How to do a Visual Examen for the New Year

by Sara Simons

Whenever I prepare for a new year ahead, I find I long for a well-wrapped-up and understood year of learning behind me. When I was a child, my mom suggested a tradition from her childhood for New Year’s Eve – ripping up the previous year’s calendar. It felt bold! I loved the idea of an intentional marking of time with a celebration and a mess! And while as an adult I’m guilty of not carrying on the family tradition (I can’t part with my journal/calendar), I recognize the need to pause and consider the many gifts of the year (and now decade) prior.

Whether you’ve had an incredible amount of change or loss or a year full of amazing surprises, or whether you anticipate transition or more uncertainty on the horizon, the opportunity to take a deep reflective pause and make note of the year prior affords us space for both gratitude and perspective.

While I love to reflect and process for hours, I’ve found the desired space is not always readily available in this season of life and during the holidays. I’ve found grace in giving myself the whole month of January, as of late. But even still, a less comprehensive and intimidating reflection exercise was needed for me to be able to enter in. Here are a few carefully chosen questions and 4 suggested approaches, depending on the amount of time you have.

Here are some reflection questions to ask yourself:

1.     What are the most important events that took place in the last year? Who are some of the significant people?

2.     Where did I see the greatest breakthroughs (physically, emotionally, relationally, vocationally, spiritually)?

3.     What area(s) consumed my thinking and attention most?

4.     Where did I experience God’s delight?

You may begin by just diving in to these questions, but I find a few approaches aide my processing best. Begin by creating a quiet reflective space. Set aside distractions. Choose one of the following 4 visual prompts depending on how much time you can afford.

1.     15-30 minutes: Take a look through your calendar and make a list of the top events on your calendar. Let these events prompt your thoughts as you contemplate the answers to these questions.

2.     30 minutes-1 hour: If you take pictures, take a look back over the year’s pictures and allow the visual stimulus to jog your brain in reflecting.

3.     1-2 hours: Look back over your journal from the last year and note the important events and areas that concerned you or caused you great delight. You took time to write them down, note how they impact the questions above. (If you don’t journal or didn’t this year, looking back over emails or Facebook posts may stimulate some of the same thoughts).

4.     1-3 hours: Utilize one of the above methods together with this visual reflection exercise. Having already made a list of important events, Draw a clock with numbers corresponding to the months of the year (Jan = 1, Dec = 12). Starting with 1, meditate as you draw or write simple words that represent the highlights, breakthroughs, consuming thoughts or God’s delight of January the year prior. Where were you as the clock turned last year? Who were you with? What has changed since?

Give yourself time to go through each month, draw or make note of the thoughts or feelings you want to capture within or outside of the clock.

In the following example, I used one or two words to highlight some of the events or people that were important. I chose to add color and symbols to the highs and lows.

Team or Family Alternative: If you’re able, this is a great exercise to do with a team or family while one person narrates the questions and others silently meditate and draw/write. After 20-30 minutes you may desire to share the answers altogether or with another person.

This simple visual reflection exercise invites me to examen my head, heart and body. I’m prompted to be mindful to the present with a grateful heart. It’s as if I’m afforded a sense of closure and yet simultaneously able to recognize what is still undone. As well, I’m more open and anticipate the unknowns of the year coming. As I approach the New Year I’m able to bring a centeredness into the coming year. Here are a couple of transition questions I transfer from my examen and integrate into the New Year:

1. What Question(s) do I currently need answering from God?

2. What am I carrying with me into the New Year that I would like God’s healing around?

3. What word, verse or song might God want to use to speak to me this year?

What about you? What practices do you observe for contemplation of the year prior? What are your favorite questions you utilize as the New Year approaches?


Sara Simons, together with her husband and two children, has resided in Spain for the past seven years. In many ways, transition has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember (she has relocated 27 times and has been living cross-culturally for nearly 10 years). Sara holds a BA in Psychology, an MA in Intercultural Studies, and an ICF accredited Coaching Certification. She loves to walk alongside people in major life transition and help them to discover their unique purpose regardless of their current circumstances or limitations. Doing this in nature, using art, or while traveling is a bonus. Find her online at

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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