A lot of people keep to-do lists, but that's not all lists are good for. Over the last few years, I've kept a growing number of lists that help me reflect on myself – past, present, and future – and intentionally shape my own thoughts and feelings about myself and my work in the process.
I don't put any pressure on myself to "finish" these lists, or even to leave them in a particularly good state. I'm a work in progress, and these lists reflect that. Each list is something to aspire to as much as something to reflect upon.
The good news is, just like life, these lists are works in progress, not polished affirmations or mission statements.
Here are some examples from my own lists that you can try for yourself.
“100 Things I Know How to Do”
This is a list of things I've learned to do over the years. Anything of use to me that I've ever learned, I put here.
When I get deeply frustrated by my work, and I feel like I can do no right with it, I open this list up and read through all of the things I've had opportunities to learn and to teach myself over the last ten years.
Somehow, this reassures me that I'm not a dumb person, I'm just having a really dumb day.
Here's a handful of the things on this list so far:
- Design presentations with Keynote
- Keep calm in stressful situations
- Set up websites and domains
- Run a Minecraft server
- Build a business
- Bake cheesecakes
There aren't really 100 things on the list, but I want to be aware of 100 things that I know how to do, so I can stop taking so much of what I know for granted. It's difficult to use what you know when you aren't aware of what you know.
“Nice Things People Said About Me”
This list reminds me to be grateful for the opportunities I've had to help others, and it's also a list for fighting imposter syndrome. It reminds me of the times I've shared an idea, helped with a project, or had a conversation that left an impression on someone, and they remembered it some time later and took a moment to tell me what it meant to them.
“...if you don't think about how to use it best and how you shouldn't use it, other people will impose their way of using it on you and you'll just end up reacting to others with every bit of your time.” Joe, this is something you'd told me when we saw you last year, and it really got me thinking about how I let other people's expectations regulate my reactions. It's made a positive difference in my way of thinking, so thank you.
A friend sent the above comment to me via Facebook several years ago, and it meant so much to me that I wanted to make sure I'd never lose it. That's when I started this list.
“Today I'm thankful that…”
Most nights before bed, I write a very simple journal entry in Day One on my phone. I keep it as simple as possible, starting every single one with “Today I'm thankful that…” and aiming for just three bullet points below that. If I exceed that, great (and I usually do once I get rolling, but aiming for three bullets takes the pressure off). For example, the other night I wrote:
Today I'm thankful that…
- I replaced the slats under our bed with 2×4’s, so it's waymore solid than the IKEA slats were.
- I also replaced the battery in my MacBook Pro, so I get several more hours out of it now! It's amazing that a five-year-old computer can work so well.
- We just landed a great new project for Lexicontent with one of our favorite clients.
Reflecting on Reflecting
These lists help me reflect on what I know, imagine new opportunities and projects, remember the people I need to appreciate more, and revisit my successes when I feel frustrated with my work. This very simple habit of keeping lists and reflecting on them when I need a pick-me-up has had a massive impact on the way I think, and the time investment is tiny.
It really doesn't feel “fair” that a trick this tiny can give me such a powerful result, but it works for me. I figure that if the world can be unfair in negative ways, it must be possible for it to be unfair in positive ones, too. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Try making a few of these for yourself, or imagine another kind of list you could make that will help you become more aware of your own thoughts and feelings about yourself and your work.
This may feel silly, or pointless, or self-serving at first, but grit your teeth and write your lists anyway. The next time you're feeling discouraged, read through your lists and you'll discover what an encouraging and motivating ally your past-self can be.