How to use reflection as a tool for progress

Expend Team

21 December 2020

Reflection is a powerful tool for progress.

It is a valuable method to help you take a step back from the grind, to look at the bigger picture, and really think about the journey you are on. Both as an individual and as a business.

There are clear benefits too. A paper in 2016 argued that having reached a certain level, individuals gain more from ‘articulating and codifying’ their existing (accumulated) experience rather than trying to accumulate more.

None other than Ray Dalio has recently based much of his book (and $125bn hedge fund business) around the principle that ‘pain + reflection = progress’. 

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of where we've come from, in order to better appreciate where we are.

Indeed, the 2016 study found just 15 minutes of employee reflection a day boosted performance by 23%, while another study found employees who reflected on their day ahead while commuting to work ‘were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.’

Not only that but sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of where we've come from in order to better appreciate where we are. Here at Expend, for instance, it was only a little over a year ago when our customers were unable to customise their categories, our Xero integration had bugs we barely understood, and being able to make an expense claim was a pipe dream! 

When it still feels like you're always nearly there, and there is still so much to do, making time to record and review your achievements reinforces a sense of progress. And shows you just how far you’ve come. This is incredibly motivating in itself.

So why is so little time usually devoted to it?

There are likely a number of reasons. The big one, though, is that it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of work. Executing plans, moving from task to task, hustlingas it’s so grandly titled these days. But is this busywork really so valuable that it prevents 15 minutes of considered thought? If your time is so valuable, why aren’t more of your repetitive business processes automated?

Other reasons may stem from a lack of belief in the process. This is understandable when the results are often not immediate, and hard to directly attribute. This also ties into most business leaders’ bias for action, which results in them believing their time (however brief) is best spent on other things.

Or perhaps the results of reflection are truths that people just don’t like to see. As, when done properly, the reflection process should force you to ask yourself some questions you may have been deliberately avoiding. As Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

However, as noted by HBR, one of the fundamental reasons is likely to be simply a lack of understanding about how to do it properly.

Given this insight, we thought we’d share some of the tips we’ve learned from our own reflection process, and the questions we ask ourselves. Feel free to use these as a basis for your own reflection, but the most important thing about forming a new practice (or habit) is to make sure you shape it in a way that means you’ll actually continue to do it!

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Our tips for reflection

Schedule time

As Parkinson’s Law suggests, tasks will expand to fit the time allocated to them. So if you don’t allocate time for reflection, you’re unlikely to fit it in around your other (expanded) tasks. We’d suggest starting with a small amount of time - 15-30mins - at a typically quiet time of day. This increases the likelihood of you actually doing it. Once it's an ingrained (and valuable) habit, you may decide that you need more time for it! 

Choose your method

There are many different ways to reflect. You can do it alone, or with others. About a certain topic, or about larger holistic items. You can do it by writing your reflections down, dictating them, or simply thinking about them in a structured way. It’s important to choose a method that suits you.

Personally, we recommend group reflections to be done verbally (or perhaps with an initial ‘anonymous’ written part to get the ball rolling) and prefer to write down our personal reflections. The benefits of writing by hand are numerous, and well documented in many places.

Quality & Quantity

Many leave it until special occasions (read: once, at the New Year) to engage in any sort of reflection. But it doesn’t have to be this way, we believe you’ll get more benefit from doing it on a more regular basis, as you’re able to use the results to alter your course going forward.

Know your questions

Finally, it’s good to have a defined list of questions you will ask yourself throughout the reflection process. This means you can evaluate how your answers are changing over time, and better see where you are making progress and where you need more focus. Obviously, these can change as your priorities change (or you can add them to the existing list). You may prefer to ask more open-ended questions, or use a couple as starting points and see what further questions the initial answers prompt. 

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Questions to get you started

Here are some of our favourite questions to ask. We refer to reflecting on the last year as a whole, but you can apply them to any time period you choose. 

What were my biggest successes of the year?

You don’t need to have launched an award-winning new product or become top of your game for 2018 to have been a success. Sometimes the biggest success of a week is that nothing went wrong! Even if your biggest wins this year were relatively minor, it’s important to make a note of them and reflect on how they were achieved. Think about what you’ve done that makes you happy or proud - whether a personal success or a business one - and consider why that makes you feel satisfied. Then, you can start planning how to build on (or repeat) these experiences over the coming months.

How well did I use my time?

As the years march relentlessly on, it can often seem like the months get shorter and shorter each time - so it’s no wonder that we feel pressured to make sure that we’re effectively using our days. But did you make the most of last week? Last month? Last year?

I’ve often found the Pareto principle useful here. In general reflection, can involve breaking down and evaluating how you spend your working hours, allocate your department's resources, or even how you manage your business spending. When applied to the question of time, for example, you might reflect on which 20% of tasks took up 80% of your time, or similarly, what 80% of things you spent your time on only delivered 20% of your progress (and vice versa). This knowledge can help you optimise those areas going forwards, which can greatly improve productivity and satisfaction with your work.

An evaluation of your time could also apply to your work-life balance in general, if you feel you managed a good balance between your professional and personal lives, dedicating as much time as was needed to important projects and engagements, then you have a good strategy to take forwards into the new year.

However if you feel regret over missed opportunities, or that you spent too long on the wrong things, it might be time to consider how you can do things differently going forwards.

For more on the Pareto principle and 80/20 analysis in business, Richard Koch has written a useful book, which is a good place to start.

Where did I fail?

This is a hard one.

Although it might seem counterproductive to dwell on things that didn’t go well, recognising your failures over the past year (month, week, day) is an important step towards building a brighter future. So be honest with yourself about what didn’t work out - whether that’s something in your business or an element of your personal life. You can even ask others for their thoughts on this (if you’re feeling brave).

But don’t just dwell on them… try to work out why these things might have happened. Did you lack the time and motivation to commit to a goal, for example, or did a lack of proper planning see a promising project fail?

Sadly, you can’t do anything about the opportunities that you missed in 2018 - but you can prevent yourself from making the same mistakes again. 

What have I learned that I can take into next year?

No matter how successful it might have been, every new year (or time period) is an opportunity to learn and grow. So even if you’ve had an absolute disaster thus year, now’s the time to see how you can avoid repeating a negative pattern. And if you’ve had a pretty good year, make sure you identify why - and work out how you can build on this for even more success in the future.

If you have specific goals that you want to achieve in the coming year, look at the achievements you’re most proud of over the past 12 months, and think about how you can take a similar strategic approach to realising everything you want to have accomplished by 2020.

Here's a list of some other questions we like:

  • Am I growing?

  • How am I treating my people/colleagues/friends?

  • Am I leading or managing?

  • Am I making a difference?

  • Where am I settling?

  • What skills or talents am I not using?

  • What have I been avoiding out of fear?

  • What am I committed to changing?

  • How am I deceiving myself?

  • Why might I be wrong?

 We hope this will give you a base to start reflecting from in 2019. What questions do you like to consider? And remember, reflection is for life, not just for New Year!

Expend Team

Taking over the world, one expense at a time

Powering businesses around the world with the ultimate expense management software and sharing our top tips and lessons through these blogs.

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