Updated: Dec 31, 2021
With 2021 coming to a close, we should all take time to do some self-reflection! Personally, I've reflected on 3 things that really changed my life this year that anyone can do.
1: Make conscious effort to give praise.
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This year, I really tried to improve my relationship with my mother, especially since I live with her and see her every day. In my daily interactions with her, most of our speech was very neutral. It was stuff about chores or work or food. Occasionally, one of us would do something that annoyed the other person, and then one person would complain, and then we'd argue. We rarely ever praised each other. In other words, our interactions were 80% neutral and 15% negative, and maybe 5% positive, hence only negative memories stood out. This has been true for many years.
In the past 3 months, I made a vow to praise one thing about my mother every day, with the intention of adding positive memories to crowd out the negative ones in my mind. I praised her based on virtues such as kindness, consideration, respect, frugality, sincerity, diligence, studious, and tranquility. After I did this for a couple weeks, my mom started to do the same for me. Our relationship got noticeably better after a month. Now, when I think of my mother, instead of all those negative memories and words, I think of so many positive traits. I had no idea this little habit would have a such a big impact. I did this with other people in my life too, such as with my friends, colleagues, and students, and it adds lots of happiness to my daily life!
According to research from the Gottman Institute, happy couples have a 20:1 positive to negative interaction ratio. Now I understand why. If you want to improve a relationship with someone you see every day, I highly recommend trying what I did: find one thing to praise about them every day, and it has to be specific to something they did or said that day.
2: When I see others' faults, reflect on whether if I have the same fault. If I do, fix it. If I don't, teach by example not words.
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In the past, I used to always see other people's faults and grumble about them in my mind or verbally point out their problems, in which they'd then defend themselves and argue back. It created a lot of conflict and unhappiness in my life. Although I started focusing on praising others in the past few months, I still saw people's bad points.
In order to stop grumbling in my mind, I decided to reflect on whether I have the same mistake. If I do, then I am no better than them, so I have no right to criticize them. Since I still have an urge to DO something after seeing their problem, I decided to role model a good example for them to see rather than use words that would probably make them feel defensive.
For example, a student once complained to me that her score of 96 was too low such that she couldn't sleep at night. When I heard this, I wanted to respond by saying, "Are you serious? Your being a bit excessive aren't you?" But then I stopped myself because I've been working hard on not criticizing others. But in my mind, I was still grumbling. Then I reflected on whether I have the same problem. Well, when I was in high school, I was also a perfectionist, and if I didn't get 100, I felt a pit in my stomach. So yes, I had the same problem as that student when I was her age. That helped me feel empathy instead of annoyance towards her.
Then I reflected on how I could teach by example rather than by words. If I used words to say, "Stop being so demanding and arrogant about your grades," that definitely would not be received well by a stressed perfectionistic student. So instead, I demonstrated a humble example in front of the class by telling them what I didn't do well this semester and how I will fix those mistakes next time. I didn't specifically point out that student for being arrogant. This way, no bridges were burned, and everybody gets a lesson on humility.
3: Use a To-Be Checklist every day.
Self-improvement is not rocket-science; most of the advice we hear is common sense. The problem is that so few people actually ACT on the advice they hear, myself included. Why don't we act on good advice? I reflected on two big reasons. First, it takes persistence to change bad habits. Second, we don't remind ourselves enough so we forget shortly after hearing that advice.
To overcome these two challenges, I created a "To-Be" Checklist that I spend 5 minutes reviewing at the end of each day. It's basically a list of virtues I want to cultivate (see picture below). If I did something in accordance with a virtue, I got 1 point. If I violated a virtue, I lost a point. I found this daily self-reflection to be super useful for both adding good habits and for changing bad habits.
I made this daily checklist on Excel and every day, I track how many points I got. For each point or negative point, I add a comment to that cell to explain what happened. I've used this To-Be list since August, and it's been such a game changer. I can happily say I've corrected many of my bad habits, and as a result, I'm much happier than before!
To give an example of starting a good habit, I have successfully spoken at least 1 praise every day for the past two months, and that's thanks to the fact that I give myself a point under the virtue of harmony for doing so.
To give an example of changing a bad habit, I've had bad posture for a long time. But I set an intention for a week to have good posture every day, and I got a point for that under etiquette. In the first week, I actually had many negative points because I simply forgot to think about my posture. I had to extend this effort to 3 weeks. By the second week, I was much more aware of my posture, and by the end of the third week, I could happily reflect and give myself a positive point for posture.
I also use this check-list to record major negative experiences to prevent them from happening in the future. For example, I once got really upset when I felt I was wrongfully criticized, but arguing just made the situation worse. Then I made a vow to not get upset or argue back if wrongfully criticized. Later, when I got wrongfully criticized again, I remembered my vow from last time, and I knew I would be facing my to-be checklist at night, so I was able to restrain myself from arguing. I got a big point for that. Then I reflected on my faults, apologized to the other person, and asked them what I should do differently the next time. I got another point for humility under that. If it weren't for this daily To-Be list, I probably wouldn't have been able to change myself!
Other Learnings from 2021
There are many other big things I learned this year, but I won't detail them here since I have already written about them elsewhere:
Traditional Chinese Medicine is awesome! I wrote a whole series about it and taught it in a healthcare course. You can check out my TCM series here.
There is no such thing as a good or bad memory, only a trained or untrained memory. You can check out my notes from the memory course I took here.
Reading is a skill that we can train like a muscle. You can check out my notes from the speed reading course I took here.
Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty was one of the best books I've read in a long time. You can check out my summary here.
The most important thing in life is our moral character, which is why this year I've been so focused on improving my virtues. You can check out my article on character here.
Like most people, I hope that I can improve each year. With improvement comes more happiness, productivity, and wisdom. There are so many things I learned this year, but the three most life-changing ones are
Consciously give more praise
When I see others' faults, reflect onto myself
Use a To-Be Checklist every day
These three are also quite low-effort items that anyone can do, so I hope you might try them too!