If we paused regularly and often enough to reflect on how we approach what we do, we’d soon improve our efforts and their results. That’s a self-management no-brainer. But how and when can we get off the workplace treadmill for this? For many people, that’s a serious dilemma.
Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. [Margaret J. Wheatley]
When I first ask coaching clients to add periodic self-reflection and a few new practices to their daily routines, they regard me as though I’m slightly mad and just don’t get it. Not going to happen, they say. Too busy! Compounding wall-to-wall busyness with extra effort is crazy, right?
I get it. Developing new practices may be beneficial and even a simple process but it’s often difficult. And it’s very human to want the benefits of progress without the pain of change.
We are geniuses at coming up with reasons to avoid change. We make excuses. We rationalize. We harbor beliefs that trigger all manner of denial and resistance. As a result, we continually fail at becoming the person we want to be. [Marshall Goldsmith]
However, for intentional development to occur in our lives, we must get beyond convenience and find or create room to accommodate the growth and integration of new habits. Paradoxically, until we do, we’ll never have the time for it. Without at least some pain of change, we can count on perpetuating whatever we’ve already got, stuck on a treadmill and very likely busy with the thick end of thin things.
Here, I’ll first introduce some simple and manageable self-reflection practices, then add further rationale for enduring some pain of change in order to make progress.
Hardly any pain guaranteed
Begin by understanding the research-based facts about how counterproductive it is to work for long periods without a break. (Google that sentence or see For Real Productivity, Less is Truly More by Tony Schwartz, in Harvard Business Review.)
Whenever you experience self-imposed pressure to keep going without pause, remind yourself that everything stops for dysentery; the world can probably cope without you for a while.
Experiment with some of these:
- Insert micro-gaps between everyday tasks, to pause and be completely still for 30 to 90 seconds while you slowly take some deep breaths.
- During such pauses, ask yourself How am I feeling? How’s my energy level? What do I need in this next moment?
- Set aside daily about 15-20 minutes to ask yourself, What have I been doing? What have I been telling myself? How have I been behaving? How have I been feeling (and how am I feeling now)? How have my energy levels been? What’s the significance of my answers – for both my personal and the organisation’s Big Picture ideals, intentions and strategic imperatives?
- Refuse to involve yourself in wall-to-wall meetings; the practice is insane! Require no less than a 15-30 minute between them. Use the space to reflect on the previous meeting and/or prepare for the next.
- If others can access your diary to schedule events, populate it with blocked-out spaces for reflection ahead of time.
- Subscribe to encouraging, inspirational or calming e-delivered messages – those that take less than 30 seconds to read. Stop to read and consider them as they arrive.
- Schedule 30-45 minutes weekly for What? So what? Now what? disciplined self-reflection (see graphic, following) aimed at learning from your experiences.
- Keep regular appointments with a coach, mentor or professional supervisor.
- Have your coach help you devise and apply helpful structures and processes to your self-reflection practice.
The action-reflection process
Regularly applying action-reflection processes to our experience is one of the most direct routes to becoming increasingly self-reliant, self-directing, self-monitoring and self-correcting – all are vital aspects of competent self-management.
For most people, everyday experiences passes through their intellectual systems as segmented happenings and separate events; they have the experience but miss the meaning. [Saul Alinksy]
What is perceived as pragmatism (down-to-earth, no-nonsense practicality), often triumphs over principle and good sense. Pragmatism often means, in effect, I can’t afford the luxury of time to think; there’s too much to do. Principle often means the opposite: it’s unrealistic to expect improvements to our practices and their outcomes unless we reflect on and learn from our experience, enhance our practices and integrate improvements. Action-reflection is a requisite, not a luxury.
We become more productive when we take regular breaks from working – every 90 minutes, according to current wisdom.
Working in the organisation should be balanced with working on the organisation.
Working for the organisation should be balanced with developing ourselves.
Pursuing the Primary Task should be balanced with developing individual and collective capacity for it.
Most groups known as “teams’ need methodical team development in order to practise actual teamwork.
Space for real growth won’t be found by trying to manage time: there’s only so much time available and, like phases of the moon and tides, it doesn’t lend itself to being managed. We must instead manage ourselves and our priorities.
Obstacles to change
It’s easy to become mesmerized by the 10 Urgent and Important Things To Do Today that relentlessly present themselves for attention as soon as we’ve dealt with the previous Top 10. We think we must get them under control before we can afford the “luxury” of reflection and well-considered planning for improvement. That makes as much sense as running low on fuel while accelerating past gas stations because we have to get somewhere.
Motivation to continue may include habit, pride, fear of failure or unwillingness to stand out as different. A tendency towards only-just-staying-on-top-of-it through prodigious-effort-at-great-personal-sacrifice may fit the organisational culture, be an ego-gratifying Good Look or gain others’ sympathy and our own self-pity. But the wrong path to our goals will never lead us there. However how hard we work to do the wrong things right, they’re always going to be the wrong things.
We let the urgent crowd out the important, and that’s why many organisations are on a perpetual and ever faster-spinning treadmill of operational issues. [Jim Clemmer]
Given how easy it is to establish that we’re on the wrong path, it’s surprising how often people behave as though they don’t understand this. They miss or suppress the warning signals, including:
- Persistent frustration with low personal productivity.
- A familiar set of recurring problems.
- An overwhelming and never-ending list of vitally important, urgent tasks.
- Continually increased effort without a corresponding boost in results.
- Pile-ups of looming deadlines for very important matters that have also become very urgent.
- Dysfunction and in-fighting within groups and teams.
- An organisation culture characterised by cutting corners and doing life at 90 miles an hour with the lights out.
- Private expressions of This is a crazy nightmare . . a madhouse . . . it’s killing me! while practising heroic martyrdom and self-exploitation.
When these states become habitual, it’s almost certain we’re on the road to Nowhere Useful. Unfortunately, the usual response when people become aware of it, is to hope things will change through further effort, despite ample evidence they’re unlikely to.
“Getting things done” has become the equivalent of treading water. [Howard Mann]
Given opportunity and techniques for disciplined reflection on their experiences (the main thrust of my coaching and mentoring practice), most people recognize these conditions and their causes for themselves: they point to the strategic corrections they must make (and get support with) for satisfying progress and better results. They may identify “the wrong path” as attitudinal compulsions, inappropriate direction-setting and planning, skill shortfalls or failure to pay sufficient attention to their practices, thinking, attitudes and circumstances. These things are remediable.
They often discover it’s about the way they manage priorities. By paying insufficient attention to important matters which should never be urgent they eventually create a log-jam of matters that are both critical and desperately urgent. Speaking of logs . . .
Urgently hacking away with a blunt axe because we lack the insight, wisdom, discipline or determination to sharpen our equipment, has inevitable, counterproductive consequences:
- We are less likely to foresee and prevent difficulties.
- We become anxious about or overwhelmed by responsibilities, challenges and conflict.
- We make unwise decisions that create problems and unproductive wheel-spinning, or push for results without balancing attention to the best methods for getting them.
- We use out-dated and ineffective approaches or improvise inefficiently, causing greater stress, the wrong results or the right results at great cost.
- We get into negative-thinking loops that generate negative events. In our stress and distress, we spin out, freak out or lash out.
30 seconds’ reflection
What might happen if you slow down or paused regularly for some disciplined reflection?
Where and how can you find time to regularly monitor, reflect and learn from experience? What would it take to make it happen?
How can your transformational planning be better balanced with your operational planning and operational activities? What should your strategic thinking and strategic planning encompass? Which strategic imperatives support or limit your intentions?
Answering these questions and acting on the resulting insights doesn’t usually require unbearable discomfort or lots of time you don’t have, but it may require strength and your willingness to experience the discomfort of replacing old habits with new practices.
We can’t have the pleasure of progress without the pain of change.
Begin where you can succeed
Nothing succeeds like success. If you want to raise the odds of change actually occurring, begin by changing yourself; it’s the only thing over which you have full autonomy and control. Recognise that everything else is either something you may be able only to influence (more likely if you manage yourself effectively) or is completely outside of your ability to control or influence:
We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable. [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn]