Training professionals often advise others to reflect on personal and professional issues and typically feel that they should follow this advice themselves. But the classic model of reflection is an extended period of time spent in solitude and tranquility, which isn’t possible for most of us, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The good news is that you can find time to reflect — time to step back and try to grasp what really matters about something you are experiencing, or trying to understand, or doing. But, to do so, you have to put aside the classic model of reflection.
About four years ago, I began interviewing 100 men and women, mostly managers in business ranging from first-level managers to chief executive officers. I asked them how they defined reflection, whether they spent time reflecting and, if they did, how they managed to fit it into their schedules.
Their answers surprised me: Virtually everyone said they spent time reflecting, because they believed it was crucial for living well and working well. But only a handful of the hundred said they regularly put aside time for extended periods of solitary, quiet reflection. Everyone else relied on what I came to call mosaic reflection.
A mosaic is a type of art made from small pieces of stone or glass. It also describes what I learned in the interviews: Busy, successful men and women do reflect, but they practice the art of reflection in the cracks and crevices of their everyday lives.
These managers have discovered times, places and activities that help them step back — sometimes for just a moment — and think more deeply. And, they have customized their approach to mesh with the rest of their lives.
Some of the managers blend their reflection with other activities, like running or commuting. Many reflect in conversations with particular colleagues or friends rather than in solitude. Several rely on a few minutes before they fall asleep or when they wake up. Some write, one doodles, several pray, one tries to pause and celebrate small things, another tries to physically slow down whatever she is doing a few times each day. Three acknowledged that they pause and talk aloud to themselves when they have to think something through, a few simply let their minds wander for a few minutes, and some think about role models when they have to make a hard decision.
These approaches are just some of the many that these managers have created and adapted to the flow of their lives. The whole set might seem random, but it isn’t. In fact, underlying all these personalized tactics for reflection are three fundamental approaches, each with deep roots in centuries-old practices of reflection:
Some of the tactics are ways of downshifting. Classically, this approach is called contemplation. It means turning off the analytical machinery in your mind, slowing yourself down, and trying to experience what is going on inside you or around you. It can be useful for becoming more observant in professional settings, being more in tune with family dynamics or simply living in a more grounded way.
Other tactics were methods of pondering — a way of reflecting on a problem or a complicated situation in which you temporarily abandon the quest for “the right answer” and consciously rely on any of a variety of techniques to make sure you are looking at all the aspects of the problem and thinking creatively about possible solutions.
3. Measuring up
The third age-old standard is best described as measuring up. Like downshifting and pondering, it involves stepping back, if only for a few moments, but its focus is action. Measuring up is a way of finding or creating ways to deal with a problem or a situation that will meet the standards others expect you to meet as well as your standards for yourself.
Mosaic reflection is finding some fairly regular times and places, over the course of a week, when you can spend a few moments downshifting, pondering and measuring up. But don’t give up on classic reflection. There are times in our lives and issues at work that require this deeper examination. Many of the managers I spoke with also try to find time, perhaps 30 minutes or an hour every week or two, to step back further. They spend that time using one or more of the three fundamental approaches to reflection and doing it in more depth.
Mosaic reflection and classic reflection both serve the same ultimate aim. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius described it clearly in his “Meditations”: “to live in complete consciousness and lucidity; to give each of our instants full intensity; and to give meaning to our entire life.”