Why Regular Reflection is the Most Important Habit

By all accounts, I probably got my undergraduate degree in the "wrong" thing. I spent four years earning a secondary education social studies degree and then spent a year and a half teaching before moving on to graduate school in a completely different field (psychology). I did well in my education course work and by most accounts I was a very good teacher who would've become great with time. However, I eventually realized that the confluence of several factors resulted in teaching not being the right career for me. Those factors are beyond the scope of this article but I do want to address how I got into this situation in the first place and how fixing the problem that got me in this situation has had huge results in the rest of my life.

Sometime in my junior year of high school I decided I was going to be a social studies teacher. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision, but I do remember spending at least a year before college telling people that was what I was going to do. At the time, it felt like the right decision. I loved (and still love) history and I had some great role models I could look to as I began creating my teaching career. Once I made that decision, though, I never once stepped back and assessed whether it was still the right decision. I got on a path and kept my head down until I popped out the other side (four years later) with a teaching certificate and a gnawing sense this wasn't what I really wanted to be doing any longer. 

There's one habit that would've prevented all of this -- a practice of regular reflection. 

Regular reflection is the simple process of looking back at your decisions, actions, and thoughts and making behavioral changes based on what you see. At a very high level, regular reflection will keep you from the multi-year wastes of time that my undergraduate degree could be viewed as (which, admittedly, is a little harsh considering I use a lot of what I learned in teacher education school in my writing and coaching now). At a lower level, a practice of regular reflection will help you stay on the right path with smaller habit changes and projects.

Regular Reflection and Habit Change

A lot of habit change is a process of trial and error because there are a myriad of strategies and methodologies for any kind of habit change. What many people do is choose one and just plug away at it until they either fail (most commonly) or got lucky on their first try and successfully change the habit (much more rarely). The smart thing to do is to periodically check in with yourself and ask questions like:

  • How has this been working for me in the past week?
  • What was I doing when it seemed like things were going very well for me?
  • What was I doing when it seemed most difficult? 

Asking these questions gives you an opportunity to look at some data (whether actual quantitative data you've collected on yourself or just your thoughts and impressions from whatever time period you're reflecting on) and make any behavioral changes necessary to attain greater success. The flip side is to never reflect on how well you're doing and just hope you get lucky. 

How to Build Reflection Into Your Life

You can easily build a habit of reflection into your life by taking advantage of the repeated scheduling capabilities of your task management software or calendar. I have weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly repeated tasks that remind me to look at my corresponding reflection checklists. For example, every Sunday my task management software tells me to complete a Weekly Review and on the first Sunday of every month I have a reminder to complete my Monthly Review. This takes care of actually remembering to do the review, but the next step is to actually complete some kind of review.

I think checklists of questions to answer through writing are the best way to systematically build reflection into your life. My various checklists have been cobbled together based on my own experiences, goals, and on the suggestions of various books I've read over the years. I've shared my Weekly Review checklist before but you can see it again here. My Monthly Review checklist can be seenhere. As you might be able to tell with the differences between the Weekly and Monthly Reviews, as the review becomes more infrequent the nature of the reflective questions become "bigger." My Quarterly Review deals with long-term goals and Areas of Responsibility and my Yearly Review deals with my values and personal vision. I encourage you to use my checklists or other templates you find around the Internet as a first draft and then tweak them to match your exact specifications. Then, write (and save) your answers to the questions in your checklists to get yourself thinking reflectively. Saving your answers provides a great history of how your thinking and goals have evolved over time.

Without building a habit of reflection you're forcing yourself into a low-odds game where every decision you make has to be perfect. That's what happened when 17 year-old Sam made a decision that Future Sam was supposed to adhere to for the rest of his life. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself. Trust that you've built a safety mechanism, regular reflection, into your life and you'll likely to start finding much more success and happiness.

Photo by b-leam