Reflection: What Is It and How To Begin

Updated: Mar 3, 2021


I have a serious habit of journaling. For over 30 years, I have been documenting my thoughts, experiences, frustrations, pain, and joy. Since the sixth grade when I received my first diary, I have transferred thoughts out of my head and onto paper. When I struggle to sleep, I write. When I am confused or curious, I write. Yet, maybe most importantly, my journals are where I keep track of goals.


I occasionally go back and read old entries when I feel stuck in my career or life. I look for clues to point me back in the right direction. I felt this way when I was 27 and pulled out some old journals. I read that five years prior I had set the goal to obtain a graduate degree by the time I was 30. It was still something I wanted to pursue. I had simply forgotten about it.


I stared at the goal and wondered, is there still time? That was enough to motivate me to, at least, research programs. That research led to excitement which led to applying. I enrolled within 6 months and graduated with a Master's the week before my thirtieth birthday.


This year, it happened again. Four years ago, I wrote that I would launch my own consulting firm in 2020. The date was mostly arbitrary, but I liked the number and the start of a decade. “It will be easy to remember” I said. (Little did I know how memorable 2020 would be).


January 2020 rolled around and with excitement and fear I asked myself: Is this the right time? Can I do this? What will people think?


During that thought process, something else became very clear: I would rather fail at being a business owner than regret never having tried at all.


Growth Partners Consulting launched this year. Vince and I named the firm in January (he’s not just my spouse, but my business partner), we built the website in February, I signed my first client in April, and left my full-time job in September. I am now solo and realizing a goal that I set years ago.


It has not been entirely smooth sailing. I had a proposal rejected recently, and I unintentionally gave business away to another consultant (I wish I were making that up). But the real challenge and engagement I feel pursuing this goal, during a pandemic no less, is extremely fulfilling.


I share this story because it is December, the last month of the calendar year, and the ideal time for reflection. This is the practice of engaging in careful thought about the beliefs you have or the actions you take. It is also about the actions you do not take.


This week kicks off a series of three posts dedicated to positioning us all for success and growth in 2021. Today’s post will focus on reflection and its benefits. Next week, Part 2, concentrates on the importance of discovering values. Part 3 is not only about defining goals but also about deciding which goals are worth pursuing.


A favorite quote provides the inspiration for this work:


“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” (Chinese proverb)


We must act now if there is something we want for our future.


We begin, then, with Part 1 and Reflection.


What is reflection?

“That’s just a little too hippy dippy for me.” These are the words of a former colleague when I asked him how he had reflected on past work with a client. He felt the practice of reflection was a bunch of “hooey” and that all it really meant was thinking. “Of course, I think about my work.”


In some ways, he was correct. Reflection is essentially thinking. However, it is deeper than that and the benefits are robust. Research has shown that when employees spent 15 minutes every day thinking about lessons learned, they performed better over time. (Harvard Business Review).


There are three important aspects of performance enhancing reflection. First, it is routine. This means, there is a regular time when an individual reflects. Maybe it is at the end of the week or daily on the commute home.


Second, there are specific questions that are regularly considered such as “When was I at my best today?” or “How was I feeling today and what impact did that have on my performance?” My favorite question is “What or who did I avoid today? What impact has that had on my effectiveness?” These questions go deeper, beyond superficial thinking about tactical or transactional work. Some people ask the same questions each time, others mix it up.

Third, and this is ideal, the conclusions and ideas drawn from reflection are written down. Our memory is better when we put pen to paper. Not only does our brain retain information better and longer when we hand write (pbs.org) but we have a place to go back to that reminds us of our insight, learning, and intentions.


How do I begin?

If you have not employed a routine practice of reflecting, any time is a good time to start though I find endings are ideal. The end of a day, a week, or a month. The end of a year is good too though harder, even overwhelming, if it is the only time you have reflected. Here are some steps to begin a daily or weekly reflection practice. Treat it as a trial period and make adjustments that work for you.

  1. Find a time of day or during the week that suits you. Identify where you will write down your insight. Maybe a notebook, but if you prefer to type, that’s fine too.

  2. Start small, dedicate 10-15minutes.

  3. Create a space that is ideal for concentration. Maybe it is silence or maybe you need music. I have a friend who concentrates best while listening to heavy metal. Whatever works.

  4. Eliminate distractions, turn off all notifications. It is only 15 minutes.

  5. Reflect. The questions you ask yourself can vary. See the worksheet referenced below to help you get started.

The real benefit of this work is the documentation. It will yield patterns, and this is where performance improves. You may notice that your best days start with a workout or the same challenge keeps coming up. You now have the data or evidence to take a different action.


If, like discussed at the start of this article, your reflection is on the entire year, the questions may be different. Such as, “When did I last feel joy? Who was I with and what were we doing?” or “What has been fulfilling about my work this year? What hasn’t?” or “What have I always wanted to do but haven’t yet?”


To facilitate the start of a new practice, download this worksheet. It includes a variety of reflection questions to spark the thinking that will advance you into the future you truly want.


Next week, we will discuss values and strengths.

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Until next time!


 

Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.


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