Feb 4, 2023 9 min read

Design Principles for Practicing Reflection

For leaders and managers, the art and practice of doing regular reflection is essential to functioning at peak levels. The challenge is that the environment surrounding them enables anything but reflection. It's designed to do the exact opposite. Are there basic guidelines that can help to reflect more often and better?

Action tends to be our default choice, and stepping back can often feel passive and indecisive in the face of mounting pressure. But when the pressure to act is at its most intense is also when we need to reflect the most.

As with any muscle, getting good at reflection needs training and attention. Well-developed reflection muscles can hold us in good stead when it really matters. Almost all managers and execs recognize the importance of reflection but fail to do it regularly or sometimes altogether. Why? There are two primary reasons:

  1. A perceived lack of time.
  2. Misperceptions about reflection or a lack of understanding of what it actually entails.

Four principles to develop your reflection

Given the challenges, how do you go about it and what do you actually do?

In his book Step Back, Joseph Badaracco highlights how reflection requires regular practice and can be aided by what he calls "design principles" — basic guidelines that can help to build an effective reflection routine and integrate it into busy schedules.

Reflection does not have to be a 7 day guided meditation retreat in the mountains. It can be practiced right where we are, which is also where it's often needed the most.

The art of reflection is like other arts. To do it well, you have to practice, and your practice should be guided by certain principles, which are often called design principles. If you paint a picture, for example, you have to make choices about line, balance, and contrast. Design principles call attention to these choices and guide them, but they don’t tell you what to paint or what colors to use. Design principles are “laws with leeway.” They provide compass directions, not turn-by-turn instructions.

The design principles for reflection work in the same way. If you want to make the best use of scarce time for reflection, you should rely on four basic principles. They clearly define good reflection, but they don’t specify what you should do. That is your call. The design principles for the art of reflection are templates, and your task is filling in the specifics, with ways of reflecting that work for you.

He identifies 4 principles for reflection:

  1. Aim for good enough
  2. Downshift occasionally
  3. Ponder your hard issues
  4. Pause and measure up

1. Aim for good enough

This design principle advises you to put aside the image of reflection as “going up to the mountain”—that is, as extended, solitary deliberation. Instead, it encourages you to find an approach to reflection that works pretty well, most of the time. This is an approach that meets your needs, fits your situation, and you can follow fairly regularly. But you will have stretches with little or no reflection. That is simply a reality of life, not a failure on your part. When it happens, just move on and get back to your routine of reflection.

Not having enough time for reflection often stems from putting reflection on a pedestal, instead of treating it as any other mundane but important activity we do on a daily basis. The core idea is to step back and create some space between you and the action.

He shares examples of busy managers and CEOs who aim for good enough reflection using a combination or one of the below:

  • Using the drive home to contemplate issues.
  • "Piggy backed" reflection — combining it with activities you might already be doing eg during running or exercising.
  • Looking for "spaces of quiet" — these can be specific times in your schedule or dedicated separate spaces or rituals that trigger reflective thinking.
  • Writing regularly or keeping a journal. Regularly doesn't mean everyday or even proactive. It can be a habit when you are triggered.
  • Having a "reflective conversation" with a significant other like a spouse, a friend or a peer. Reflection doesn't have to be a solitary activity.

2. Downshift occasionally

We spend much of our time, particularly at work, relying on highly focused analytical or pragmatic thinking. Our goal is output. We ask, again and again, “What is the problem here, and what do we do about it?” This guiding principle says to pause occasionally and shift your mental machinery into a lower gear. This means, as one manager put it, “letting your mind run free for a while and avoiding any taint of productivity.”

Downshifting, in its various forms, gives you greater clarity about what is happening around you and what you are really thinking and feeling.
When you downshift or contemplate, you are consciously trying to suspend your default mental habits of analytical thinking, cost-benefit analysis, and planning next steps. Your goal is to simply look around, watch, and observe. Downshifting is a way of really seeing and fully grasping what matters at a meeting, in a conversation, during time with family and friends, or in quiet moments you spend by yourself. It is a form of reflection that helps you be present, alert, and responsive to other people, to situations, to unfolding events. Its basic aim is depth of experience.
There are no road maps or rules for this way of downshifting. It is spending a few minutes letting your thoughts, feelings, and attention wander where they will. That may sound simple, but actually doing it is a real challenge—particularly for men and women whose minds are trained to process task after task and who feel good being productive. Hence, it takes a focused effort in order to “unfocus.”
Until about twenty years ago, cognitive neuroscientists thought our brains were idling, like a parked car with its engine running, when we weren’t focusing on a task. However, a large body of evidence now indicates that our minds remain active all the time. When we are thinking about doing something and when we are actually doing it, we utilize a particular neural network. But when we stop focusing and doing, another set of circuits lights up. This happens automatically, by default, and hence is called the default network.

Recent research on the default network suggests that periods of quiet, contemplative reflection may serve a wide range of purposes. It may be a source of creativity, enable children to engage fully in play, help us with conscious planning for the future, heighten our self-awareness, raise our emotional intelligence, and enhance our moral judgments. There are even indications that the time we spend with our minds “idling” actually improves our conscious, analytical thinking about tasks.

In his interviews, managers shared some of the ways they practiced this kind of downshifting:

  • Mental meandering and wandering — giving yourself the permission to wander not just mentally but even physically. Often we are so driven that we don't give ourselves the permission to just be.
  • Deliberately slowing down by engaging in any activity that gets you out of your standard routine and environment. Writing in a journal in a separate place from where you typically work can trigger a different set of thoughts and emotions.
  • Time in nature can be truly transformative that creates a sense of awe and wonder. Our particular set of problems often seem puny in front of the timelessness of what surrounds us. It's what Oliver Burkeman calls cosmic insignificance therapy. But it doesn't have to be that fancy either. It could be as simple as spending time mindfully with kids and pets as well.
  • Finding ways to notice, acknowledge and celebrate, even if it's a small win. In our go-getter culture, too often we forget to notice what we've already achieved. Pausing to celebrate, breaks this cycle of constant striving and focusing on deficits rather than gains.

3. Ponder your hard issues

This type of reflection is a way of working through really challenging issues, at work and throughout life. It says to step back and make a conscious effort to look at a problem or a situation from several different perspectives. Pondering can help you gain a fuller understanding of a complex issue and show you which aspects of it really matter.

Pondering is turning something over in your mind, like a woodcarver gradually shaping a piece of wood. One manager gave a succinct, practical definition of pondering. She said, “You’ve got the linear perspective, which is important, but then you have to develop for yourself a way of finding other angles on things.” The aim of pondering is depth of understanding, and the classics and the interviews provide a wide range of ways to do this.
It is trying to grasp what really matters about an issue or a problem by coming back to it again and again and looking at it from a variety of angles. Pondering supposes that hard issues have different facets and angles, and each is worth at least some consideration. Hence, instead of making quick judgments, you are sifting through a range of possibilities and seeing what you can learn. Pondering relies on what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”—that is, the skill of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Looking at a problem or a question from different perspectives may sound easy, but it isn’t. We often respond to complex situations with quick, instinctive, definitive reactions or answers. Even worse, we often stick like glue to our initial positions. And these aren’t just bad habits—we seem to be hardwired to behave this way.

A recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, presents a vast range of experiments and real-world examples showing that we are spring-loaded to produce fast and firm convictions on a wide range of topics and questions. “Slow” thinking, which is akin to pondering, is our biological and evolutionary exception, not the Darwinian rule.

Pondering is a specific way of thinking and very different from plain rumination. Here are some strategies for building your muscle of pondering:

  • Deliberately shifting your mindset by thinking on a problem in a different place, using a different method, or taking an opposite stance to it. He gives the simple example of a manager using his whiteboard (away from his desk) and simply doodling solutions (less analytical than writing).
  • Using anchor questions that give direction and center your thinking. It's easy to lose track and go down rabbit holes when pondering important, emotionally laden issues. Anchoring questions help to keep coming back to the central problem you are trying to tackle. Examples would be: "What would X person do in this situation?" or "What would it actually look like – in vivid detail – if I were to take this step?" or "What am I trying to avoid here?"
  • Talking with yourself — this can literally be holding a question and answer session with yourself or using a journal where you record answers to specific questions. The interesting part is how the conversation evolves as you answer each question. Revisiting your responses after a few days or weeks can be equally revealing.
  • Living with your question — practice progressive procrastination. If the decision can wait, then let it simmer in the background. Often, ceding active control can yield creative answers. Another method is allocating a fixed amount of time to ruminate, or scheduling dedicated time in the future to worry about something.

4. Pause and measure up

This is reflection for times when you have to decide and act. Its focus is depth of impact. It is asking what really matters about what you are doing or planning to do.
Grasping what really matters about what we decide and do means answering two questions. Both are serious and sometimes profound.

The first asks: Are my decisions and actions measuring up to the standards I have for myself and the standards others expect me to meet? The second question focuses on the longer-term impact of what we do. It asks: As I make decisions and act over the course of days, weeks, and longer periods of time, am I becoming the kind of person I want to become?
Seeing ourselves as we are is the most challenging aspect of measuring up. An avalanche of experience and evidence—from serious literature, the long historical record, the wisdom of many different faiths, and the findings of contemporary social science—tell us that we routinely do a poor job of seeing ourselves as we are. If we had a scale for measuring up, our thumb would be on it most of the time.

The book goes further into the details of each principle and is well worth the time invested.

Step Back is a short but eminent read that looks into an oft neglected aspect of leadership, but is also refreshingly different from your typical business bestseller. It's a meditation in itself that draws on a variety of both ancient and modern sources, and balances it well by drawing insights from interviews with contemporary managers living busy lives.

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  1. Step Back: Bringing the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life by Joseph L. Badaracco
  2. More on the book and the research behind it: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-pause-that-brings-peace-and-productivity

Video of the author discussing the book:

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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