We love to act, get on with things, and work on solutions. In school, in business, and in other contexts we are rewarded for being active and busy. Yet … have you ever heard of the expression ‘Too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing?’ Our action bias is supposed to be in service of meaningful achievement, which it often accomplishes. Yet in a world in which everything and everyone is super connected, the pace is high, change is the new normal, and the environment is complex, it is wise to make time for slow thinking, reflection, and contemplation.
You highly likely know this. You highly likely don’t practice it enough.
Regular reflection practices ensure that you take deliberate pauses. These pauses can help you free some of your cluttered mind, adopt an open perspective, and facilitate deeper thinking. If you use reflection practices strategically, you will strengthen your capacity for metacognition, meaning you will become better at monitoring, understanding, and controlling your reasoning processes. So you basically improve your thinking about your thinking, which limits the effects of hasty conclusions, limited perspectives, and cognitive biases that too often lead to misreading people and situations.
So if you are one of the many people who find themselves busy fighting fires, moving from problem to problem, switching between a variety of events, with little time for thoughtful, quiet reflection, please try this:
- Journaling about experiences, thoughts, doubts, feelings, progress.
- Asking reflection questions starting with whereto, what else, why not.
- Actively inviting people who think differently for feedback and input.
- Monthly reflection session with someone who guides the introspection.
- Mindfulness training to which many books and websites are dedicated.
A little more on mindfulness or training the mind: It is an intervention in the neural networking of your brain and a simple way to become more present, focused, and effective in the moment. Mindfulness helps you to face people and events with an open mind, greater creativity and flexibility, and more freedom from your habitual thought pattern while experiencing less stress.
For examples of reflective questions think about questions such as:
- What do I/we really know?
- What if I am (partially) wrong?
- What may I be projecting onto others?
- Which are my assumptions in this situation?
- What is it that I/they a really need or fear right now?
- Which perspectives may I not be soliciting or entertaining?
You can also use the “What – So What – Now What” model.
The ‘What?’ is descriptive and about facts, ‘So what?’ is a shift from descriptive to interpretive, what it all means, and involves feelings and lessons learned, and ‘Now what?’ helps you to see the situation in it’s context, to get a big-picture perspective, and to mine wisdom from experience to set future goals and create or adjust a plan.
Socrates may have said it best: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Strategic self-reflection can help you pause and contemplate, expand your viewpoint, acknowledge alternative beliefs, create a bridge between information and wisdom, and improve your decision-making capability. As stated in the Talmud, one of the central works of Rabbinic Judaism: “We do not see things as they are; but as we are.” So make sure you add other people’s perspectives, especially those of contrarians. Many people fail to look through the lens of opposing viewpoints. This limits the quality of your decisions since you are projecting your own thoughts, insights and experiences into a situation, without acknowledging alternative assumptions or angles.
In a January 2018 Harvard Business Review article called “Self-awareness can help leaders more than an MBA can” by Hougaard, Carter, and Afton, the authors take a very similar perspective on doing and awareness and reflection.
And this is the end of my plea for not-doing, at least for now.