If you’re anything like me, by the end of the day you’re fairly exhausted, fully prepared to indulge in a long, drawn-out process of unwinding, whether to get lost in a book, entranced by a television program, or to drift into sleep. Another day has passed, you’ve managed to survive the inconveniences of the daily grind, and you feel you’ve earned the right to sit back, relax, and take it easy.

Chances are you’d prefer to put the day behind you, be glad it’s over, and own the last remaining minutes.

Suppose for moment, though, that you took a few minutes to reflect on whatever challenges you might have faced that day, and critiqued yourself on how well, or how poorly, you had faced those challenges. At the end of the day, wouldn’t you like to have learned something from yourself, to uncover any lessons that can be gleaned from your own experience? In particular, assuming you have a defined goal you’re after, and a plan you’re executing, it would seem to make sense to take some time evaluating what you did today, and how it could’ve been better, in preparation for the next day.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a daily planning system that begins first thing in the morning with a reflection on long-term, mid-term, and short term goals; and ends right before turning out the lights with the same review. But right before the evening review, taking up a full twenty percent of the 8.5″ x 11″ daily page, is an autopsy section for the day. Every day.

The second definition of autopsy, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a critical examination, evaluation, or assessment of someone or something past.” For what purpose? Presumably to learn something, I should hope. And as I began utilizing this section of the daily planner – a daunting task and a difficult habit to force oneself into – the genius of the concept really began to dawn on me.

Think about this for a moment: when an autopsy is performed on a corpse, it’s a little late for the subject to learn anything from it. And while it’s all well and good to learn something from the lives and experiences of others, doesn’t it make sense to learn from your own – before it’s too late?

Happily, the benefits include more than learning from your own mistakes or shortcomings. I am not referring here to taking stock of every negative thing or every personal failure for the day – you’re already your own worst critic. But performing an autopsy – specifically focusing on any lessons learned or changes made as they relate to the activity you’re taking the time to plan and record – not only draws out the lessons in greater context, but brings your reasons for focusing on them to the surface. This is critical. On the one hand, you’re investing time to take stock of your own attitudes and activities for the day, certainly a commendable effort which affirms your own commitment to self-improvement. On the other hand, by doing so, you are reminding yourself of your motivations, your goals, the thing or things that drives you to face and overcome the daily obstacles in the first place.

This focus, in my experience and estimation, is indispensable. It is difficult enough, with as complex and fragmented as our lives have become, to think about what we’re going to plan for dinner, or when we’re going to wash the laundry, or whether we’ll be able to afford a new transmission for the car. With disaster and misfortune around every corner, I think we tend to put our mindsets into a defensive mode that aspires to little more than survival, and feels a sense of accomplishment for getting through another day without having been killed by life, forgetting, all too often, our purpose in living.

A daily autopsy reminds us who we are, who we want to be, and keeps us focused with a keen eye on what will get us there, and what will slow us down. An autopsy a day will keep bad habits at bay. And if you take stock of your life every day, and every day make a consistent effort to improve some aspect of it, just imagine how fulfilling it could be in that moment when your life “flashes before your eyes.”

Your last autopsy won’t matter. Every one before it will.


About A. S. Ellis

I am always learning. Always. And that is as it should be.
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3 Responses to Autopsy

  1. Kimani says:

    I believe you’re talking about an examination of conscience with a secular explanation. Have you ever seen the seven daily habits?


  2. A. S. Ellis says:

    If you’re referring to Stephen Covey’s seven daily habits, indeed! The daily planner I mention is more or less a customized adaptation of the Franklin-Covey daily planning system – which is an invaluable tool for ANYONE desiring to track, plan, and improve ANY aspect of your life. I highly recommend it. Readers can download a 31-day sample at

  3. Pingback: Making Excuses… « The Dusty Muscle

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