A Million Words of Reflection

The Context

In the fall of 2018 several things happened at once. My dad passed away two weeks before I started graduate studies, I broke up with my girlfriend of two years, best friend of five, and I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. These compounded to a fairly severe bout of depression. You might say it was "less than a happy time" in my life. I had gone through some dips in low moods before, but they lasted at most a couple weeks before I rebounded pretty easily. This period there was no rebound. It lasted for several months, and required me to repeat the courses I had taken during that time. (Not being able to get out of bed to go write a final exam does tend to throw a wrench in the works.) Luckily for me I had a superb group of professors for those courses who were very patient and caring. Also, I could not have asked for a better supervisor to help give me some perspective throughout that time.

One of the side-effects of depression for me was not being able to see the obvious. It did not occur to me to ask people what the options for me were in that situation. The suggestion to ask for options came from the counselor I was seeing at the time. Not being able to think of just asking the question was quite the debilitating symptom given as a graduate student it's somewhat my job to ask questions. I needed some serious adjustment.

The Solution

One other problem I had been having for quite some time in graduate school was a lack of writing ability. There were several writing projects I was working on at the time, and progress was difficult to come by. So I was continually looking for ways to improve my writing abilities until I came across the book Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. This was a gold mine for me. It had writing exercises for developing all aspects of someone needing to be an academic writer. One of the exercises was simply to make a habit of doing writing every day. Not necessarily academic writing, but writing in general. Yes, journaling. Not even academic journaling, but everyday journaling.

What I did, most days, for several months was begin and end the day by writing 500 words. In the morning I wrote about my daily plans, such as going to the university, what classes I would attend, who I would meet for a chat, etc,. That would get me to around 300 - 350 words. I was also using a program called Cold Turkey Writer that required me to reach a certain word count before I was able to exit the program and use my computer for other tasks. So there wasn't a convenient way out of this word count goal.

The next few hundred words was the tough part. I needed another writing topic. Sometimes this topic was the material I was trying to learn at the time. More often though I wrote about the thoughts I was having, and the issues I was going through. During this time I was giving presentations on material I needed to know for my research, but the first couple presentations weren't going as well as desired. So I wrote about these difficulties, and tried generating ideas for what I could do. It may sound simple, but one of the ideas was to practice my presentation. Yes, I hadn't even thought to practice my presentations up to that point. What an enlightening moment! So for my next presentation I practiced the hour long presentation for a total of 7 - 8 hours over a couple days, while writing on the board what I would write on the board during my presentation. As a result, my presentation went silky smooth, I was able to answer audience questions, and when my adviser offered additional points about the topic I was able to contribute and add further to what he said. It was an amazing experience.

I would not have performed as well if I had not reflected on what I had been doing up to that point. During those several months there were several other similar experiences where during my daily writing I was able to come up with a solution to my then situation. I didn't do it every day, but most days I did.

The Insight

During those writing times, the first 300 or so words were essentially the fluff. The stuff I needed to get through to reach the stretching point. At this point I had to think about the non-obvious to help me get over the word count requirement. This amount of less than half the word count though was the important part. It was the little bits of self-reflection that helped change my life.

The Question

So I asked myself what could my life look like after a million words of reflection? What could your life look like with a million words of reflection?