The Power of Reflection

Image: Alejandro Escamilla

Think you don’t have time to pause and reflect? Think again.

Taking the time to pause and reflect can have a powerful impact on both how we work and how we live. Reflection comes from the Latin word reflectere, which means to bend back or turn back, and it occurs when we become conscious of, analyze, evaluate and question our experiences, assumptions, beliefs and emotions. In order to really ‘bend back’ and be reflective, we must be prepared to slow down and consciously think about our own experiences. 

The problem is many of us don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reflect. Much of the time we are so busy ‘doing’ that we simply overlook how important reflection is to our ability to learn and grow as individuals and as organizations. The truth is most of us are spending a whole lot more time ‘doing’ than reflecting, and we are missing out on some powerful opportunities as a result. 

According to Umair Haque, in his article, Making Room for Reflection is a Strategic Advantage,

“What most companies (and economies) don’t do is to stop doing — and that’s a self-defeating problem. We seem to be clueless about making room for deep questioning and thinking: reflecting. Our doing/reflecting ratio is wildly out of whack.”

As we move forward in this increasingly complex world, developing our ability to pause and reflect is becoming ever more important. Taking a few minutes each day as a break from our ‘doing’ perspective can provide a richness of information that would otherwise be inaccessible.

There are some clear benefits to incorporating a reflective practice into our daily lives:

1.   Reflection supports real learning 



American philosopher in education John Dewey said, “we do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” It is the reflection on the experience, not the experience itself, where the true learning takes place. In fact, reflecting is what provides us with the opportunity to make connections between our experiences and our prior understanding, and to arrive at new and possibly novel ways of approaching a topic. David Kolb’s experiential learning model, which you can see to the right, highlights the various stages of learning: concrete experience, such as an actual event, like a meeting; reflective observation, where we look back and assess what went well and what didn’t in the meeting; abstract conceptualization, where we make sense of what happened in the meeting and draw conclusions about that experience; and finally active experimentation, where we consciously arrive at a plan for our next action, our next meeting. This model for learning becomes a spiral as we are continually informing our future with our reflections about past experiences. 

Without giving time and space to examine our thoughts and actions we are missing out on a rich opportunity to learn from our mistakes, missteps, successes and new experiences and grow as an employee and as a human being.

2.   Reflection impacts performance

Image: Simon Schmitt

Image: Simon Schmitt

According to Carmen Noble’s article, Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance, organizations are underestimating the power of reflection in the workplace. In one study, conducted at a tech support call centre in Bangladore, India, the researchers studied three groups of employees in their first few weeks of training. The groups were given three different conditions: control, reflection and sharing. While all three groups received the same training, the overall process of the training differed. The first  group kept working and did not intentionally reflect on the training, while the second group spent 15 minutes a day (for a portion of the study) actively reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. The final group underwent a similar reflection period as the second group, but also spent five minutes sharing their learning with their peers.

According to Noble, the reflection group and the sharing group increased their performance on the final training test by between 22.8 and 25 percent over the control group. This is a significant number considering the fact that the control group spent 15 minutes longer per day working. Although it may seem counterintuitive, studies like Noble’s show less ‘doing’ and more reflecting can have a powerful impact on productivity and performance.

Although it seems counter intuitive, studies like Noble’s shows that less ‘doing’ and more reflecting can have a powerful impact on productivity and performance.

3. Reflection allows for a broader view

Image: Anthony Gotter

Image: Anthony Gotter

If you look too closely to the form, you will miss the essence – Rumi

Beyond the research, we all have first-hand experience of what pausing to reflect can do for us. Slower, calmer and less frenetic experiences, such as camping or vacationing at a cottage or cabin, allow us to broaden the somewhat myopic view that comes with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day living. In these experiences, time seems to slow down and our mind stops grasping for the next thing we must ‘do.’ Like those sweet moments on vacation, intentionally reflecting can also give us some distance from daily life and allow us to see things from a new and different angle. Often that new perspective can open us up to fresh possibilities and outcomes, and bring into view things that were previously unavailable to us. As C. Otto Scharmer states in his book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, it is in this time in reflection where we are able to access a deeper level of knowing and understanding. 

This is the place where ‘ah-ha’ moments live, where new ideas or different approaches to solving problems are accessible to us because we took a moment to sit quietly and reflect on the day. 

4.  Reflection creates space for creativity and innovation

There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns. —Edward de Bono

In Frank Addante’s article, 5 Daily Habits that will Boost your Creativity and Focus ‘whitespace,’ the time you set aside to reflect, refresh your thinking and gain perspective, is touted as a key ingredient for creativity and innovation. A serial entrepreneur and founder of six companies, Addante reflects, “whitespace is the lifeblood of the innovator, and an absolute must for any creative person. It's also critical for anyone in a leadership role—we as leaders need the time and space to digest information, analyze, and strategize the steps we need to take to reach our goals.” There is a discipline, of sorts, required to infuse reflection into one’s daily schedule.

Finding cracks in time to pause and reflect on the day may sound counterproductive, but taking a ‘time out’ may be exactly what you need to tap into your creativity and focus. 

5. Reflection increases self-awareness

To be self-aware is to know our own strengths and weaknesses as well as understand the impact our behaviours and actions have on ourselves and others. Regular reflection can create a level of introspection that allows us to be more aware of our assumptions and how these assumptions govern our thinking and actions.

As we become more aware of how our assumptions, thinking and behaviours impact our ability to be effective at what we do, we are able to make different choices about how we want to be.

The importance of self-examination is highlighted by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield’s Secret Ingredient for Success, where they reflect on a series of interviews they conducted with highly successful people in order to uncover their secret to their success. Sweeney and Gosfield discovered that self-awareness was touted as one of the top characteristics for achievement. They spoke to an array of high achievers from a range of fields, who repeatedly reported that it was their ability to mercilessly perform self-examination in the face of obstacles that allowed them to reimagine a new and better way forward.

The Power of the Pause

Making the time to reflect can be a real challenge in our ever-so-busy world. Rushing from one appointment to the next can fill our days with a sense of obligation to ‘doing’ that can sometimes seem never-ending and often overwhelming.

But it is through finding pockets of time to sit and reflect that will support our growth and development as professionals, parents, partners, colleagues and friends. 

Strategies for developing your reflective capabilities:

Unscheduled time.

Try fitting in 10-15 minutes in your day where you can remove yourself from the fray of your daily life. Once you have chosen the time, treat it as a commitment, similar to going to the dentist or your daughter’s birthday party. Use this time to reflect. Go for a walk. Sit quietly and look out the window. Shift away from 'doing' and settle into reflecting.

Minimize distractions.

Close the door to your office, bedroom or going to a place where no one will disturb you. Turn off your phone. Close your computer. Take a few deep breaths and really settle yourself into the space you are in.

Connect with others.

Dialoguing is a great way to reflect. Choose people you trust to reflect with. Listen to   others’ perspectives and attempt to really understand their perspective. Challenge each other’s assumptions and work to clarify what the key learning is for each of you. Keep a record of any ideas, themes or questions that come out of your discussion. 

Write it down.

Use a note pad, or an actual journal, to keep track of your thoughts in one place. Review your journal regularly so that you can note any themes or patterns that surface over time.

Be in nature. 

Nature is a powerful place for reflection. Time outside, whether it be sitting on a park bench, or going for a walk, can provide us with the time and      space we need to  consider things from a different vantage point.  Fresh air and physical movement are powerful catalysts for reflection.