Once we have executed our plan, it is time to reflect. But why should we take time to reflect?
Reflection serves (at least) three purposes. It helps us:
- Acknowledge Effort
Besides providing a feeling of satisfaction, acknowledging our efforts develops a sense of our effort and accomplishments, which increases confidence and motivation.
- Check Alignment
Not everything we do impacts our goals and desires. Taking the time to reflect on how relevant our effort provides the opportunity to tying our intentions more tightly to our actual effort.
- Discover Improvements
Analyzing how effectively we did the work we set out to do can help us find areas of improvement and refinement, allowing us to be more effective next time.
When we rush immediately to the next thing without taking time to reflect, we lose a sense of what we can achieve with our effort, veer off course from our goals and remain stuck in ineffective or unhealthy patterns.
Everything we do in life can be experienced in three ways:
Envisioning the future. Anticipation can be enjoyable itself (captured by the German word Vorfreude), but positive anticipation also helps create the motivation to take action.
Being in the present. Practices which build mindfulness help expand the experience of time, giving an increased richness and texture to the things we do, and allowing us to deliberately shape our experience.
Reliving the past. Remembrance can be analytical, where we dissect what we did to improve our actions in the future, or emotional, where we re-experience the emotions of the past.
Each aspect has its place in our experience of life, but the one that is often forgotten is remembering.
When we exert effort, we often quickly forget what we did. We lose sight of our own accomplishments and feel like life is moving too fast.
Taking time to remember what we did—to acknowledge our effort—expands our experience of time, making time feel slower and richer.
Acknowledging our effort can also improve our productivity by building:
Knowing what we have accomplished in the past, even when there were obstacles, can give us confidence we can do the same and more for the future.
Seeing what we have accomplished through our efforts helps us set our sights higher and enables us to push through dips.
Recognizing effort exerted shows how we are already moving forward, shifting our mindset from starting to maintaining and accelerating that momentum.
While acknowledging effort on a daily basis can help our short-term mindset, it is even more powerful for longer timeframes.
As many people have said in different ways: We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year.
Doing a monthly, annual or even decennial reflection can help us emotionally tie how our daily work can produce our longer-term visions.
The process of reflection enables us to see how closely what we did matches what we intended to do.
We may have certain goals and desires, but when we don’t take the actions to fulfill those, we can never achieve them. Unless we take the time to check, we may not realize the disconnect until too much time has passed.
Regularly comparing what you intended to do with what actual happened allows you to make course corrections, so your next execution session has a greater impact on your goals and desires.
Making frequent small adjustments is also often easier than making huge adjustments infrequently.
To help check your alignment, review what you did and label each commitment as having a:
- Strong Direct Impact
Effort that’s required for you to achieve your goals, such as writing chapters in a book you want to write.
- Weak Direct Impact
Effort that’s helpful, though not required for your goals, such as finding software to help you write more effectively.
- Strong Indirect Impact
Effort that’s required to build or maintain the motivation and energy for your goals, such as exercising or taking breaks.
- Weak Indirect Impact
Effort that helpful to build or maintain the motivation and energy for your goals, such as paying your bills or organizing your office.
- No Impact
Effort that has no impact whatsoever on your goals and desires, such as getting lost in social media or indulging in a bad habit.
To reduce the amount of time you need to spend doing this reflection, focus on the commitments that you spent the most time on and the activities or appointments that you do regularly. If you can align these, the impact of your time will be greatly increased.
As you evaluate each commitment, consider what knowledge you had when you started the commitment. Could you have determined the impact before you started? If not, why not?
For a deeper reflection, assign an impact to every commitment when you create your plan, then review that impact as you reflect after your plan is done.
See if you can figure out strategies to predict when a commitment will have a strong or weak impact, so your plan creates more predictable results.
When we reflect back on what we did, we often see many things we did “wrong” or less effectively than we would have liked.
It can be tempting to address all of these at once, but that is counterproductive. Instead, commit to an ongoing personal improvement process where you tackle one problem at a time.
Ask yourself this question: if you could only focus on one thing to improve, what would that be?
Or, in other words, what’s your biggest problem—the one that will have the greater impact on how you work?
A Personal Improvement Process
To become more effective with your work and more balanced in your life overall, aim for a process of continuous improvement.
This process has six steps:
- Identify the Problem
Write down what you think your potential problems might be, and the impact of those problems on your effectiveness. Talk to friends or colleagues to help you zero in on your biggest problem or use one of the prioritization strategies from the 2. Prepare. If two or more problems are equal, pick one to work on.
- Build Awareness
Create a log tracking every time you encounter the problem. Write down on a piece of paper or enter in a spreadsheet the day and time the problem occurred, what potentially triggered it and how you eventually overcame it, if you did. The goal of this step is both to create a record you can analyze and to develop a mindfulness of when the problem is starting to occur, so you can take steps to intervene.
- Experiment with Different Strategies
Write down potential strategies you can use to solve the problem. Try out these strategies, one at a time. Add a record of what you tried and what worked to the log you started in the Build Awareness step.
- Evaluate the Results
After you have enough data—at least 5–10 tries of each strategy—review your log to see what worked and what didn’t. If a strategy only worked sometimes, try to identify under what conditions it worked and which it didn’t. Write down any insights that may not be a specific strategy, but may help you nonetheless.
- Systematize the Solution
Write rules for yourself that specify the problem, the strategy to solve (or reduce) the problem and the conditions that need to exist for the strategy to be effective. Post these rules somewhere visible so you see them frequently until you internalize them.
- Rinse & Repeat
Start back at the beginning to identify your next biggest problem and repeat the process for that problem as you continually refine your productivity.
As you go through this process, make sure to actually write things down, not merely mentally note them. Writing promotes clarity and makes it easier to objectively evaluate your experiences later.
A Case Study
Years ago, I used to take a break by checking Facebook. While the break was supposed to only last 5 minutes, when I started looking at my time logs, I noticed I often got sucked down a rabbit hole and spent 20 minutes, 30 minutes or even more.
I experimented with different techniques before developing a simple rule, which I wrote on an index card that I kept next to my computer: No Facebook before 5pm.
That simple rule drastically cut my time on Facebook. Allowing myself to check in after 5pm made it a leisure activity rather than a “break” activity, and avoided a complete ban, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to abide by.
After I implemented the rule, I noticed that my time on Facebook after 5pm was quite limited. It turned out, most of my time scrolling on Facebook was not because I was being drawn to Facebook, but that I was running away from my work. Closing that off as an avenue of distraction helped me recognize this and learn other techniques to deal with my procrastination.
What are some of the most common problems people face with their productivity and where can you search for potential solutions?
Common problems include:
When you unnecessarily avoid starting what you should be working on. Potential causes include fear of failure, uncertainty on your next steps, fatigue, and even fear of success—plus many others.
- Gaining Momentum
When you can get started, but can’t seem to get into a rhythm or flow. It feels like you’re trudging through tar, requiring a huge amount of effort to take even small steps. Potential causes include having no plan to work against, a mismatch between your mood and the task, and a lack of energy.
When you allow yourself to get pulled away without a good reason. Distractions can tempt you within your normal work flow—such as when a catchy subject line catches your eye while replying to emails—or can be ones you seek out yourself when you’re feeling frustrated, lost or upset.
When someone or something forces itself into your awareness. Interruptions can arise from notifications, people and even pets, each of which have their own reasons for the interruption. Dealing with interruptions requires understanding these reasons, then either taking steps to remove these reasons earlier or using strategies that block the ability for you to be interrupted.
- Rabbit Holes
When you spend more time working on something than you intended. Rabbit holes occur when you get lost in an activity that you didn’t want to get lost in. Potential causes include lack of time awareness, indecisiveness and productive procrastination.
- Energy Misalignment
When you work on something that doesn’t align with your biorhythms. Energy misalignment occurs when you work during an ineffective time for you for that specific to-do, such as doing analytical work at night when you are an early bird.
When identifying your problem, attempt to identify not only the problem itself, but the underlying driver or flavor of the problem.
For example, while knowing that you procrastinate is useful, knowing you procrastinate because you have uncertainty on your next steps can help you better identify potential solutions.
One final piece of advice: Reflection is most powerful when it happens at a regular cadence, and happens at multiple timeframes.
A brief few minutes of reflection at the end of the day can set the tone for the next day.
An hour of reflection at the end of the week can teach us what to improve or focus on for the next week.
A half day of reflection at the end of each month can help us reorient regularly toward our goals and desires.
A day of reflection at the end of each quarter ties our monthly goals and desires into our yearly ones.
Several days of reflection at the end of each year teach us how much we can do and accomplish within a year.