Making room for reflection

This is an edited version of a talk I recorded for the wellbeing zone at the Utterly Content Global Festival. It focuses on the what, why and how of reflective routines.

What is reflection?

Reflection may be a fairly ubiquitous term in our vocabulary, but what we mean when we use it may not always be clear. When it comes to defining reflection I favour this description from an article by Jennifer Porter in Harvard Business Review snappily titled Why you should make time for self-reflection (even if you hate doing it):

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. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.

It combines the dictionary definition of reflection — serious thought or consideration — with some of the outcomes of the thought process described. This aligns with how I see reflection, that it is essentially a learning tool. It helps us to understand and learn from our experience. It is an opportunity to increase our self-awareness through observing and analysing our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Despite those definitions, reflection still feels quite abstract. Looking to a model for reflection can help to give it a more structured form. Many models for reflection that are based in adult learning theory follow a similar pattern:

  1. observing what happened in a specific situation
  2. analysing what can be learned from the experience
  3. identifying how that learning can be applied in the future

The most concise of these models, developed by Terry Borton in the 1970s, asks just three questions, giving a framework for reflection that can be applied to any situation:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

Making time for this kind of reflection on a daily basis isn’t something we typically do. It can be seen as one more commitment in our already over-filled schedules. I think that’s largely because it feels like a daunting task. We might think it takes too long, or that it requires a lot of work, but the reality is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why reflect regularly?

Reflection can offer an antidote to many of life’s challenges. If you feel stuck, uncertain, indecisive, unfocused, demotivated, frustrated, overwhelmed, worn out and unsure what to do about any of it, reflection can help. Through reflecting on what’s happening in our lives we can reorganise and structure our thoughts to prevent us from ruminating and instead take action.

When we make time for reflection in our daily lives it has a cumulative effect. Over time we can:

  • increase our self-awareness
  • spot patterns in our thoughts and emotions
  • identify early warning signs

As a result, we are more able to:

  • cope with challenging situations
  • become less reactive
  • be more intentional in our actions

Now that we’ve considered what reflection is and why it’s important, let’s look at how we go about making it part of our daily routine.

How to create a reflective routine

There are many approaches you could take to build reflection into your daily routine. Often when getting started it’s helpful to have a framework as a guide rather than staring at a blank page. But it’s important to remember there isn’t just one way to do it, any model can be adapted and made your own.

My reflective routine has developed over a number of years and continues to evolve. It is based on a Stoic practice of preparing for the day ahead and putting the day up for review. There are three parts to the process:

  1. In the morning I preview my day, check in with how I’m feeling, set my focus and identify any potential obstacles or challenges
  2. At lunch, I review progress and check if anything needs to change
  3. To round things off at the end of the work day I review what’s happened, what I learned and set an intention for the next day

If you’re interested to find out more, my daily reflection template is available as a free download.

I can’t stress enough, however, the importance of finding a way to reflect that works for you. It will involve a lot of trial and error, but that’s part of the fun.

Getting started is the first hurdle, so here are some tips to help build momentum as you create a reflective routine of your own:

  • keep it simple
  • stick to the same time every day
  • set reminders
  • turn airplane mode on to keep distractions at bay
  • and finally, get creative and experiment

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