You're halfway through appetizers at your favorite restaurant when something catches your eye. It's a baby, no more than 3, and he's navigating an iPad with more proficiency than most adults—and totally ignoring his family. You have to laugh. And though you're impressed, there's something not quite right about it. It almost makes you feel sad.
The sadness comes from your projection of the iBaby's future.
He'll spend 90 percent of his waking hours reacting to social media notifications, emails, and text alerts. His wife won't know what a romantic dinner is. Colleagues will feel privileged to get five seconds of uninterrupted eye contact. And the saddest part? His kids will be even worse.
But the iBaby's story isn't so different from the millennial generation. Where do we turn when we're stressed? When we're bored? When we're anxious? Most of us instinctively reach for our pockets and fiddle with a smartphone—almost like Gollum with his "precious." We don't really have moments to reflect because we're constantly responding to some external prompt.
Though the internet has given us incredible jobs and learning opportunities, most of us suffer more than we benefit. But it's not the technology itself—it's our refusal to reflect.
When all our attention is directed outward (toward the TV, phone, computer, etc.), we don't know what's going on inside ourselves. And that inner knowledge is the key to finding what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what makes you excited, and what makes you fulfilled. Reflection gives you the power to control your life.
Without it, life happens to you rather than because you made choices to bring about a future you desired. You can be the best at your job, make all the money in the world, have the nicest things, and you still won't feel successful. Or you could become so distracted that you can't find the motivation to get off your parents' couch.
That was my story.
Until the age of 24, I was a slave to technology. My first morning movement wasn't a stretch—it was an iPhone reach. Instead of reflecting on my dreams or the interactions or experiences I'd had the day before, I immediately checked Facebook.
My days were wasted on things that made me feel important—but I never actually did anything important. Six years into adulthood, I was no closer to a sense of purpose or fulfillment than I had been as a 6-year-old.
One day I realized that if nothing changed, I'd be living with my mom forever. That thought didn't bother me when I was younger—the future felt far away. But now I was almost a quarter-century old; my friends had houses and families; my little brother was already the manager of a government agency. The future was now, and I was going to be left behind.
Here's how I started.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, reflection was the thing I was avoiding. It scared me. I didn't know myself, and I was terrified of what I might find. I responded to the fear by diving into porn, social media, video games, news, girlfriends—anything that could distract me from me.
But the distractions hadn't gotten me anywhere. I was smart enough to know I couldn't keep doing the same things and expect different results, so I faced the dragon. My own inner self.
After enough research I decided that journaling would be my primary tool to start with. If I could describe my day in detail, then I could see what was and wasn't working over time—thoughts, habits, routines, and so on. By narrating my life, I gave myself the power to change the narrative.
I spent 15 to 30 minutes reflecting on my day every night before bed. I wrote down my thoughts from morning to night. I looked into how those thoughts shaped my actions, and how my actions affected my feelings, and how my feelings determined my day.
Far from the nightmare I had expected, journaling was calming. It put me at ease and made me feel peaceful, empowered, confident.
Journaling was my first success ritual.
Thirty days straight gave me insight into my biggest problems. When I realized that my lack of success was simply a bad habit and not a character trait, my confidence skyrocketed. After three months, I found my first bit of professional success: I got my first full-time writing gig.
Journaling didn't magically help me land good jobs. But through reflection, I discovered all the thoughts and habits that held me back. One session of reflection didn't accomplish much. But after 90 days in a row, the results were astonishing.
I finally had a career. I finally had work I could be proud of. I finally had my own life.
Reflection put a microscope on the little details that were dragging me down. But it also helped me zoom out to see the bigger pieces of success.
I realized that my best friend of 10 years was poison. Despite how much I enjoyed his company, Chad hadn't helped me become a better person. And it was always the same story with him: same dead-end job, same drinks and cigarettes, same relationship problems.
After half a year of journaling, I knew I had to cut Chad off. My time in reflection had helped me figure out that he wasn't helping me grow. The decision wasn't easy. But it was the best choice I've ever made.
Then the impossible happened.
After I let go of the dozens of bad habits and the couple of people that held me back, I started getting freelance clients for a buck a word. I got published on huge websites like mindbodygreen and Entrepreneur magazine. I moved out on my own and experienced the struggle of manhood for the first time.
With all my new experience, I was able to create even more value for my audience. Reflection started a positive feedback loop that continues to take me higher and higher.
I'm not immune to distraction. But whenever I have a bad day, I can always pinpoint the extra time spent on Facebook, or the mindless email checks that kept me from doing the important things. Nightly journaling is a safety net that prevents my mistakes from becoming habits.
I just wish I had started reflecting 10 years earlier.
How can you use reflection to take charge of your life?
No matter where you are today, no matter what you've done, you can take charge of your life with reflection.
First, eliminate distractions. Cut out Facebook, email, toxic people, bad relationships, puttering around, negative thinking, texting, and surfing the internet—anything that keeps you from knowing you better.
Then start a nightly habit of reflection. I recommend journaling because it helps you to stay on task whereas with meditation you can kind of float off into the abyss. Not knocking meditation, but I'd save that for after a few months of journaling.
Write about your entire day, no matter how boring or uninspiring it may be. You have to start somewhere. Journaling is less about what you write down and more about what you learn.
Once you see the toxic thoughts and habits on the page, you'll be able to change them. Then you can cut out even more distractions and low-value habits and replace them with even more things that make you happy and rich.
Continue the practice every night for a month. Then, when you've reached your next level of success, you'll commit to journaling every night for the rest of your life. At least, that's how it happened with me.
Reflection was the magic wand that got me off my parents' couch and into the career I love. It will work for you, too.