Over the last several years, I’ve come to believe that if you do four things daily, you’ll see steady improvement in your life: meditate/pray, get some exercise, get plenty of sleep, and write a reflective journal entry. I’ve made it my goal to do those four things every single day.
Today, I want to focus in on the value of that reflective journal entry. It’s useful for one simple reason: It provides an opportunity for you to step back and look at your life outside of the heat of the moment. When you do that – when you re-evaluate your day-to-day life outside of those moments when you’re actually doing those day-to-day things – you can often see little mistakes that you’re making, and those mistakes are often easy to fix and improve. By doing so, you directly make your life better. This applies to virtually every avenue of life: financial, professional, social, spiritual, and so on.
For me, journaling has become a morning routine. I use a paper journal and a pen and I try to find a quiet spot somewhere, usually on the deck behind our house. I enjoy the morning sunshine and I reflect on two different things. First, I make a list of five or so things I’m grateful for right then. My children. The sound of the birds. A sleepy kiss from my wife that morning. Good health. Whatever it is in my life that I feel content and joyful about at that moment gets listed.
The other part, though, is the one I want to talk about. I think about at least one thing that I could have done better yesterday and I write about it. I write down what I did wrong, why I think it was wrong, and what I could have done better.
So, to start, what did I do wrong? I simply try to think about something that I did yesterday that doesn’t live up to my goals for myself or what I expect out of myself. Maybe I spent money foolishly. A few days ago, I bought an expensive board game and blew my monthly hobby budget to smithereens, for example, which was clearly a mistake. A while back, I chided myself for making a mistake on a tax return.
I’ve made mistakes in how I relate to people. I’ve made mistakes in keeping up with personal goals. I’ve made mistakes in parenting and in marriage.
The goal is to come up with something that I didn’t do as well as I could have yesterday and simply write about it.
Then, I ask myself why I think that it was a mistake. Clearly, I had some reason for choosing the path that I chose. Why was it a mistake? Why were my reasons in the moment so flawed?
For example, let’s take that recent board game purchase. I spent a lot to buy a fairly expensive game at cost, but it was a title that has been out of print for a while and I was almost shocked to see it on a store shelf. I chose to buy it because I perceived that I would likely not have a chance to do so again.
The question, though, is whether or not it still made sense, even given that. Should I have bought it, even knowing I blew my hobby budget to smithereens? Should I have bought it knowing that I have other board games right now that I’m excited to play, and that I have other hobby items that I’m thinking about purchasing soon? I felt that the purchase was a misstep, looking back, but why? Why was it a misstep?
Another recent mistake that I wrote about came from an awkward social situation. Sometimes, in group settings, I simply don’t know what to say, so I step back and just listen and don’t say anything at all. Usually that’s fine, but later on I realize that I probably should have said something and been more involved. This happened recently when I was in a group of people discussing funding for a local charity. I had a suggestion that I thought was really useful, but my introverted nature made me stay quiet. Looking back, I shouldn’t have stayed quiet, because I could have actually been a helpful part of that conversation and could have strengthened some community relationships.
After that, I ask myself how I could have done it better. I usually visualize myself actually not making that mistake and making the better choice. I visualize the better outcome from it. I’ll tease that around in my head a little bit and then write about it. The goal is to think about a better way of doing things rather than just chiding myself for a mistake. I also look for ways to fix that mistake, or to avoid repeating it going forward.
With the game purchase, I probably shouldn’t have purchased it at all, or, if I did, I should have sold other games to pay for it or flipped it immediately for a profit. Honestly, I have other games to play. So, what I ended up doing first is visualizing myself not buying the game. Then, I resolved to actually sell off a couple of other games to even things out.
With the conversation, I visualized myself actually participating in that conversation with a positive outcome, so that I would feel more prepared to speak out in similar situations going forward. I also took steps to contact a couple of people in the conversation to share what I knew as a follow-up. I also started listening to the audiobook of How to Win Friends and Influence People again, as I see some tendency in myself to revert back to being publicly introverted lately.
That three-pronged approach – this is a problem, this is why it’s a problem, this is what I can do to fix that problem – is a great way to evaluate the day that’s gone past and slowly, step by step, craft myself into being a better person.
Some days, I’ll come up with two or three mistakes and, if I can, I’ll write about each of them. I’ve had entries that have run on for pages, provided that I have 45 minutes or an hour to write them all out. Often, though, I keep the entry short and stick with just one mistake paired with four or five things I’m grateful for.
Remember, the philosophy under this is that my choices are the one factor shaping my life’s destiny that I can control, so it’s worth my time to shape myself to aim toward the best possible outcome. That takes time, because there are so many dimensions of life upon which we can improve. Our good financial choices. Our knowledge. Our social skills. Our ability to organize information. It goes on and on and on and on.
It’s also invaluable to remind myself that I truly do have a good life and that I don’t need to buy things to make it better. For me, reflecting on gratitude reminds me that the true frontier of achieving financial independence and a better life really is in improving myself. I have a good life as it is, and the surest way I have for undermining that is in bad personal choices. Buying more things, for example, generally won’t improve my life very much, but it can undermine the financial stability upon which this good life rests. What more do I really need? My gratitude reflections remind me of that, and it supports that reflection on what I can improve about yesterday.
I strongly encourage you to give a trial run to a daily routine of asking yourself what you can improve about yesterday. Commit to doing it for a few weeks and see if you notice any life improvements. Along the way, consider pairing that evaluation of yesterday with some thoughts about the things you’re grateful for each day.
You might just find that, together, those things put you in a much better mindset to tackle the challenges of your life, from financial and professional challenges to things like parenting and personal relationships. These types of simple reflections have been a key part of improving my own personal finance choices over the last several years, as well as many other dimensions of my life.