I’ve been reflecting on reflection recently.  Mainly because I have been very busy and have lacked time during the day to truly reflect on my work.  This has led me to reflecting in the evenings, sometimes in the middle of the night, which has not been good news for me getting a full night’s sleep.

This is a common issue for many people at work, despite there being a lot of evidence to show that time to reflect is really important for us to learn, review and reconfigure.  An article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M Sutcliffe (which I recently reviewed in my Change Conversation newsletter) reported on the impact of “dysfunctional momentum which occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course.”

Reflect or get stuck in a pattern of thinking

In many change programmes, the need to continue to follow the critical path or the project plan often overrides the realisation that perhaps things are not moving in the right direction.  As Barton and Sutcliffe say in their article, “interruptions – not necessarily of operations but of the thought processes based on assumptions that may no longer be valid – provide an opportunity to question the ongoing story”.

I had a powerful example of this on a change programme that I worked on a few years ago.  As part of the project plan, we built in 6 weekly pauses where I discussed the programme with each of the key stakeholders to get their feedback.  Based on the themes emerging from this feedback which were fed back into the change programme, we could make changes to communications, activities and approach to reflect these themes.  There was time built into the plan for recalibration and reset.  And the pause gave everyone time to reflect and learn lessons.  It was a great success and led to a programme that had higher levels of engagement.

Pausing and reflecting during change is a key part of the approach to change that I use with my clients, which is based on the principles of appreciative inquiry, stories and conversations.  Here, there is time to reflect at every stage of change to get under the surface of the organisation and understand the factors that accelerate or anchor change in every part of the organisation.  Taking time to talk about change (and listen to other’s stories about change) is also a key part of this approach.

Click here to download a copy of a white paper which explains how to create more positive conversations about change: ChangeStories White Paper-2

Paying beautiful attention to others

Listening and paying attention then is another important part of reflective practice.  This includes paying attention to your own thoughts and feelings and also to what is going on around you.  I was reminded of this recently when I attended an event that made reference to Nancy Kline’s work, Time to Think.  This approach requires a coach to pay “beautiful attention” to the person that they are coaching.  If you want to see a great example of this attention in action, watch the film ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’ featuring Tom Hanks playing Mr Rogers.  A true example of beautiful attention in practice!

Ashridge recently published a paper outlining a model for leaders to use in their own coaching activities, and the first part of the model is to be present.  The paper asks, how often do we rush from one meeting to the next without taking a breath or becoming present?  It is really hard to take time to reflect and develop strategic thinking when you are bouncing from one Zoom call to the next.  This is a topic that I explored with Ann Knights (the author of the Ashridge paper) in a recent ChangeStories podcast episode.

And there is a business benefit to this too.  Research by Harvard Business School in 2017 found that being truly present at work was the optimal approach for leaders wishing to increase engagement and improve performance.

Building reflection time into every day

So, how can we build time to think, reflect and listen into our own daily life, at work and at home?

There are a few simple steps that we can take.

Firstly, shortening meetings from 60 minutes to 45 minutes (or even 30 minutes) gives time to think and reflect between Zoom calls.  Also, blocking time out in your diary, and being really strict about keeping it free, to give you time to think and plan rather than constantly ‘doing’.  The concept of ‘deep work’ is important here, something I have written about before, creating time that is distraction free to focus on creating new ideas and develop skills.  There is some great advice on doing more deep work in Cal Newport’s excellent book of the same name.

For some people, taking time to reflect can feel uncomfortable and difficult, particularly if it is not something that they do often.  My advice would be to start small, give yourself 5 minutes to reflect after each meeting or after each task you complete.  Find the time of day that works for you and schedule time for reflection then.  Get rid of or shut down as many distractions as you can, including notifications for emails, social media etc.

Or take time to reflect whilst doing something else.  I love to swim and find that my mind can easily wander and reflect whilst I’m swimming up and down.  I often have some of my best ideas whilst I am in the pool!  And walking can be an excellent way to reflect by yourself or with others.

Finally, one of the consequences of the last 12 months has been a refocus on reflection and re-evaluation, as this McKinsey article shows.  For me, there is a huge opportunity now, as we begin to move towards a return to some aspects of normal life, to reflect about work and what it means to us.  How and when we want to work and how we want to reintegrate our teams again?  There needs to be honest and open conversations about individual preferences and taking ‘time to think’ rather than just rushing back to normal.  We owe this to ourselves and to our colleagues.

As Peter Drucker said: “Follow effective action with quiet reflection.  From the quiet reflection, will come even more reflective action.”