One thing I’ve changed in 2020 has been to shift (even) more time towards structured reflection. The volatile and sometimes chaotic environment this year provided a helpful nudge for what would have been worthwhile without it already. In this post, I’ll elaborate on the benefits of reflection as I currently see them and suggest ways to implement it in practice.
Most readers will have an intuitive sense of what I mean by “reflection”, but to be safe: By reflection, I mean taking a break from what you’d otherwise be doing to examine what’s currently happening.
Let’s start with why you’d want to reflect in the first place. Based on my own experience at work, as well as observing people who I regard as highly successful in their career, and studying materials on learning and deliberate practice in the context of my coach training, my current understanding is that reflection is mainly useful in the following ways:
- Learning and development: Reflection helps you extract maximum learning from experience accumulated in the past, which can improve performance significantly more than spending the same amount of time to accumulate additional experience. By articulating and codifying your past experience, you cultivate a deeper level of insight into the causal relationship between actions and outcomes. Reflection also nudges you to explore issues from multiple perspectives rather than just going with your first intuition.
- Prioritisation and alignment: Reflection helps you clarify what matters to you, notice where you’re at right now relative to what matters, and see what you need to do to close the gap. It’s a way of thinking about what you do strategically, leading to an increased alignment between your values and actions. Without reflection, on the other hand, you tend to drift and get distracted by the good opportunities while missing out on the great ones.
- Motivation and self-efficacy: Finally, reflection can help you look at your situation with fresh eyes — an antidote to boredom and stagnation. It can help you see richness and possibilities in a way that rejuvenates you and builds momentum towards your goals. Further, reflecting on past experience with a specific task tends to reduce your uncertainty about your ability to perform that task competently in the future, leading to increased self-efficacy and future performance.
What you want to get from reflection might look different from the above, so I’d encourage you to clarify that before you start since the right reflection practice might look very different depending on what you’re optimising for.
Having a sense of what we’re trying to get from reflection, we can now consider what to do in practice. Again, I’d expect that the ideal solution will look very different depending on your preferences and environment, so take some time to consider what might work for you.
On a fundamental level, establishing a reflection practice is about deciding when and where to direct your attention. The first part is about time: When and for how long do you want to pause and reflect? The second part is about content: What do you want to do during that time?
To determine when and for how long to reflect, consider if there are any specific times when reflection would be most useful, given what you’re trying to get from it — for instance, making a deliberate decision at the start of the day about what you’ll work on that day. Also, consider whether there are any natural time intervals in your life that you can use as an anchor — for instance, the start or end of the workday.
Before you can decide for how long you want to reflect, you probably need to get a better sense of how you’ll use that time. Here, think about where you’d have to direct your attention to accomplish your desired outcome, and what guidance and prompts would help you with that. The four directions for reflection by David B. Peterson, former Senior Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership at Google, help illustrate the point about directing your attention:
- Look inward: What is most important to you? What are your goals, and what are you doing to achieve them?
- Look outward: What matters most to others? What expectations do they hold that you need to address in order to be successful at your endeavours? How do they perceive you?
- Look back: What have you been trying to learn and what new things have you tried? What has worked well and what hasn’t worked? What have you learned?
- Look ahead: What will you do differently? What do you need to keep learning? Where are your opportunities to try new things?
Based on the above steps, you can come up with a reflection schedule — see the next section for an example. For many people, starting small and building their way forward towards their ideal schedule instead of making one large shift will have a higher chance of success. Pick one new reflection point and build it into your existing systems in a way that ensures you’ll actually do it. Schedule a time in the future when you’ll evaluate how the new routine is going and decide whether and how to adjust it.
Sample reflection schedule
Below is a collection of individual reflection points that together make up a reflection schedule. It’s ordered chronologically and in increasing order of time investment. The idea is inspired by David B. Peterson who’s been mentioned above already. You could expand the schedule and add quarterly, annual, and even less frequent reflection points using the same principles.
Momentarily (10 seconds)
Whenever you snap out of “autopilot” and become present again:
- Zoom out: What’s important now?
- Zoom in: What’s the next step?
- Alternatively: Who do you want to be, right now?
Hourly (1-3 minutes)
This is roughly the level of an individual task. Here, you could ask yourself at the start:
- Desired outcome: What are you trying to achieve?
- Benefits: Why does it matter?
- Obstacles: What might make this difficult?
- Plan: What are the individual steps?
Daily (5-10 minutes)
At the start of the day:
- What are the three most important tasks for the day?
- When are you going to work on them?
- What else matters today?
At the end of the day:
- What went well today?
- What didn’t go well today?
- What do you want to do differently tomorrow/moving forward?
Weekly (10-30 minutes)
Look back over the previous week:
- What progress did you make? How satisfied are you with that?
- What did you learn?
- Meta: What other useful questions could you ask yourself at this point?
Look forward over the week ahead:
- What’s important in the week ahead? How can you meet your monthly goals?
- What are the 4-6 most important tasks you want to accomplish this week?
- What are your key learning opportunities?
Monthly (15-60 minutes)
Look back over the previous month:
- What progress did you make? How satisfied are you with that?
- What went well and why? What can you improve and how?
- How much are you enjoying your work right now, 1-10? How to make it a 10?
Look forward over the month ahead:
- What are the three most important objectives for the next three months?
- What can you do this month to make progress towards them?
- What else matters this month?
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, here are a few resources you might find useful:
- Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning – Giada Di Stefano et al.
- Step back: Bringing the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life – Joseph L. Badaracco
- How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection – Harvard Business Review
- Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection – Harvard Business Review
- On Reflection – Neel Nanda