How to Make Reflection an Automatic Part of Your Life

I've written about why I think building the habit of reflection is arguably the most important habit you can develop. In the aforementioned article I briefly referred to the idea of scheduling reflection into your routine but never went into much detail about what that looks like or shared the specific templates I use in my own reflection. I'd like to rectify that today.

One of the tricky things about making the time to regularly reflect is that you often don't think about doing it until you're kind of beyond the point where it would be most helpful. For example, before I made this a regular part of my routine I would find myself needing to "get away" and spend some time in reflection when shit had essentially been hitting the fan for awhile and I knew something drastic needed to be done. If I had taken the time to reflect before that point then I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to the point where the proverbial fecal matter was getting thrown around.

Reflection can happen across a broad continuum. Reflecting on a single project and the progress you're making on it would be a very micro-level type of reflection. On the other extreme end of the reflection continuum pondering the "big" questions about life, the universe, and everything is a completely different flavor of reflection. Given the vast differences in the reflection you can be doing it can be helpful to think about what type of reflection would be most valuable to you and your current situation. For that reason I schedule the more micro level reflection to happen more frequently than the huge macro-level type of reflection. David Allen's book Making It All Work uses an altitude metaphor which I think is a great way to think about the various levels of reflection and what kind of detail you should go into for each one.

From Making It All Work, the four levels of reflection are:

  • 20,000 Feet Reflection (every 2 months)
  • 30,000 Feet Reflection (every 4 months)
  • 40,000 Feet Reflection (every 9 months)
  • 50,000 Feet Reflection (every year)
  • [Grab the templates I use here]

For each of these I have an item in my task management software that says, "Conduct 'X' Review," that pops up at the proper interval. That way I don't have to remember to do it -- it just shows up automatically. In terms of actually conducting the review, I just open the required template and spend some time jotting down my answers to the prompts. After responding to the prompts (and saving the document in Evernote) I'll go back and read the previous reflection (i.e. if I just responded to the 30,000 foot review I'll go back and read the 30,000 foot review I did 4 months prior). I like to wait until after I respond to the latest template before going back and reading what I had written before because I don't want to bias my current response. Plus, it's cool to see the similarities and differences afterward.

Setting up a system like this ensures that you're being reminded at the appropriate intervals to think about the larger questions -- the questions and ideas that will ensure you're moving in the right direction and allocating your time and attention as well as you possibly can. There's no reason to rely on your brain to remind you to take time to reflect when something like a calendar can do the job much better. Waiting until you feel an urgent need to spend time in reflection is usually a sign you've waited too long.

Photo by Hege