Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.
Whether you work for a company or run your own business, it can be a big challenge to step off the hamster wheel of life and work for long enough to look back upon what you’ve achieved, learned or even just lived through in order to integrate the lessons that our experiences have to teach us.
With my clients, a big portion of the magic of our work together comes about because we create a container together in order for them to do some intentional reflection. Hitting the pause button helps them sink in to the truth of their present situation. Reflection is a powerful tool. Often once we take some time to reflect on a problem, we automatically see new solutions. And often these solutions are ones that seem obvious and easy to implement.
And yet, just sitting down with a piece of paper and our own thoughts feels totally daunting and unproductive, so it either gets done half-heartedly or doesn’t happen at all. Most of us need tools or structure to help us guide our reflective thinking, myself included! Over the years I’ve collected tons of resources for reflection and am always looking for and experimenting with new ones. Here are a few of my favourites!
Note: these are tools you can choose from, not a list of steps in the reflection process. Choose one that appeals based on the kind of reflection you want to do!
1. The Urgent/Important Matrix
This one is a bit of a doozy, because it requires re-evaluating all of your tasks and responsibilities and categorizing them according to your own values. You often see some ugly truths about how you’ve been spending your time and what you’ve been choosing to prioritize at the expense of more important or meaningful work. I personally define “important” as relating to your values, the work that is closest to your heart, or what you feel is your purpose. “Urgent” can relate to either time-based or financial pressures, anything that “keeps the wheels on” your business or life, so to speak, or ’emergencies’ of any kind.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey instructs that we should aim to spend the majority of our time in Q2: Not Urgent & Important if we want to work towards the achievement of our most important goals. Instead, for most of us, our time gets sucked up by the Urgent quadrants, which means we aren’t structuring our time around the tasks that will really move our lives & businesses forward in the long-term.
Once you sit down and categorize everything, it becomes much easier to structure your time and priorities towards the projects that really matter to you.
2. Continue, Stop, Start
I picked this one up from a friend & client who used to work for a large international corporation – it’s a favourite activity of a lot of bigger businesses who run ‘retrospectives’ for their various projects. It’s a simple structure that can apply to so many different things: a specific area of your business or life, an event you ran, a product launch, a month/quarter/year, and so on.
I like to encourage clients to change the “Stop” column to “Stop/Tweak” for simplicity’s sake. I also recently adopted the order above (rather than the classic Stop, Start, Continue) from the Intercom article linked below, because I think it mirrors the typical thought process as we evaluate a particular idea or length of time: What’s been working? What’s not working? What do we want to work on?
3. The Activity Audit
I love this exercise from Kathryn Hofer of Modern Planner: similar to the exercises above, you choose a few columns, in this case YES, NO, and ADJUST, and then categorize every single activity that you’re committed to into one of those three areas. NO can also mean “not right now”, or “not in this season”, rather than “forever”.
This exercise is very visual and tactile, so you can move things around easily and re-evaluate as needed. I like to use sticky notes on a big wall of my apartment! It can also be applied to many different scopes. I often evaluate my and business and life as a whole, but you could also break it down further. For instance, you could have an activity audit just for “household chores”, or “content strategies”.
Ps. If you need more structure and accountability for your reflection & planning, I highly recommend joining one of Kathryn’s free Quarterly planning parties, they’re fantastic.
See more: Modern Planner
Bonus: Structured Workbooks
Over the years I’ve also worked with a ton of different reflection workbooks, especially as the New Year approaches. It’s fun to do something special as I look back on the past 12 months and plan for what’s next.
- I love the Reflect & Goal Set questions in the Get To Work Book (shown about halfway down the page) and personally use them for a short reflection at the beginning of every new month
- This year I tried out Radiate Real’s Bridge Your Year workbook for my end-of-year reflection with a group of friends. I enjoyed it, but felt it was almost *too much* reflection, even for me! Still, lots of great insights.
- In the past I’ve tried Susannah Conway’s Unravel Your Year, which I really liked, and Leonie Dawson’s My Shining Year, which I was less of a fan of but was very helpful nonetheless.
I love the excuse of a fresh new calendar year to spend some time in deep reflection mode. It can be draining to be so reflective, and can bring up truths we may not want to look at. But I also believe it’s some of the most important work we can do. Taking time to reflect inevitably clears our vision and sets us on a better path to move forward with intention.
I’d love to know: What tools or ideas do you use when it comes time to reflect? How do you make time for thoughtfulness in the midst of an action-packed life? What’s your favourite way to close the calendar year?