What Is Reflection?
As an action, to reflect means to give thought to, to consider, to review, or to meditate. For personal development, reflection means pausing life’s activities to evaluate your thoughts, your priorities, and your direction.
We are prone to lose ourselves to life’s rollercoaster, and it often results in burnout. We are breathless at nature’s awesome displays of the rise and fall of energy, yet fail to apply these lessons in our productivity. The sun rises with warmth and power and sets in the evening. The ocean tides climb high and then fall. Spring and summer bring life and energy. Fall and winter bring quiet, slumber, and stillness.
Our work should follow suit. Oh sure, you may think you’re getting by just fine with your 4-hour nights of sleep, endless meetings, and saying vacation time is for the lazy. But the car will only drive so long before it runs out of gas. The same goes for us.
Reflection is putting a little gasoline in our tanks.
Imagine someone dropped you in the middle of a jungle. You’re hot, sweaty, and exhausted as you hack your way through the bush with a machete. You have a map, but the jungle is so thick that you only see what’s right in front of you. After a few miles of hiking, you feel desperate. And an idea occurs to you that if you climb up one of the trees, you might get a clearer picture for where you are and where you need to be. And you figure that the fresh air at the top wouldn’t hurt.
Sure enough, you climb to the top and are amazed at what you can see. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s informative. The landmarks on your map are now visible, so you know exactly where to go. You just need to pause after so long to climb another tree and check your course.
That’s the idea of thinking time. Strung-out professionals cannot see the future. We can only see what’s right in front of us. But a little bit of reflection can be like climbing the tree and seeing where we need to go next. What was once hidden is now made visible: what our priorities are and how they’ve moved, that next milestone, and how to care for our health and wellbeing.
“Thanks to Thinking Time I’ve been able to leverage my time much better which resulted in making more money that I’m reinvesting in either myself or the business.” ~ Than Phan, CEO and founder of Asian Efficiency (https://www.asianefficiency.com/productivity/thinking-time/)
How It Works
Exercising good thinking time only requires two key elements:
Be fully present. That means turning off the notifications. That means clearing your calendar. Create boundaries in your relationships so this time is sacred. The amount of time you give may vary depending on your commitments, but if you are not fully present, you’re doing it wrong.
Second your space must be completely private. Related to eliminating distractions, you must be free to voice your thoughts without hinderance. As a father of two small kids, noise-cancelling headphones simply isn’t enough for me to reflect at home. And I find the milling about of people at coffee shops distracting. My favorite place to go is a cabin at a local campground. There I can be totally alone for me to read, write, and walk.
Bill Gates embodied both the presence and privacy we need for reflection. He was known for taking yearly “reading vacations.” Away from the noise of his busy world, he isolated himself in a cabin and cut himself off from tech: no phones, televisions, or computers. Just silence (Osman).
You may not have access to a cabin, but even 2 hours of alone time at your home can make a world of difference.
Our culture is enriched with awesome ways to reflect: focused breathing, forms of meditation, journaling, expressing gratitude, and many others. For my clients, I coach them through a system that’s calms the mind, clarifies priorities, and challenges personal development. It involves a 15-minute daily check-in, a weekly reset, and a monthly overview.
Here’s what reflection looked like for John Maxwell. “I always guide my reflection process by my calendar; I look back on appointments I’ve kept, meetings I’ve held, talks I’ve given, and other time commitments I’ve made to help me invest my time wisely in the year that’s to come. It’s a process that works well for me, and I’ve recommended it to many over the years (Maxwell).”
One of my favorite practices of reflection was inspired by Asian Efficiency, called the Quarterly Retreat. It’s essentially a weekend away where you get alone to evaluate your priorities. It required major shifts to do this my first time, but the value was so worth it that I made this a regular part of my calendar planning. You may think this is impossible for you, but even if there was the slightest chance of doing it, you have to try it.
If you’re wanting to give thinking time a try, here are some next actions to consider:
Start journaling. I often failed at this because I made it way too complicated. But even taking 5 minutes to record your wins is a great way to boost confidence, reduce stress, and feel like what you’re doing matters.
Go for a walk. Steve Jobs was well-known for going out on walks to reflect. Many times he took people with him to hash out ideas. A walk with the phone turned off and in the middle of nature is like taking a “green pill” for your mind.
Take a purposeful vacation. This isn’t a vacation where you just chill by the ocean, sight-see, and experience the world’s thrills. No doubt these can be very refreshing and are valuable. I’m talking about a vacation where you take time to read, reflect, and clarify what’s important to you. It’s taking time to climb to the top of the tree and getting the big picture.
Level up with a life coach. We are tasked with clarifying what’s important to you. Good coaches ask guided questions to help you reflect on who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you’d like to go next. Two coaches I’ve interacted with are included here. As a career coach, it’s my joy to help busy professionals crush their goals without burning themselves out.
Do you have routines for thinking time? Comment them below! I’m always looking for new ideas to try out.