A friend and I talked about folding a daily origami heart to mark the transition between a long day in the home office and being ourselves again.
Rituals have become important. Ways to draw invisible lines that can guide us, not just between our life on Zoom and ‘the other life’, but also through a time that has been challenging to say the least. We are still in the midst of it, but as vaccination programs roll out in many countries, people reflect and begin cautiously to imagine what life after COVID-19 might look like.
Conversations everywhere talk not only about loss but also about what we have gained. Many share that they have gained new rituals which have brought them closer. Closer to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues – even when physically distanced.
Especially in the Western cultures, rituals have been eroded over time. They got lost under layers of productivity and commerce. They fell by the wayside as we sped through life. And the rituals or traditions that still matter to us have been curtailed or made impossible. Reduced or no family meetings over Christmas, no end of year celebrations, no Valentine’s Day dinner… There is sadness, frustration, sometimes anger over all that we can’t do. And quite frankly, we are also bone-tired. We need to make space for this sadness, as bottling up emotions can at best be a temporary fix.
Beyond the sadnessthere is a place for personal and modern ritual.
It doesn’t have to feel new-agey or esoteric. Understanding the ingredients of ritual, we can all create our own rituals and bring the experience of safety and meaning to our lives. Since rituals energize us and focus our attention, they can be great way to support us in crafting a meaningful and intentional life.
Here are some ingredients of ritual that can transform ordinary actions into symbolic expression and help you create your ‘DIY ritual’:
Space and setting
An opening element to mark the beginning of your ritual, this might include sensory elements like light (lighting a candle or watching the sunrise), sounds (your own music or a song/ piece of music you listen to, or nature’s sounds), fragrances, the aroma and taste of certain foods…
The intention and meaning you want to mark with this ritual
Finding ways to ensure you are present
Elements of reflection or contemplation
Gratitude or a closing element
Do you wonder which ‘lockdown rituals’ should be carried into the next chapter of life? Start by reflecting on your needs and what feels meaningful. Notice meaningful moments throughout the day and write them down. See what patterns emerge.
If you are experiencing significant transitions this year, or in this moment, here’s a simple ritual that can be used during transition.
It’s a writing practice that helps you connect with the meaning of letting go and beginning something new. You can find it in the post “Transformation and unlearning”.
Usually, the 100-day project begins on 7th April each year – a date as random as the start of the British tax year (6th April anyone??). In 2021 however, the project started on 31st January. Why? We all had a pretty stressful 2020. And so far, 2021 has not exactly started low stress either. People living in the Northern hemisphere will be in the depth of winter. For many this means lockdown, reduced social connections, worries about Covid… the community around #the100dayproject simply wanted something to look forward to.
What better than a creative project and one that helps us practice the concept of creativity as a habit, as something we simply show up for without any pressure to create a daily masterpiece.
In short, #the100dayproject is a free, global art project, based on a simple idea: “choose a creative project, do it every day for 100 days, and share your process online.”
The originator of this project is Michael Bierut, who taught a workshop for the graduate graphic design students at the Yale School of Art. It was brought into the world of Instagram by Ella Luna in 2014.
2021 will be the 8th year of people discovering, deepening, stretching and nourishing their creativity.
It is a practical way of befriending your creativity.
Just like making new friends in real life, these are a few steps you might navigate:
Find out what holds your curiosity
Your project must excite you enough to engage with it for 100 days. Just like when you decide who to approach at a conference, or who in your yoga/art/cooking class is someone you could get on with… In 2019, I did 100-days of sensemaking emotions. I explored 100 different emotions, each with a collage and a found poem. I noticed I was drawn to emotions because they play a key role in my work as a therapist and coach. And it was a way of expanding my emotional vocabulary and explore visual associations of emotions.
Show up consistently
Just as you would when you invest in nurturing a new friendship. Sometimes, a coffee catch-up might feel like effort, but without this commitment, especially in the early stages of a friendship, you won’t be getting very close.
Be open to experiment and change
This is also a useful principle when it comes to friendship in real life, because nothing stays as it is. We relocate, marry, have children, change careers… Any creative project will go through a few iterations, but the intention at its core remains. Possible adjustments might be needed on other parameters. Maybe it’s the amount of time you can spend on it. Maybe you play with different materials…
Incorporate play and fun into your creations
This is a big one for me. I can get a bit serious and ambitious with creations which will inevitably end up with aborting the mission. A friendship that doesn’t allow us to be silly or talk about some light-hearted stuff can easily get a bit too heavy and serious.
My advice for other high achievers: when committing to 100 days, not every day can be deep and meaningful. Being playful brings a lightness, and with that we often make new discoveries of what we enjoy. I discovered my love for found poetry in my 100 days of emotions and they have now become a building block of my creativity.
Build a ritual or routine
Routine can sustain us in moments of wavering, when we don’t know why we bother or simply get bored of 100 repetitive creative acts. This is a good experiment in loyalty and commitment. It acknowledges that we are humans in a busy and distracting world. It’s easy to get distracted, when we are bombarded by news and media, navigate pandemics and life as such.
You can explore what may serve you as an anchor and later apply this to other creative endeavours, areas in life or work.
Is it a time of day?
Is it linked to a ritual like lighting a candle, putting a specific piece of music on?
Is it linked to place – do you best create when you are in the same spot and how can you stick with routine when you need to move around more or even travel? Not that this is currently on the cards or most of us…
Focus on the process
The process is the goal, not the outcome. If you need an upfront definition of what success looks like: showing up consistently for 100 days.
‘Process over product’ is also a mantra in art therapy and creative coaching. The creation might be important and something to keep, but often we learn more by consistently showing up and noticing micro steps in the process.
Practicing how we pick up again after a creative hiatus is an important part of a creative life. And of life in general. Just like getting in touch again with a friend after a busy period or a time when it might have felt that we were on different trajectories. Explore whether you feel the need to catch up, do you need all 100 days to be complete, or are you ok with skipping and having a few gaps. In the end, you make the rules about your creative process.
Notice what helps in showing up.
Which guardrails are useful?
When might they become too rigid?
What do you need to hold yourself accountable?
Do you need external accountability or is the agreement you make with yourself enough? Posting about your project online can help but shouldn’t become something you dread. Share with joy and be gentle if you don’t share on certain days (or at all, depending on your social media use).
For 2021, I have decided to be working in a small format. To make it manageable and to practice reduction, not everything has to be big, complex and multi-layered. Sometimes, small and simple is what I need.
To leave a lot of room for experiments, my project is simply called # 100 days of responding randomly and I’ll share – randomly, not daily – on my Instagram (have a loog for the specific #).
So far, sources of inspiration have been: a podcast I listened to, my clients, my own reflective and coaching work, a sense of stuckness with ongoing restrictions due to the pandemic. I’m curious what else will show up….
Twyla Tharp’s book ‘The Creative Habit. Learn and use it for life’ is one of the books on creativity I return to again and again. I remember looking at it so many times before buying it. I was unsure whether it’s for me. Mainly because Twyla Tharp is a renowned choreographer. And I am not a dancer. In fact, dancing has always felt like a very strange, unlearnable language to me.
I’m so glad I eventually got it because her writing and teaching isn’t just for dancers, choreographers or people interested in dance. It is for everyone who is interested in nurturing and using their creativity. In her book, she says:
Creativity is for everyone
Tharp’s writes about the benefits of engaging in creativity and the many shapes and forms of creativity well beyond artistic endeavours. Her broad definition of creativity aligns with my work and how I aim to introduce creativity into coaching or therapy sessions. I love that she challenges any notion of creativity being elitist or exclusive to people with certain talents, degrees, job titles or skills.
I have read many books about creativity and my favourite ones are usually those that give clear advice on how we can rekindle and nurture our creativity. This practical advice is what makes creativity more accessible. I have met no-one who said that they don’t want to be creative, but plenty of people told me that they don’t believe to be creative. Twyla Tharp is very practical when it comes to creativity and she shares so many examples of herself as well as other artists, writers, athletes, businesspeople, and many more who have all found their own creativity hacks.
Creativity as a habit
She is honest about the fact that creativity requires work and commitment. It requires steadiness, dedication and vulnerability. She shares her tricks of keeping habits in her life that nudge her to being creative. We are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of convenience. Doing creative work isn’t always the most convenient way of spending time, especially when distraction and passive ways of consuming entertainment are everywhere. It requires a good amount of discipline to show up for your creative work. Tharp emphasises the importance of “automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
Creativity as a skill
When visiting museums, I often find myself most drawn to artists’ sketchbooks, less to the final masterpiece. The sketches reveal how much preparation, planning and practice has gone into a piece which, in isolation, can easily look like the work of a genius, an accomplishment reserved for the most gifted. But we can learn to be creative.
In an interview for the Harvard Business Review Tharp acknowledges: “I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece.” In The Creative Habit, she also talks about the importance of practice as a way of building and strengthening one’s skill. She warns us from getting too stuck in our ways and quotes the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi: “Never have a favourite weapon.”
When it comes to using creativity in coaching and therapy, I experience this as a fine balance. It is great to have some go to modalities, things we enjoy, that come to us more easily. Yet often the most surprising, significant and useful insights are reached when we use a modality we are not that good at or haven’t used before. It won’t surprise you that one of the most significant insights I personally gained in coaching was reached when I engaged in some movement. It was clumsy, uncomfortable, cringeworthy and… insightful.
Creativity as discovery
Even though creativity is something we are all born with, as we go through life, it’s easy to forget what our natural creative process feels like. We are unsure at which points we tend to get stuck and which phases of the creative process come easily to us. At the end of each chapter, Tharp shares exercises as an easy and fun way to explore your creativity.
She invites us to mine for memory in a photo, explore our creative DNA, and suggests removing one of our skills from the equation and see what we can still create or how we create differently.
Here are a couple of questions from her creative DNA exercise:
What is the first creative moment you remember?
Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
My first creative memory is this: I was helping my mother bake Christmas cookies. I stood on a little stool to reach the worktop and used my favourite cookie cutter, a pig. I still have a real soft spot for pigs… My mother was there to witness it. I remember that she commented on my Christmas pigs… some were a bit wonky. I can still hear my mother’s Austrian accent and I remember that I was so excited to be helping with the baking.
Creativity for joy
Sharing a creative act with the world involves risk. Perfectionism is a way of managing the fear associated with such a risk. Perfectionism is a creativity killer that often gets in the way of joyful creating.
The inner critic keeps telling us we’re not good enough. As a result, we either judge ourselves harshly (no joy in that!) or stop creating altogether. It’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism can have its origin in deep attachment or childhood wounds. It can be a formerly useful, now unhelpful strategy to ensure one’s safety.
In my experience, trying to ignore the inner critic never works. It only gets more disruptive. The only way forward is to befriend your inner critic. We must see its interference as a safety exercise designed to protect us from the vulnerable experience of creating.
Twyla Tharp embraces failure as part of the creative process. In fact, she lists a range of failures in her book – but that’s a whole other article… She recommends gathering a ‘validation squad’. This isn’t necessarily a group of people who will love anything you do. They are people you admire for their talent, who care about you, who don’t compete with you and provide constructive feedback, with great honesty as well as substance and respect. This is an invaluable support structure if your creative endeavours are designed to fly out into the world, possibly to earn you a living.
When we think about creating in a more private setting, creating purely for joy is such a balm for our emotional wellbeing. I recommend a group of like-minded friends or people you find you can easily connect with. Often, deep friendship emerges from creating alongside and experiencing the vulnerable act of creativity together.
Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.
And I do hope you feel inspired to create!
More tips on how to rekindle your creativity can be found in this article about creativity as a work skill and in this one, where I share some information about the various reasons why many of us stop creating. My own journey back to creativity began tentatively after a twenty-year hiatus. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back!
Taking clients through an exercise of exploring the creative process, reflecting on typical blocks and ways to overcome them is one of my favourite ways to begin a creative coaching relationship.
This caught my attention. I often emphasised the aspect of learning new things in order to grow and open a new chapter in my life. The idea that unlearning might be a more important part, or if not more important at least a preceding step to achieve transformation made me curious.
Transformation can take many shapes and is always very personal. It might include becoming a spouse or a parent. Getting a divorce. Relocating. Changing careers. A mid-life unravelling. Retiring. And there are many more. Some are initiated by us. Others happen to us, unplanned, unexpected, sometimes uninvited. There are some common elements to all these experiences and the unlearning that needs to happen.
What is it we need to unlearn as part of a transformative journey?
It’s less about knowledge and skills. I am a big fan of transferable skills whatever your transformation. But we need to unlearn old beliefs. Established ways of being and navigating life. The ways of how we define e.g. success, a meaningful life, our purpose. We need to unlearn values that are not really our own, or values that no longer serve us. We need to unlearn our own narratives and the way we expected the story of our life to unfold.
This is deep and broad unlearning. We are not replacing old facts with new facts. It’s not an information refresh and upgrade of our operating system. We need to dig deep into the layers of who we are and assess what still serves us, what still fits and what has to make space for the new.
What happens when we unlearn these things?
As we dig deep, we enter a liminal space, the space where we no longer belong to the old identity and we haven’t yet shaped and moved into the new identity. In this space we have started to shed certain values that served us as a guiding light. We have stopped engaging in certain behaviours and rituals that came with belonging to a certain group. Liminal stems from the Latin word limen, threshold. Stepping over the threshold and entering this space can feel energising and exciting. And it can feel scary and full of sadness. Most of us will feel all the above when we are thrown into this space of being in-between. It’s a waiting area. When I’m in the departure lounge waiting to board a long flight, I feel the excitement of travel, seeing places and connecting with people, discovering new food, experiencing a different way of life. And I feel the dread of the journey of getting there, the stress of possibly losing my luggage, missing the connection, the discomfort of being in unfamiliar surroundings, navigating without speaking the language, feeling exposed and like the odd one out, having to adjust my normal rhythm of life. The liminal space is just like this waiting area, or the holding pattern we are in. And often we don’t even know for how much longer we will be circling around…
Inhabiting this space is vulnerable, often lonely and we might feel alienated and that we don’t belong anywhere. It’s an uncomfortable space, where we need to embrace not knowing as a state of figuring things out rather than as a state of deficiency or ‘having no plan’.
After all, we live in a society where being driven and progressing in a fairly linear fashion through life is being valued and encouraged. Detours, not knowing and a pattern of stop-start are being looked upon with suspicion. The polarising nature of our emotional experiences during transformation are hard to grasp. We usually enjoy the sense of excitement, but feelings of grief and sadness are hard to accept, especially when the transformation was desired or self-initiated. We expect to be excited for the long-awaited change and might feel an external pressure to rave about all the positive things this brings about. Admitting the scariness and discomfort needs a good portion of self-compassion.
Transformation is full of possibilities. Transformation is hard. It is at times ugly. It’s rarely about a straightforward move from bad to good. We leave behind positive things, things we loved, enjoyed, were good at. We enter into a new identity that is also a mixed bag. Some things will suit us better, other things will be missed. As with every journey, acknowledging the upheaval with a good and deliberate farewell, even one that involves tears, rather than minimising the disruption can help.
I want to leave you with a powerful writing/art invitation that the art therapist Lisa Mitchell has shared. This exercise celebrates the farewell rather than minimising it. It also celebrates the new beginnings. Take a blank sheet of paper or a page in your journal…
Start every sentence, bullet point or short paragraph with ‘Today marks the end of…’ – write until you feel finished. Write lots. Pay attention to the details! So rather than writing, ‘Today marks the end of my job at XYZ company’, write: Today marks the end of getting on the 7am train into the city. Today marks the end of picking up coffee at … where they know me by name. Today marks the end of getting annoyed at the fact that the train is delayed at least two out of five days a week. Today marks the end of starting the week with a Monday Morning meeting which is to equal parts irritating and energising – the same people drone on about their workload, but we also feel a sense of being in this together. Etc.
Same as step 1 with the prompt ‘Today marks the beginning of…’
Optional : Writing might provide you with some clarity and reassurance. If you want to add a third step, consider giving something away and/ or receiving something. You might give away clothes, books, tools, anything that feels strongly linked to who you were pre transformation. And be ready to receive something to welcome you into the future state of yourself.
This exercise works because it allows for both nostalgia and anticipation.
It visualises that each stage has good and enjoyable parts. It also helps us to make visible how the two stages of being pre and post-transformation are connected. How decisions made and steps taken in one led to the other. How the same strengths or fears show up in both stages. Acknowledging these connections can help to integrate and illustrate that it is a shift rather than a fracture. Even though the shift can feel as brutal and painful as a fracture. Change and transformation are part of life. We better get more comfortable with it.
The idea of practicing gratitude is becoming more widespread these days. Positive Psychology research has linked gratitude with happiness. And even though research cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, not leveraging gratitude for our wellbeing seems like a missed opportunity.
As 2019 comes to a close, it feels natural for us to look back, reflect, acknowledge and be grateful for events, experiences, relationships that have made our lives richer.
Research suggests that practicing gratitude has a range of benefits; it is believed to positively impact on our physical health and improve sleep. Its benefits for our mental health have also been highlighted: gratitude can support a more optimistic outlook on life and hopefulness, it can foster resilience and empathy. Importantly, gratitude also strengthens relationships. For us humans, hard-wired for connection, this is a crucial benefit we should leverage. If gratitude becomes an everyday ingredient in our relationships it creates a positive ‘give and take’ spiral. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California says, ‘gratitude is the antidote to entitlement’. When we practice gratitude, we’re more likely to appreciate our relationships, not just for the big favours and outstanding acts of support, but the everyday presence people have in our lives, and the small gestures of love and support. It’s also encouraging to read Emmons’s research that gratitude works at work. It’s easy to think of gratitude practice as a somewhat spiritual idea, and often we think spirituality doesn’t belong into the world of business. But as gratitude strengthens relationships and helps to restrict behaviours that are prevalent in toxic workplaces (gossiping, entitlement, negativity, any kind of bullying or aggressive behaviour) it is definitely a concept more and more companies are keen to integrate in their workplace culture.
Gratitude also helps us grasp the narratives of our lives. I love this quote from Melody Beattie: “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” With a focus on the past, gratitude shows up in our memories, reminding us to celebrate moments we are grateful for. When it comes to the present, gratitude is a form of mindfulness. To notice the small moments, we need to be mindful and connected to the present moment. And as gratitude brings hope it becomes a way of maintaining an optimistic and hopeful mindset to support us through tough times and set a vision for the future.
So far so good. Reaping the benefits of gratitude requires practice, and this means some work on our part. Merely thinking about it or having a grateful attitude isn’t enough. To cultivate gratitude and turn it into a practice we need to find a way of practicing that works for us. You can easily find suggestions for gratitude practices; a daily gratitude journal, a gratitude meditation or mindfulness exercise, prayer, counting one’s blessings, writing thank-you notes. Emmons has some practical suggestions here. To make any practice ‘stick’ you need to consider how much time you can realistically spend on it, your personality and preferences. We all know – if it isn’t easy and doesn’t come (fairly) naturally, we probably won’t do it. If you’ve been part of my community for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of tailoring and creating what truly works for you. We can steal with pride from other people’s practices or ancient rituals and make them work for us and our life circumstances.
And finally, gratitude needs to be felt. It has to be practiced with the mind-body connection in mind! Writing a gratitude journal is a good start. But if you simply jot down some bullet points without connecting with your body and feeling your gratitude it won’t have the desired effect. So whatever practice you choose, take the time to silence the noise around you and connect with your gratitude through your body and senses.
As the end of the year is racing towards me, I begin to reflect on the year, what worked, what changed, where did I move forward and where do I feel stuck. It comes with the territory of an annual review that I’m pondering what I have achieved this year and what my intentions and goals for next year might be. I have a dedicated process which I’ve been using for years now. It involves choosing one word for the year and exploring it on a monthly basis using some coaching techniques and art invitations.
On a side note: last week, I’ve launched an online course to share part of this process with you. It’s called ‘Living with Intention‘, and you can find out more here or here. It’s totally self-paced and you can start at any time, but as the year draws to a close, it might be a perfect gift to yourself right now. This process provides a great framework to keep me on track and celebrate progress. Typically, around October/ November I sense that I’m ready to let this year’s word go to make space for a new word. This year, my word is ‘open’ by the way.
As I entered ‘debrief stage’ I did some research on goal setting. It’s undoubtedly useful, but can also create a lot of stress, especially when we miss deadlines, fail to reach a goal altogether or feel that other people’s goals are so much more worthy, audacious and impressive. Many of us have the false belief that big success requires big action. This makes us susceptible to signing up to slightly unrealistic New Year’s resolutions, unpractical 30-day challenges or food plans that can’t withstand contact with the battlefield of everyday life. It also turns us into harsh critics when judging our own progress or success. I often catch myself expecting my achievements to be mind-blowing and nothing short of a total reinvention.
Enter: the concept of aggregation of marginal gains. Sports teams are often quoted to be doing this well. Dave Brailsford who led Team Sky and British Cycling to success has applied the idea of making lots of tiny changes which eventually added up and led to significant increases in performance. Habit guru James Clear writes about this here.
What I like about this concept is that it feels much more doable. We don’t have to make all the tiny changes at once. Given few of us operate with a support team comparable to Team Sky’s we need to pace ourselves. We can build our marginal gains over time, trusting that they can add up and lead to the desired outcome.
A similar idea was discussed in a workshop I attended. It was about stuckness and resistance, specifically in the context of trauma. But feeling stuck happens to everyone and is part of life. So, I see a broader application of what was shared.
The presenter, the wonderful Janina Fisher, spoke about her concept of 10% solutions when working with people through recovery and healing. She noticed that people would try something she had suggested only to come back and say, ‘It didn’t work for me’. But when looking into it, they realised it made them feel a bit better, maybe 15%, maybe 10%, maybe just 5%. But this led to the understanding that there are no silver bullets. We’ll never find the one thing that will sort things out when we find ourselves in a crisis or difficult spot.
We live in a culture of problem fixing and it is tempting to keep searching for the silver bullet. How could we not believe that our life would be wildly successful if only we managed to do the five magical things wildly successful people do. Allegedly. And typically, before 5am. Equally, when we are being asked for support or advice, we feel the pressure of coming up with the one size fits all solution that will turn things around.
Instead we should all be drawing up our own 10% action list. Rather than feeling self-care requires a weekend off the grid, we can have a list of tiny actions that add up. A healthy meal, one hour more sleep, a quick walk in the park, listening to your favourite song. Rather than choosing one New Year’s resolution, which is likely to drop off the radar before February, we can choose a guiding word and use it as a platform for setting small goals and inviting subtle change. And by the end of the year, we might look back and realise the aggregated effect. We should create a pick & mix menu for when we need extra support.
It’s actually quite important to capture this list outside of our heads. Don’t rely on your memory. Because, usually, when we feel low and are questioning ourselves, our brain is a bit off in its ability to make smart decisions. It’s certainly not very creative in coming up with ideas to break the spell of feeling low. Having a physical list to choose from can make all the difference.
Here are a few things you’d find on my 10% solution list: Journaling; coffee (ideally with good company!); a shower; Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’ and songs from the crazy Bavarian band Bananafishbones (a special mention to ‘Easy Day’); some former clients have made beautiful art responses for me, so I look at those; cooking one of my favourite recipes; finding an inspiring podcast or blog; talking to someone close; I cannot leave art journaling off the list; making a 5-minute collage; reading; None of these can single-handedly save my day, but each one can make a day look a little brighter.
I’m curious – what will you put on your 10% action list?
The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.
But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.
Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:
learning about the world and others
learning about ourselves
Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.
Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.
For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.
But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.
I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.
They become something I can USE:
Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.
Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.
Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.
As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you:
Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.
Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.
Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!
If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience.
This winter I want to slow down, take fewer decisions, conserve energy, reflect and recharge. It’s the first time that I fully recognise this shift in energy… I’ve spent many winters in the Northern hemisphere where Christmas and the beginning of a new year introduce a natural pause. The darker, shorter and often snowy days call for retreat. The beginning of a new year is a natural invitation to reflect on the year gone by and gather intentions and plans for the year to come.
This is the first time I’m spending winter in the Southern hemisphere without the more rigid schedule of a Monday to Friday work week. With more freedom and flexibility in my life, I can give into my desire to hibernate a little and get stuck in some projects that fill me up. One particular practice I’ve been rekindling this winter is reflective writing. I’ve been through many false starts of developing a journaling practice. I tried Morning Pages, for example, only to realise that early morning hours are not my peak time for writing. Different writing challenges left me with a stack of half-filled notebooks. The internet is bursting with advice and techniques for reflective writing and it’s easy to get side-tracked and worry whether I’m doing it ‘right’.
One aspect I believe in is that our writing becomes a richer source of insight when we write about our inner world and emotional experiences. And for that to happen we should always write for our own eyes only. The importance of this was highlighted by James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist. He researched the impact of expressive writing on health and wellbeing in the 1980s and became a pioneer of writing therapy. His worked showed that writing about difficult experiences and the emotional responses to them led to lasting improvements of physical health, mood and level of optimism.
How to get started
When should I write? My advice is to find a time that works for you. We can make a case for writing in the morning before our brains become reactive to the day’s events. It seems sensible to write at the end of the day, as an opportunity to review and wind down, allowing for a brain dump in the hope of sound sleep. Ultimately, I think the time when you write has to fit around your typical day. Otherwise it won’t happen. You can consider splitting your writing into shorter chunks if that is more practical, for example a morning and evening check in. Once you experience the benefits of your writing practice you might find that you naturally make more time for it.
How much should I write? Unless you want to experiment with a specific format, such a Morning Pages, I suggest you remain flexible in how much or how little you write. This also makes it easier to actually do it. But write regularly, ideally daily – the odd exception is totally fine, life has its own ways of happening… And when you skip a day, don’t let that stop you. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, promotes the motto: Never miss twice.
What to write about? Write about whatever is occupying your mind. It’s called stream of consciousness writing. Structure, spelling, grammar are unimportant. You can overcome writer’s block by noticing what your senses are taking in right now. How is your body feeling? Try to catch the thoughts you’re thinking right now, without censoring. It could be: what’s for dinner, this is dull or the groceries you need to buy. And once you’ve started writing try to add your emotional experiences, don’t just write about events and tasks if you want to harness the health benefits of writing.
What works for me
I currently write ‘mid-morning pages’, based on Julia Cameron’s work in The Artist Way. Mid-morning is a realistic and manageable time for me, so that’s what I do. I stick with the three A4 pages Cameron recommends, no more, no less. I also write into a daily gratitude journal every night, three brief bullet points, every day. Beyond that my style is a ‘journaling on demand’ approach. When I’ve got lots going on I write more, reflection is part of other creative projects and my work. I embrace this additional writing in waves.
If you want to get started, I’ve got a few specific winter reflection prompts for you – remember, winter is a time of rest and renew:
What do I want to make space for?
It’s time to let go of…
If I could write myself a permission slip, this is what it’d say…
What does a perfect moment of pause and rest look like for me & how does it make me feel?
What lights my inner fire?
Happy writing! My monthly newsletter also includes a regular journaling prompt… You can sign up here.
We’re all familiar with the heart-warming reflex of a baby gripping our finger when we stroke its palm. It’s called the Palmar Grasp Reflex and makes babies hold on to things with surprising strength. But it is also unpredictable as they tend to let go suddenly. By the time we’re three to six months old we begin to make more voluntary choices what we hold onto. Have you ever wondered whether you tend to hold on to things or whether you are quick to let go?
We value holding on to things that are familiar, safe, pleasant or fun, things and people we love and care about. But life requires us to let go of things, either because of their transient nature or because they no longer serve us. The latter could be a relationship or friendship that feels no longer supportive, a job which no longer challenges us in a positive way, or simply items in our wardrobe that no longer fit who we are.
Trying to understand my typical patterns behind holding on and letting go purely cognitively has highlighted how my biases and values get in the way. Do I think being able to hold on or let go of stuff is the ‘better’ trait? If I am a ‘holder on-ner’ is this a sign of inertia or hoarding tendencies? Or a sign of loyalty? If I can let go easily – does this make me a commitment-phobe? Do I lack grit, tenacity or dependability? Or do I simply know what’s good for me and value my freedom and independence? I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of understanding my tendencies of holding on and letting go purely with my brain power.
But I have been introduced to an enlightening body-based exercise that helped shedding light on this. The exercise was shared during a workshop with Pat Ogden, a pioneer in somatic psychology and the founder and director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. According to Pat Ogden, grasping is one of the five basic movements. The other four are yield, push, reach and pull. This is an easy exercise you can do at home if you are curious.
How to do it:
Find a quiet space and an object you can drop without the object breaking or ending up with a dent in the floor. Consider spreading a blanket if it’s a hard floor. The object should be heavy enough to drop with some momentum; not a feather but bot a bowling ball either. It could be a small ball, a pen, a glue stick. Stand upright, holding the object in front of you in a firm grip, arm slightly bent. Check in with your body and your senses how that feels. Then, let the object fall to the ground and try to notice in as much detail as possible how that feels. It’s best to repeat this a few times, always checking in with your body and body sensations. Whatever feels better – the action of grasping and holding the object or the action of letting it fall to the ground – might give you a clue about your natural pattern.
Whatever your tendency – remember this:
Knowing our natural tendency can help us to check in with ourselves when we feel stuck – is there a good reason that is holding us back or is it that we simply operate in a pattern of feeling more comfortable with holding on? In a situation where we want to run for the hills – is there a good reason for this and should we trust our instinct, or can we recognise a pattern that we are often quick to move on? Whatever it is for you, there is no right or wrong, but it is always good to be self-aware.
Get in touch if you have questions on the exercise! I love to hear from you.