The Power of Reflection

Written for Karren Brady’s blog

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

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