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| April 24, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… it’s really not an option 

Reflection is about “careful thought.”  Jennifer Porter, leadership and team development coach, says that “the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more nuanced than just ‘careful thought’.”  The most useful reflection involves the conscious considerations and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning.”  She continues, saying that this kind of “Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle, and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations and create meaning.”1  Such reflections are crucial to a leader’s growth and development.
Yet, most of us resist the thought of stopping to reflect.  We don’t believe that we have time to stop and just think.  Yet, it has been said that “Thinking is the one thing you cannot outsource [or delegate] as a leader.” 
To begin a practice of reflection, you need to schedule unstructured thinking time.  It can be in the morning, or the evening;  it can be every day, or a few times a week;  each session can be the same length, or some may be longer than others.  However, your time for reflection does need to be sacrosanct, protected, free from interruptions.  Some individuals may find it helpful to combine some of their reflection time with their weekly planning time in one longer session.  The key is getting your reflection time on, and keeping it on, your calendar so that it becomes part of your regular weekly and daily planning and calendaring practices. 
And, once you have it on the calendar, you must have a plan for how you will use the time.  Without a plan, you will quickly conclude this reflection stuff is a waste of time on your already overcrowded calendar!
Some individuals might begin by committing to 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day to write a single journal entry about an event in the day.  Others may make reflecting part of their routine to shut down their work activities for the day.  Some may find it helpful to identify a set of important questions to help get them started at each of their reflection sessions, questions such as these:

  1. What am I avoiding?
  2. How am I helping my colleagues and team members achieve their goals?
  3. How am I not helping, even hindering, their progress?
  4. How am I contributing to my least enjoyable relationship at work?
  5. How could I have been more effective in a recent meeting that did not go well?  Etc.

As you reflect on such questions, it is important to not only answer the question but to then ask what you are going to do about what you learned.  Peter Drucker is quoted as saying “Follow effective action with quiet reflection.  From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
Other individuals form a set of regular questions in a way that permits objective evaluation of their work on a particular day with opportunity for follow-up questions examining what they will do to improve the situation.  As an example, consider some of the questions Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and prolific author of such books as What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, asks himself at the start each day’s reflection time:
Did I do my best to …

  1. Set clear goals today?
  2. Make progress towards my goals today?
  3. Find meaning today?
  4. Be happy today?
  5. Build positive relationships today?
  6. Be fully engaged today?

Goldsmith “scores” his performance on each question from 0 to 10, recording his scores in a spreadsheet for tracking and review.  After each question, Goldsmith has the option of asking himself, “And, so what?”  (Other examples of Goldsmith’s standard questions can be found in Paul Sohn’s blog posting “The Daily Questions Ritual That Helps You Become Better at Anything.”)
As you reflect on such questions as well as questions you might pose, as I noted earlier, it is important to not only answer the original question but to then ask what you are going to do about it.  (The 5 Whys will often be a helpful approach to this.) 
Finding a time to reflect on your life and your work has become increasingly important and necessary in this hyper-charged world when some individual or some device is always clamoring for our attention.  However, if we set our mind to it, we can find the time and with a plan for how we are going to use the time, we can take steps and, thereby, gain significant benefits.  Why don’t you make time on your calendar to begin taking some time for reflection this week?
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jennifer Porter, “Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It),” Harvard Business Review, March 2017.  

Further Reading:

  1. Martin Reeves, Roselinde Torres, and Fabien Hassan, “How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection,” Harvard Business Review, September 2017.
  2. Eric McNulty, “Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders,” strategy+leadership, August 2016.
  3. Marshall Goldsmith, “Make Me Better Please,” Marshall Goldsmith blog.
  4. Leo Babuta, “5 Powerful Reasons to Make Reflection a Daily Habit, and How to Do It,” Zen Habits blog.