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My daily reflection routine

20 Post author: Nick_Beckstead 18 August 2013 11:54AM

In Common sense as a prior, I used the example of prayer as a practice that is probably adaptive but the people who adopt it may not know why it is adaptive. I wrote:

Another striking example is bedtime prayer. In many Christian traditions I am aware of, it is common to pray before going to sleep. And in the tradition I was raised in, the main components of prayer were listing things you were grateful for, asking for forgiveness for all the mistakes you made that day and thinking about what you would do to avoid similar mistakes in the future, and asking God for things. Christians might say the point of this is that it is a duty to God, that repentance is a requirement for entry to heaven, or that asking God for things makes God more likely to intervene and create miracles. However, I think these activities are reasonable for different reasons: gratitude journals are great, reflecting on mistakes is a great way to learn and overcome weaknesses, and it is a good idea to get clear about what you really want out of life in the short-term and the long-term.

…I think it would be better still to introduce a different routine that serves similar functions—this is something I have done in my own life…

Someone recently wrote to me asking about my routine. I wrote this person an answer, so I thought I might as well share it with others. I have a number of structured routines like this that I find helpful and have considered sharing more widely, so this post will also serve as a test for whether I should share these routines. (These routines include: planning the day and tracking your time, planning and evaluating a project, doing a literature search, keeping a record of personal principles, reading and evaluating a paper, weekly review, and a few others that are less developed.)

Below, I offer and explanation of my routine, a template for following it, and give examples of what it looks like when I have used it. I have been doing this for about 6 weeks and I spend 5-15 minutes doing this per day. I was raised in a very religious family, and did something pretty similar for about the first 18 years of my life. I think it is good, but I don’t think the effect size/my tracking ability combo allows me to confidently distinguish between “it’s a placebo” and “it actually works” on the basis of my personal experience. I do it because it intuitively makes sense to me, it fits with some practices that I think are likely to be adaptive, it seems good so far, it seems good from a common sense perspective, some impressive people I know do similar things, and I’ve been told that psychological research on gratitude journals supports the idea. (Also, I don't mind benefits from "mere" placebos.)

One quick point of caution is that I would be careful about framing this as “atheist prayers” in your head. I framed it that way for a while and thought it would be a good idea to do it, but “atheist prayers” just sounds silly. On the other hand, “daily reflection” just sounds reasonable. I found framing it this way made me substantially more motivated to actually follow the process.



A detailed explanation of my process

1.       Getting started

a.       Download the document “Daily reflection.”

2.       Step by step

a.       At the end of the work day or before going to sleep, open up “Daily reflection.”

b.      Copy and paste the template for today’s entry.

c.       Fill in today’s date, e.g. 18 August 2013.

d.      Under “What went well today/what am I grateful for?”

                                                               i.      List things you feel good about doing recently or things you enjoyed today.

                                                             ii.      List general things you have noticed lately and appreciate, even if they are not recent.

                                                            iii.      (This is supposed to help you notice good things in life and seek out more of the good things.)

e.      Under “Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?”

                                                               i.      List any mistakes you think you made today.

                                                             ii.      Try to think about principles you could follow to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

                                                            iii.      If any of the principles seem useful or generally applicable, save them in another document, titled e.g. “My Principles.” I review my principles roughly monthly, and get reminders when I add new ones. I took this idea from Ray Dalio.

                                                           iv.      (This is supposed to help you learn from mistakes and identify, manage, and/or overcome personal weaknesses.)

b.      Under “What do I hope for in the future?”

                                                               i.      List upcoming challenges and opportunities that you hope go well.

                                                             ii.      List long-term priorities that you hope go well, especially ones you haven’t thought about lately or have been neglecting.

                                                          iii.      (This is supposed to help you keep track of what you really want out of life in the short-term and the long-term.)

3.       Other notes      

a.       If it is inconvenient to make notes in this document and I’m not going to open up the document, I will sometimes do my daily reflection in my head.

b.      I generally list 2-5 things under each category per day.

c.       I find this complements well with tracking your time. If you do track your time, you can look at how you spent your day and think about what was productive and what was unproductive. This helps with identifying items for the first and second steps.

Daily entries (template)

1.       Date:

a.       What went well today/what am I grateful for?

b.      Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?

c.       What do I hope for in the future?

2.       Date:

a.       What went well today/what am I grateful for?

b.      Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?

c.       What do I hope for in the future?

3.       Date:

a.       What went well today/what am I grateful for?

b.      Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?

c.       What do I hope for in the future?

Examples of daily entries (stripped of anything personal or embarrassing)

1.       9 August 2013

a.       What went well today/what am I grateful for?

                                                               i.      Got my post drafted

                                                             ii.      Great talk with [friend]

                                                            iii.      Enjoyed dinner

                                                           iv.      Talking to [other friend] was useful

b.      Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?

                                                               i.      Spending too much on dinners

                                                             ii.      Spending too much time criticizing people with dumb views

c.       What do I hope for in the future?

                                                               i.      Evaluate my projects well after they are done

                                                             ii.      Use my framework for evaluating topics to work on

2.       13 August 2013

a.       What went well today/what am I grateful for?

                                                               i.      Really enjoyed the weekly review

                                                             ii.      Glad I e-mailed a number of people to engage them on their perspectives

                                                            iii.      Glad I came up with the idea that 80K say what it is going to change and be held accountable for making the changes

b.      Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to improve?

                                                               i.      I spent too much time checking the LW blog in response to my stuff

                                                             ii.      I’m not sure how useful it was for me to be involved with this prioritization institute stuff

                                                            iii.      I didn’t do a good job filling out my time tracker

                                                           iv.      Maybe [friend] is right that I didn’t do a good job as I think defending my common sense prior post

c.       What do I hope for in the future?

                                                               i.      Get my GCRI talk outline done

                                                             ii.      Get to the point where I can do 10 pull-ups

                                                            iii.      Review my common sense prior project

                                                           iv.      Share my productivity procedures with others

Comments (17)

Comment author: brilee 20 August 2013 06:12:51PM 6 points [-]

I did this sort of tracking for several months. My generalizable experiences are:

  • Everyone has their own situation. Following the guide of some other person exactly is bound to fail. Instead, you should start simple, and let your system evolve as you decide that you need to track different things.
  • That being said, it seems like some things tend to turn up repeatedly as "good things to keep track of", like "today I was happy for X", or "how much sleep did I get last night?"
  • Since no two people really have the same routine, instead of using specialized software, the flexibility of a raw text file with a template probably works best.
Comment author: Creutzer 21 August 2013 05:12:05AM *  0 points [-]

Indeed. I suspect that if I used the above template, it would actually have a hugely negative effect on me. There simply isn't enough stuff happening on any single day of my life to fill the template in a meaningful way, so I'd have to write either "nothing" or the huge general things that are very hard to change and which would come up every day, neither of which seems helpful.

Comment author: Brillyant 19 August 2013 04:45:15AM 4 points [-]

18 August 2013 - I'm really grateful to you for sharing this idea.

I've been writing a journal/diary-style daily reflection since Aug 1 as part of a quantified self project. I think it has the potential to be a good tool... but I also think I could use some of the structure a template like yours might provide.

I'm curious... Do you find yourself giving repetitive answers over the course of several days? Especially in regard to section C? For example, does "get to the point where I can do 10 pull-ups" come to mind everyday, since it is a goal that requires consistent effort over time?

Comment author: Nick_Beckstead 19 August 2013 08:25:46AM 1 point [-]

The answers over the last 6 weeks have not been very repetitive at all. I'm not sure why this is exactly, since when I was much younger and would pray daily the answers were highly repetitive. It may have something to do with greater maturity and a greater appreciation of the purpose of the activity.

Comment author: phaed 19 August 2013 02:53:22PM 0 points [-]

I've been writing a journal/diary-style daily reflection since Aug 1 as part of a quantified self project.

Interesting, could you elaborate on this "quantified self project?" How do you plan to analyze these entries quantitatively?

Comment author: Brillyant 20 August 2013 04:00:50AM 1 point [-]

The project is tracking my diet, exercise, sleep, mood, productivity and a couple other misc. items.

I'm not sure exactly how to use the daily text entries yet, or if I'll use them in any direct quantified sense at all. One possibility is to run keyword searches to look for correlations between increased/decreased mood and the presence of increased frequency of certain items within any given day's/week's entry(s) (e.g. "my boss", "work", "girlfriend").

More than that though, I wanted to have a day-by-day narrative account available to check against my "harder" data to help provide clarity and answer questions in regard to interesting trends and correlations I observe.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 18 August 2013 12:11:46PM *  4 points [-]

I think you should un-ask the question of “is it a placebo or does it actually work”.

The placebo effect is when a treatment has an effect primarily due to the psychodynamic effects of administering the treatment. and the expectations that the subject has surrounding the treatment.

When you meditate/write a journal/etc you are consciously using psychodynamic effects to benefit yourself.

...on second thought, I suppose the question is valid if you are referring to positive effects due to faith in the technique (as opposed to the technique being effective). For example, in meditation experiments the control group is sometimes given an alternative set of instructions and they are told that it is a traditional form of meditation, when it really isn't.

Comment author: luminosity 18 August 2013 12:45:39PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for this. I've been doing a somewhat similar ritual for the last month, where I'll make a cup of tea, stand by the window of my apartment and enjoy the view. I use this time to think of at least 5 new things I'm grateful for, and to use negative visualisation to keep appreciating the great new apartment, and living situation I have. So far this is working great, but the deliberate review of what went well, and what could be improved upon is great, and I'm going to steal that and incorporate into my review.

Comment author: pinyaka 19 August 2013 03:02:29AM 2 points [-]

I appreciate that you wrote down what the goal of each section was.

Comment author: palladias 18 August 2013 06:55:41PM 2 points [-]

Whether you're Catholic or not, the framework of the Jesuit Examen is a pretty way to do daily reflections (or a good seed to customize from). And, because it's popular, you're likely to find that someone else has already run into any difficulty you encounter and possibly written something up. Plus, you can always ask a Jesuit. I like Fr. Gallagher's introduction to it.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2014 07:37:30AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for sharing this!

Comment author: vallinder 29 August 2013 09:40:43AM 1 point [-]

Some might find it more convenient to set this up as a Google Form.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 26 July 2014 09:35:46AM *  0 points [-]

Indeed, this is what I have done myself (prior to reading your comment). In case it is of help to anyone, here's the form I use. Just make sure to make a copy of the file on your own Drive account (if you use my form, you won't be able to access the responses).

Comment author: jaibot 21 August 2013 02:55:33AM *  1 point [-]

crontab -l

0 21 * * MON-FRI ( bash reflection_script.sh )

cat reflection-script.sh

cat daily_reflection.txt | mail -s "Daily Reflection" me@myemail.com

Comment author: MumpsimusLane 18 August 2013 05:47:37PM 0 points [-]

How do you determine what it is that you are grateful for?

I've tried a few things like this before, but every time I find myself being held back by not having a good definition of "gratitude" that can appeal to both my logical half and my intuitive half.

If I got a pony, I'd get an emotional reaction in the moment, but at the end of the day when I go to write it down, my logical side wouldn't think "hey, ponies are great", I'd think, "If I got a unicorn, that would have been better, and if I got shot in the face, that would have been worse. There is nothing more to say here." Any "zero goodness point" that I compare my life situation to is going to be arbitrary, so I don't think it could be meaningful.

It all seems as silly to me as being told to eat my vegetables because someone somewhere else is starving to death. I would still like to get the benefits of a gratitude journal, I'm just not sure how to justify the idea to my inner Spock. What am I missing?

Comment author: Nick_Beckstead 18 August 2013 06:32:27PM 2 points [-]

I think of the gratitude list as things that stood out as either among the best parts of the day or as unusually good (for you personally). And mistakes go the opposite way.

Comment author: savageorange 20 August 2013 02:59:29AM 0 points [-]

As someone who was in that position, I dealt with it by saying 'doesn't matter for now'; until you have the habit of noticing positive things in your life, whether they compare favorably to alternatives is besides the point, and by the time you are beginning to acquire the habit, you also begin to calibrate your values better so you know better what exactly you want to label as good.

In short, just aiming for volume of truthful positive statements is enough to start with.