If you want to make an improvement to your appearance, say to tidy your hair, what do you do? If you’re like most people, you use a mirror. A mirror reflects our appearance giving us immediate feedback on our appearance which we can use to make an improvement, e.g., use a comb to tidy our parting.

In the same way as we use a mirror to get feedback on our appearance, we can use reflective thinking to get feedback on any aspect of our lives and then make improvements based on that reflection. Regular, disciplined use of reflective thinking virtually guarantees accelerated improvement in any area of your life.

I expect that many of you reading this engage in reflective thinking from time to time, but there are ways to reflect which are more effective than others. What follows are some tips to get the most out of this activity.

  1. Use a Structure
    Reflective thinking benefits from having a structure which allows you to consider key points from previous actions and use them to plan future actions. I recommend the following structure:
    Topic for reflection
    What went well?
    What didn’t go as well as hoped? (Or what could be improved?)
    What will I do differently next time?It’s important to have a topic for reflection to focus your thinking. This could be a piece of work you’ve done, an advertising campaign that’s just finished, or even a discussion with your nearest and dearest. It can also be any period of time such as the last week, month, or even year.When reflecting, focus on the What never the Why. What is factual: understanding what went well, what we did right, means we can repeat it or do more of it. Understanding what didn’t go so well means we can consider changes, or avoiding certain behaviours. Understanding Why is for counselling!The final question brings together the answers from the last two into a whole. Based on what went well, and what didn’t go so well, what will I do differently next time (that I think will bring me better results).
  2. Set aside time
    Having a structure is one thing. Using that structure is another. If you don’t set aside time to reflect, then you probably won’t and you won’t gain the substantial benefits that this practice brings. You can do it ad-hoc and, as you use it more you may find you do. However, having time set aside to reflect will ensure that you take that time. In most cases you won’t need more than 15 minutes – in fact I encourage you not to spend longer than that or else it becomes a chore and you receive diminishing returns.
  3. Don’t try to boil the ocean
    You may want to improve on every area of your life, but if you spend time reflecting on every area you will quickly get bored and quit the effort. Pick one or two things that you really want to improve upon as a priority, then set aside some time (no more than once a day) to do your reflection.
  4. Use a journal
    Writing your reflection will force you to stick to the structure and help prevent your mind wandering off topic. More importantly, the act of writing helps to impress what you write into your mind making it more likely that you’ll remember your plan for improvement. Finally, having a written record also means you can go back over what you’ve learnt over a period. Reviewing past reflections allows you to spot patterns that you may have missed, and also to see how much you’ve actually improved.

Reflective thinking is a simple and highly effective technique for making improvements in any area of your life. Following the tips discussed above above (using a structure, setting aside time, focusing on one or two priority areas, and using a journal) will help you to get the best out of this technique.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, please post them below!

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