Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.
He was encouraging us to spend time in deep reflection about how we live our lives.
We see this following through in modern life in many contexts:
- In schools, children are encouraged to reflect on their learning and make journal recordings on this (not a popular activity according to my ‘sources’!)
- Many professions are taught ‘reflective practice’ as a fundamental part of how they go about their business.
- In coaching and the self-help world, developing a habit of reflecting is an oft-given piece of advice.
Not surprisingly, we too recommend reflection as a positive strategy for building wellbeing – using it as a productive means of:
- Recognising when things are going well and feeling appreciative and grateful for this, and
- Contemplating what is not going well and thinking about what to change, achieving a sense of personal agency in one’s life.
Overall, our intent is for reflection to be a positive learning experience and one that enables refocusing on what is important to you and for your wellbeing.
What we find in practice however is that many leaders fall into one of these camps:
- Uninterrupted pushing forward – never pausing for long enough to reflect, on a treadmill of activity, not engaging in the quiet contemplation of how things really are. Often linked to a lack of self-awareness and self-improvement.
- Focusing only on the negative – only reflecting on what’s not working, neglecting the positive experiences and forgetting to ‘Take In The Good’. Often linked to leaders who forget to celebrate success or show appreciation and give positive feedback.
- Dwelling and rehashing – overdoing the reflection to a point of rumination, finding it hard to move off the topic and taking a long time to ‘bounce back’ after perceived negative experiences. Often identified as a habit linked to feelings of depression and anxiety.
What can we recommend for each of these camps?
If you are a ‘pushing forward’ type, consider these strategies to encourage reflection:
- Start small – not on the meaning of life! Pick a significant work activity you are working on or have recently completed and ask yourself: what worked? What didn’t? What will I do differently next time? What did I learn about myself this time?
- Make it a daily habit – do it at the same time in the same place, such as travelling home or during exercise. Use this activity or location as the trigger to make you do it. Think about your day, your work, your life. What did you do right and wrong and what can you improve?
- Do it for a week after every meeting you go to – set the time in your calendar to do this and follow through. Spend 5-10 mins thinking about how other attendees might have experienced you in the interaction, what you learnt from them and what you did to contribute to a successful outcome. Are there any follow up actions you feel might be of benefit to take now?
- Try different approaches – a journal for some, a discussion with a trusted colleague for others or an external coach for some professional input.
- Add it as an agenda item to the end of your team meetings – reflect as a team on what is working and not working.
If you ‘focus on the negatives’, try the following to bring more light to the shade:
- Try the strategies above, using the balance of both positive and negative observations and interpretations.
- Task yourself for a day to only comment on the positives from any activity, meeting or outcome in your work and life. This can include positive feedback / compliments to those around you. Try this at home and see what occurs!
- Catch yourself in the moment and for every fault or improvement point you identify, match it with a positive.
- Engage your colleagues / team in the hunt for positives – build this as a team habit.
If you are a ‘dweller and rehasher’, change the record and experiment by:
- Setting yourself a time limit for reflecting on an interaction or outcome – once this time is up, tell yourself, “that’s it done, let it go.”
- Use three steps to structure your reflection: 1) What remedial action might I need to take to right this situation? 2) What can I learn from the situation for next time? 3) Note this down briefly, close your journal and move on.
- Always consider what other factors have influenced outcomes aside from yourself – who else has impacted this, what circumstances have led to this? Task yourself with finding the broadest range of influences you can.
- Distract yourself with something else to do or think about. Try shifting your attention to something pleasant or get moving and go for a walk. Think about an actual problem that needs addressed or a plan that needs to be made.
- Ask yourself what the ruminating is adding to your life; what benefits is this bringing you? What have you learned or gained from this in the past? What are the costs in terms of wasted time and energy? Is it going to actually help you solve anything?
- Lastly, if rumination is interfering with how you want to live your life, creating anxiety, affecting your sleep or leading to sadness or depressive thoughts, considering seeking professional help to learn techniques to move you past this.
Remember reflection is positive and all things in moderation!
Dembling, S. (2013). Introspection Versus Rumination. Psychology Today. February 25th 2013 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-introverts-corner/201302/introspection-versus-rumination
Porter, J. (2017) Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It). Harvard Business Review, 21 March 2017
Babauta, L. (2007) 5 Powerful reasons to make reflection a daily habit and how to do it https://zenhabits.net/5-powerful-reasons-to-make-reflection-a-daily-habit-and-how-to-do-it/