When I deliver training for leaders, I often ask whether they engage in some sort of reflective practice.
That is, taking time to reflect on their experiences and thoughts at some point during the working week.
In most cases, I find that very few people say that they have a reflective practice, which I find a little surprising because reflection can have many benefits.
In this post, I’m going to outline some of the key benefits of reflection. Then I’ll take a look at what sort of things you might do to reflect in your role.
What is a Reflective Practice Anyway?
A reflective practice is any method you have for taking time to reflect on your thoughts, feelings and situations you have experienced.
I start to call it a “practice” when it becomes a standard part of your routine, rather than just ad-hoc thinking.
For example, if you take 10 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on the good and bad parts of your week, you could call this a practice.
Engaging in regular coaching, mentoring or therapy can be reflective practices too, because the coach, mentor or therapist will ask you questions to help you reflect on your experiences.
Some leaders have told me that they pray regularly which helps them to reflect, too.
Taking time to think privately or engaging in gratitude journalling are also other methods which leaders use.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The most important thing is to start!
Learn More: 3 Ways to Reduce Unhelpful Thinking.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Reflect Regularly?
Well I can’t speak for everyone, but I recently surveyed my thoughtful leader audience to ask about how they reflect.
Unsurprisingly, many of the thoughtful leaders in the survey responded that they do reflect regularly.
Others responded that while they try to engage in reflection, they sometimes struggle for the following reasons:
- Not enough time. With a busy schedule, it can be difficult to try to squeeze in the time for reflection.
- It’s a little intangible. When you reflect, things don’t change overnight, so it can be hard to notice the benefits.
- Not knowing how. Some leaders indicated that they don’t really know how they should go about reflecting; or
- Not taking action. Sometimes people reflect, but fail to take accountability for any action off the back of it (or they are busy and forget!). This means reflection may appear to have little benefit.
Some of these reasons may sound familiar, and I think they’re understandable too.
I find that reflection often happens in organisations as part of “lessons learned” or review sessions at the end of projects or during their delivery.
However, these are usually focused on the delivery of the work in a team, rather than on personal self-reflection.
Learn More: Want to Show Confidence? Start by Noticing.
So What Are the Benefits of Having a Reflective Practice Then?
From a personal standpoint, I’m quite an introspective person by nature.
I like to think through what has happened and prepare for what’s coming. It helps me to feel more confident and process events, and often I find that it helps to gain a little bit of understanding about how I deal with things.
Then, I can do something different the next time I’m in a similar situation.
However, there is a bunch of research out there stretching back a few years, that also supports the benefits of reflection (and I’ve put the links to several papers below if you are interested):
- Reflection can improve performance by allowing people to draw lessons from their past experiences (Anseel et al, 2009 and Ashford & DeRue 2012)
- Reflection can also help people take personal responsibility for their past performance (Ellis et al, 2006); and
- Help people feel more confident about achieving their goals (Di Stefano et al, 2014)
From a wellbeing perspective, a reflective practice can also help people positively reframe their work situation, recover from work stress and perceive work as being more meaningful (Fritz & Sonnentage 2006 and 2005, Sonnentag et al 2021).
And even though when you’re reflecting you are actually doing something (thinking!), I find that reflection still acts as a break from the normal work grind. We know that taking breaks is good for us, so why not use your break for reflection?
How to Start a Reflective Practice
Now, let’s take a look at how you might start your own reflective practice.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll often hear experts tell you that you just need to do <something good> for “5 minutes a day”.
I hear this a lot, and the problem is that if you do 20 recommended good things for 5 minutes per day, you need 100 minutes.
So here, I’ll also take a look at how you might overcome this challenge and start forming a good habit so you can reflect regularly without it seeming like a struggle.
1. Book Time In Your Calendar
Even if it’s only 10 minutes, I strongly recommend booking time out in your calendar on a frequent basis for reflection.
This could be just once or a few times per week, but be sure to be consistent. A recurring calendar invite can be useful for this purpose, to make sure you don’t forget!
If you can adjourn to a quiet location to reflect by yourself, then this is even better.
It can be hard to collect your thoughts in a busy workplace with people all around.
2. Consider the Cue and the Reward When Creating Your Reflective Practice
Ideally, you’ll want to make a habit of your reflection.
That’s why it’s useful to consider some of the work of Charles Duhigg, a prominent habit expert.
He says that the natural habit process has a Cue, a Routine and a Reward.
The Cue is what kicks off the habit. In this case, we might use your recurring calendar booking as the Cue.
“When the Calendar booking notification appears, I’ll stop what I’m doing and go to my quiet reflection place.”
The Routine is the meaty part of the habit. Your Routine would be the reflective practice itself.
Last, we need to consider the Reward. The Reward is something you enjoy that you can give yourself after executing the Routine.
For example, you might say:
“After I do my reflection, I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
The reward needs to be something you enjoy, otherwise you won’t look forward to it.
The idea over time is that eventually, you won’t need the reward so much – because you will enjoy the Routine itself.
That’s when you’ve developed a habit.
3. When Creating Your Reflective Practice, Have Some Standard Questions to Answer
I find it easiest to reflect based on a series of questions that I ask myself.
Rather than make them up each time, develop your own standard set that you like.
This means you can get straight into reflecting, rather than have to think about what you’ll do.
Here are some examples:
What went well this week?
What specifically was good about it?
How did it make you feel?
What didn’t go well?
What specifically was bad about it?
How did you contribute to the situation?
What would you do differently next time?
These are just a starting point, and you can choose any that you find useful.
4. Hand-Write Your Answers
I’ve always found that hand-writing is more effective than typing on a computer or smartphone.
When I was studying, I would often re-write all my lecture notes as part of the study process.
This did take a while, but I found that the knowledge “stuck” more than just by reading or typing.
There is something in the physical act of writing that helps us to retain information and learn more effectively.
So instead of typing on your laptop (where there are also many distractions waiting to happen), consider buying a paper or digital notebook, where you write by hand.
5. Reflect on Positive and Negative Events
I find that I tend to focus on negative events most often when I reflect, because they have the strongest emotional impact on me.
Negative events also help us to identify what we can fix for next time, so we can avoid future problems.
However, there are studies that indicate that performance improves when we focus on failures and successes, rather than just failures.
So try to split your reflection time accordingly, on both positive and negative events.
6. Think of An Action to Take
One aspect of reflection that I think is sometimes missed is the practical side of things.
Instead of just reflecting on how you feel, consider what you could do in a similar situation next time.
If something great happened, could you take an action to make it happen again?
If something bad happened, could you take an action to avoid it next time?
Without this practical application, I find that a reflective practice can sometimes seem a little intangible.
But when the outcome is to take a concrete action, you can start to see the benefits that the reflection is having.
Why Not Start Your Reflective Practice Today?
Reflection has a bunch of benefits and is a low-cost activity, so why not start today?
All you need is some paper and a pen.
At the time of writing this, I am in the process of developing The Useful Thinking Journal, which will help you to start your own reflective practice.
The journal will incorporate several research-based techniques to get the most out of your reflective practice, so you can get better every week.
Stay tuned for more information about the journal.
But in the meantime, book yourself some reflection time in your calendar, and get started.
Do you have a reflective practice? What is it? Tell your story in the comments below!