions of other people. What have you achieved? What’s gone right? What’s gone wrong? What are you proud of, what makes you happy? Where do you want to be in ten years’ time, at the start of the next decade – and what do you need to do, to get yourself there?
Or will you just going to bumble through life, ticking things off that To Do list, without looking where you’re going…?
It’s up to nobody but you.