The Power of Reflection

Written for Karren Brady’s blog strongfemaleleadership.com

This week I had an email from a university friend who I haven’t spoken to since I left uni’ (and that’s a long time). One of those people who played a significant role in my life yet also disappeared from it. I’ve caught up with and reconnected with various friends over the years. What seems different this time is that this is someone I knew in my adult life, yet so much of my adult life has happened since I knew them. It made me reflect and then reflect on reflection. 

It’s easy to think of reflection as day dreaming or reminiscing over what has already happened in life, whether that’s yesterday or years ago. Something that may be ‘nice’ to do but that doesn’t really have any consequences.  However, around the turn of the last century American philosopher John Dewey described it as more of a purposeful activity a ‘dynamic and intentional process that profoundly influences one’s experiences’. This point of view has now been backed by decades of research showing that there’s far more to reflection than mere daydreaming and that it significantly improves learning and performance (e.g. Aronson, 2010; Schippers, Homan, and van Krippenberg, 2013). As a result, it’s a very useful, ‘free’ tool when it comes to developing and fulfilling our potential. 

Reflection is more powerful than action

Dewey (1933:78): “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

What I found fascinating when I dug a bit deeper into the research is that reflection can actually help us learn and improve our behaviour more than experience itself (if we already have some experience in that area). One research study described the phenomena using the example of a surgeon: 

“Consider for an instance a cardiac surgeon in training. She has completed ten operations under the eye of an instructor. It is in everyone’s interest for the cardiac surgeon to get better as fast as possible. Imagine she was given a choice in planning her agenda for the next two weeks. She could spend that time doing ten additional surgeries, or she could take the same amount of time alternating between a few additional surgeries and time spent reflecting on them to better understand what she did right or wrong.” (Stefano et al., 2014)

While time spent reflecting takes her away from actually ‘doing’ surgery and helping the unit she works in, it is more effective than working the additional hours in the operating theatre to her professional development.  In other words, if we actually pause and take time to consider what we’re doing it improves our performance more quickly than ploughing on and just doing. This, to me, is amazing. It’s an example of slowing down to speed up.  

The brain

Scientists have shown that this works with the way our brain naturally functions. If we engage in deliberate reflection the brain has an enhanced ability to develop our cognitive (i.e. thinking and problem solving) abilities (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, and Singh, 2012).  We begin to understand the task better and we also improve our confidence in being able to carry out the task. 

Beyond improved performance there are many other benefits. For example, reflection:  

  • helps us process worries and concerns in a constructive way
  • makes us notice things that are draining us or causing us problems which means we can move away from the toxic things in our life
  • reminds us of what we really want to do and where we want to head
  • helps us to make sense of our own and other people’s actions
  • allows us to work out where we thrive, what we’re good at and what we love most, meaning we can plan to spend more time focussed on them
  • allows us to identify and work through psychological blockers which may be holding us back 
  • enables us to learn from mistakes more effectively helping us not to repeat the same thing again
  • means we can recognise and then celebrate our small successes
  • helps us to keep things in perspective 
  • provides us with a greater level of clarity over who we are and what we’re about

Reflection in practice

If you look into the biography of any of the worlds’ greatest leaders and minds, reflection was part of their daily or at least weekly routine. Take for example Benjamin Franklin who would conclude everyday with reflection or Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Einstein, Tchaikovsky, Maya Angelou to name but a few others. 

What does deliberate reflection look like?

While reflection can be a more passive behaviour (i.e. looking back and realising how much time has passed) the type of reflection needed to boost our capabilities requires more conscious involvement. Researchers have found the most helpful way to reflect in order to learn and improve performance is to ‘attend to our feelings’ (it’s important that this is as an observation of what we felt not an analysis which can take us down an unhelpful introspective route), evaluate the experience and how effectively we think we performed, ask ourself questions and where necessary reframe experiences with the specific purposes of improving how we do things.

How does this work in practice? 

There are a number of different ways of approaching this but really it’s up to you to find what works best for you and your life. Here are a few ideas to get you started.  

Reflection on the go. You may want to incorporate reflection into daily activities when you’re driving, running, taking a shower or even as a distraction when you’re annoyed about something at work. Simple questions to ask yourself when you’re out and about may include ‘What went well in the last day or week? What did not go well in the last day or week and why? What can I do differently?’

Written reflection. You may choose to take time each evening or weekend to write down your thoughts, reflections, feelings. You could do this on a notepad, a computer, tablet or even record your voice. You could even write it into a blog or an Instagram post if that helps. The point is to choose a method that works for you and when reflecting make a conscious effort to find patterns, make connections, think constructively about what has happened and take learnings from it. 

Learning Journal. You may want to capture your reflections in a journal. You can write in free text or if you prefer a bit of structure you may find it helpful to divide the page into two columns, writing the description of what happened in the first column and a more critical reflection in the second e.g. What worked? What didn’t? Why? How did that make me feel? Have I come across this situation before and did I feel the same way? How could I improve or do things differently? What’s stopping me from doing the things I set out to?

Talking about your thoughts and reflections. Sharing them verbally with a friend will help you process them. You can also get feedback from a friend on how you see things as opposed to how they see things. This will help to make sure that you’re not skewing your reflections with an overly positive or negative bias and allow you to think through the actions you might want to take in response to your reflections. 

Whichever approach you use it’s helpful to write out or explain the lessons learnt and plan for how you’re going to do something in the future. Although reflecting is more powerful than doing, you still need to try out what you want to do differently to find out what works and what doesn’t and then adjust your behaviour accordingly (following a little more reflection). 

Reflection could be considered a dying art given the fast paced and immediate world we live in, but given the richness it provides us with and the opportunity to perform more optimally, it really is worth making the time and space for it in your life. 

References – to come

Photo – pexels.com

The Benefits of Curiosity

It’s easy to stop being curious as we get older. We know things, we’ve seen things, we’ve lived life so there’s no longer the need of a child to ask questions and explore the unknown. 

While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, it also shows that curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood. Curiosity not only helps us discover more about who we are but provides a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow our intellect, boost our general health and well-being and even slow down the aging process. A study carried out by scientists Swan andCarmelli following over 1,000 older men and women found that those who were more curious were actually more likely to survive the five-year study than those who were not. Curiosity literally kept them alive longer 

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood which is useful to apply to any of us at any age. Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as below, providing a useful framework from which to boost your own inquisitiveness. 

1 KNOWING WHAT WE DON’T KNOW 

Approaching a situation accepting our own inexperience. Not presuming we know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, remaining ready to encounter the unexpected. 

We can all use this approach every day of our lives. Rather than answering questions with our habitual response, thinking about what we really think, feel, and want. Not assuming we know the answers until we’ve looked at things from every angle, digging beneath the surface, and asking ourselves why we feel the way we do about certain things, how the beliefs we have formed came about, what led us to take certain decisions. 

2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES 

This about holding more than one possibility in mind at any given time and exploring which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” Approach situations with the premise that any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested. Trying to suspend judgment until all of the options have been explored.  

3 UNDERSTANDING THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE 

This may seem obvious but it’s something we can come to with a closed mind as we get older. Keeping an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences is incredibly powerful. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provides information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about. 

How curious are you? Could you be more curious? Do you do these three things? It’s worth trying, even just for a day because being curious really does lead to a healthier, happier and longer life. 

  1. G.E. Swan & D. Carmelli (1996) Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study, Psychology and Aging 11(3): 449–53. 
  2. Fiona Murden (2018) Defining You, how to profile yourself and unlock your full potential, Hodder & Stoughton 

First published on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

Photo: Pexels.com