Pose a question that will invite your group to reflect on an experience, eg Describe one thing you learned today you want to remember.
Instruct each person to write a response or a short letter that records these thoughts.
Tell your group that this letter will be returned/sent to them at a pre-defined time in the future, eg 6 months.
Collect the letters.
Schedule a time to remember to send these letters to their authors.
How To Play Narrative
The transference of learning is one of the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to experiential programs.
We are typically very good at reviewing what has been learned at the time our groups are standing before us, but we tend to lose control over the outcomes as soon as they return to their real worlds. Writing a letter to our future self helps to combat this issue.
The concept is simple. This exercise asks participants to write a letter to themselves, to be received sometime into the future. A week, a month, a year, or more. The timing is less important than the impact receiving this letter can have to reinforce and remind a person of something they learned or experienced.
The theory goes, if we can remind our participants of the things that they have committed to while they are with us, and feed it back to them at a later date, these things are more likely to stick with them. This future-dated reflection helps to reinforce learning and the commitments we make to ourselves and our groups.
Here’s what you need to do…
Grab some paper and pens and distribute them to your group. Perhaps you have timed this at a critical juncture in your program, at the end of the day/week/month or some other useful time, eg a particularly challenging time for your group.
Your most important task is to frame the context of this letter powerfully.
You want the content of these letters to resonate with the receivers and to make an impact. Also, the fact that your group knows in advance that they are going to receive these letters helps to build a sense of accountability too.
Here are some possible ways you could frame this letter-writing exercise:
What is one thing you experienced or learned today that you’d like to remember for many years?
What do you want to tell or remind your future self in [ enter period of time? ]
What is one goal you’d like to commit to in the next [ enter period of time ?]
What are you 100% committed to making happen in the next [ enter period of time ?]
How would you like to be feeling about yourself in [ enter period of time? ]
Describe one thing you learned today you want to remember, forever.
What sort of person would you like to become in [ enter period of time? ]
What behaviour or action are you committing to get better at?
Allow ample time for reflection, thinking and writing. Discourage the writing of essays, rather encourage concise responses that are kind, generous and future-oriented.
Your options from here are many and varied. My preference is to gather all of these letters and become responsible for returning them to their authors at a pre-defined period of time. To this end, be sure to add this task to your calendar to help you remember.
If you can, invite each person to place this letter into an envelope (you have provided), instruct them to write their postal address on the front, and then store them away until it’s time to post them. In our saturated digital age, it’s really nice to receive an actual hand-written letter.
Now that you understand the basic concept, take a look at the wide variety of alternatives in the Variations tab for further inspiration.
Practical Leadership Tips
Your framing of this self-reflective exercise will be critical to its success. If your group is not motivated to share useful nuggets of wisdom in their letters, then the exercise will lose its power.
Admittedly, the cost of postage can be quite prohibitive, so you may want or need to build this cost into the overall investment of your program (in advance) if you intend to leverage this reflective tool one or more times.
You could integrate Letter to Self as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand their emotions, thoughts and values and how these influence behaviour in different situations.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
A critical element of developing resilience is becoming self-aware. Writing a letter to oneself can be a wonderfully practical way to embed new practices and behaviours into someone’s life. To this end, consider integrating this activity into your established resilience development programs.
Knowing that you are going to receive a letter that says you committed to a particular action or behaviour can be a powerful force to inspire change. This will always work much better than if you just surprise people with the content of their letter at a later date. The letter provides an anchor, so if you say that you are going to do X, Y and Z and you know that at a future date you are going to be asked about your progress, these actions are more likely to happen.
Integrating this reflection tool as part of an individual or group’s goal-setting process can be a powerful way to facilitate change and ensure success. Writing goals on paper puts them into existence, which is often more successful than just verbalising them. On its own, this exercise will not ensure success but combined with other appropriate goal-setting frameworks, it is more likely to. For example, at the start of a project or task, ask your group to write themselves a letter about the hopes and dreams they hold for this experience.
Affirmation Letter 1: Frame the contents of the letter to affirm oneself, that is, to remind the author of their strengths and other good things about their character and skills.
Affirmation Letter 2: Frame the contents of the letter to affirm another person. Randomly allocate one person to each member of your group, or allow people to choose who they write to. Note that while both strategies are useful, the latter runs the risk of some members of your group not getting a letter (which is not particularly affirming at all.)
Future Buddy: Form pairs in advance of this exercise. When ready, place the letter belonging to one person in the envelope addressed to their partner, and vice versa. Instruct these buddies to contact their partner when they receive the letter to share what was written and have a conversation about their progress.
Digital Letters: Try this new digital version of a letter to self – Future Me. It’s free, private and it does not send you any spam. In essence, it’s an online tool that allows your participants to write an email to themselves that will be received in 1, 3, or 5 years time. You can even instruct it to send it to you on a specific date. Imagine asking your group to whip out their smartphones and sending themselves an email as part of their reflection.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
A virtual setting will require you to ask each person to gather their own writing materials and an envelope (and stamp.) Given the digital nature of your gathering, you have the option to ask your group to still handwrite their letters, or perhaps type their letter into a document on a keyboard.
Consider directing your group to the free Future Me digital version of this activity (see the Variations tab for more.)
You Might Also Like...
Series of simple visualisations that promote relaxation.
Simple opening and/or closing exercise for gatherings.
Fun reflection exercise that fosters open dialogue.
Useful Framing Ideas
In our saturated digital age, it’s really nice to receive an actual hand-written letter. Can you recall the last time you received an actual hand-written letter? If it’s been a long while, then we’re about to change that in this next activity…
One of the most powerful ways to embed learning is to reinforce it, often. It is difficult to learn anything by only being exposed to it once. Most of us need many reminders to help it become a newly embedded skill or knowledge. To help strengthen the learnings we have discussed today, I’m going to ask you to write a letter to yourself that will be held for a month and then sent back to you…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after leading this powerful debriefing exercise:
What was it like to transfer your thinking from your head to paper?
Is the process of writing your thoughts in words helpful?
What did you have to imagine when you considered receiving this letter in [ enter pre-defined timeframe ?]
Does it change your thinking when you know that what you are writing will be presented to you in [ enter pre-defined timeframe ?]
What do you think your reaction will be when you receive this letter?
What do you think are the benefits and limitations of forward-thinking?
The inspiration for Letter to Self was sourced from a youth camp I participated in many years ago in which I wrote a letter to my future self. I’ve still got it (somewhere.)