When people think of the word “reflection”, they typically think first of a mirror. After all, we use it as a part of our normal morning routine. We walk to the bathroom and look at ourselves in the mirror. We do that, out of habit, to see “how we look” and to help us improve our appearance for the day ahead.
Mirrors are useful tools in our day. In a short amount of reflection time we get information about ourselves that helps us have a more successful and enjoyable day. Most of us would miss having a mirror around, and some perhaps wouldn’t think they could live without one.
It puzzles me that while we use the power of reflection with a mirror as our tool; too few of us, far too infrequently use the greater powers that reflection can bring to our lives for much greater good. In other words we use a mirror to improve our outward appearance, but may not use the reflection tools that will improve us from the inside – in our minds and behaviors.
As professional and individuals who want to make a difference, reach our goals, achieve more, to in fact, unleash our potential, we need to be continuous learners. And to be the most effective continuous learners, we must learn to harness the power of reflection.
Our Experiences With “Learning”
Most of our deep beliefs and ideas about learning come from our school experiences. In school, for the most part, reflection didn’t play much of a role in the learning process. We were always learning the next thing, solving the next kind of problem. Rarely were we asked to look back and review our experiences to help us improve or learn more in the future. We were tested on what we learned – the grade being the outcome – and then we moved on to the next subject.
Because, of this training and experience, that is how many people walk through their lives. The do some work, get a result, and move onto the next task or event, without looking back at what they did to see what they learned.
It is this type of reflection that I am speaking of: a process of systematically thinking, and perhaps writing about what happened, with the goal of transforming the experience into knowledge that can be used in all sorts of future situations.
How to Do It
In its simplest form, reflecting is just thinking about what happened. Reflection doesn’t mean looking for blame or looking for regrets. It will be most valuable when it is an observation of events and their results. In general, your reflection will be most valuable to you when you think about and answer these types of questions:
- What happened (both the process and the end results)?
- How did I feel about it?
- Why did it happen that way (what contributed to the results)?
- How does this remind me of other situations?
- What will I now do differently in the future?
These questions form the backbone of effective reflective learning. They help us look at the events and results from a variety of angles, but lead us to the most important question, “Knowing what I now know, what will I do differently?”
When to Do It
Reflecting can be a part of your everyday routine, just like looking in the mirror. You can reflect on the previous day, and see how you can apply the lessons in the coming day. You can take time to reflect on a project or specific event. Once you have the basic pattern of questions in your mind, you can reflect before going to bed, in your car on the way to work, while you exercise, or at some other time when you are doing routine things that don’t require your full mental attention.
You might also decide to carve out new time to reflect while sitting with a journal. Writing our observations is a very powerful way to solidify and capture our learning. If this sounds intriguing to you, or you already journal and want to adjust how you use that time, fantastic! My main message is that, while it takes discipline to start the reflection habit, the time is available in our day to do this without recreating our entire schedule
The Source of the Power
Experience can be our greatest teacher. But it isn’t like the teachers we had in school. We have to be our own teacher. We become that teacher when we step back and reflect.
You’ve heard the story about the employee who had been in the same job for 20 years, but because they hadn’t learned from their successes and failures, had “one year of experience, twenty times.” Reflection is how we harness that experience and turn one year of experience twenty times into a rich twenty year experience base from which to perform at higher and higher levels.
Just like looking in the mirror, reflective thinking can be a habit. It will help you “see yourself better” and after taking action on what you see, (just like we presumably improve our appearance after acting on what we see in the mirror) you will improve accordingly.