The world is often a chaotic, puzzling place. Reflection is how we can make sense of the world and our place in it. As the Jesuits at Boston College put it, “Reflection is the way we discover and compose the meaning of our experience.”
In this episode, Craig discusses critical self-reflection and its many benefits. He also describes a systematic method for reflection and offers three things you can put into practice that will help you build a practice of reflection in order to take control of your life.
Ben Franklin’s Method of Self-Improvement: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/benjamin-franklins-method-of-self-improvement/
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, email@example.com.
Production assistant - Paul Robert
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.” To put it differently, when we reflect, we learn. The folks at Boston College put the importance of reflection this way, “Reflection is the way we discover and compose the meaning of our experience.”
In the last episode, I discussed the importance of mindfulness, or paying attention, and mentioned that one of its functions is to provide input for the process of reflection. When we pay attention, we notice all sorts of things about the world around us, images, sounds, confusing feelings, the actions and reactions of others. It’s a jumbled mess until you take time to pause and ponder what it all means. This pondering is reflection. Reflection helps us better understand the world and our place in it. Effective reflection takes that jumbled mess and makes sense out of it.
But effective reflection is not a process of pointless navel-gazing. When we reflect, we examine data gathered through mindfulness, mentally test hypotheses about causes and consequences, clarify relationships among various elements of our life, and consider options in light of their potential outcomes. The sort of reflection I’m talking about might be considered critical self-reflection, but here “critical” means “evaluative” not critical as in criticizing. Not all reflection is critical. Brooding over some mistake or mistreatment is reflective, but it’s not critical reflection and doesn’t carry the same benefits. The language can get a bit unwieldy, so for the rest of the episode when I mention reflection, I’m referring to critical self-reflection.
It seems to me that there are two categories of reflection. The first is a problem/solution oriented approach in which you assess your environment, your behaviors, and your attitudes with respect to some desired outcome, maybe some goal, for example. Suppose you want to drop a few pounds. At the end of the day, you might reflect on the food and activity choices you made and whether they helped you move towards your goal. For those that didn't, you ponder what led you to make the counter-productive choices, and develop strategies for avoiding those choices in the future. For the productive choices, you think about ways to nudge yourself towards those alternatives.
The second type of reflection is more introspective; it's directed towards trying to understand your attitudes and behaviors as they relate to being the type of person you want to be. The standard here is virtue. Are you living according to the virtues you seek? Are the virtues you seek appropriate? Flourishing, or living a life of reason and virtue is a process, not a destination. Reflection is an important part of that process.
The two types are closely related. Being the kind of person you want to be should help you achieve your goals, and serve your purpose. As a practical matter, I don’t know that you need to consciously separate the two sorts of reflection. Sometimes you’ll reflect on more concrete aspects of your life, other times you’ll reflect on the more ethereal aspects. Both are important, and both are useful.
Reflection provides a period of quiet contemplation, escaping from the rigors and challenges of the day. It’s a time to just sit and think. Look, I’m a tech guy. I wrote my first program in 1976, I think it was, and I’ve been involved with information technology since then. Tech is how I make a living, and I love how we can use technology to enhance our lives. But even I have to admit that all of this technology comes with a price; part of that price is the constant tethering to our devices. Many of us are connected virtually all of our waking hours (and sometimes even beyond). So, it’s important to find time to disconnect and just think about and make sense of the world and how we fit into it. Regular periods of reflection do this. Reflection gives us time and space to just think.
Reflection is solidly directed at learning and growth. When you reflect, you gain insight and understanding, and as a result you grow. In addition, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. When you actively reflect, you give your mind a solid workout. Reflection involves memory, imagination, prospective problem-solving, emotions. All of this helps your brain make connections that deepen your learning and your understanding.
This is one of the reasons reflection is so important in education. Active reflection helps the brain make connections across topics and categories that not only helps students gain understanding, but also increases retention.
In addition to learning and growth, empirical evidence shows numerous other benefits from the practice of reflection. People who practice reflection are more productive and higher performing, they are happier and more self-aware, and this self-awareness can lead to increased self-esteem and self-regulation.
One of the reasons reflection brings these benefits is that it increases your sense of control. As Wordsworth wrote, “... not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd.” Reflection can break you from habitual behaviors, beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes. Reflection provides a time of dispassionate assessment. When you reflect, you can think about who you are and who you want to be, what your purpose in life is, and how your actions and beliefs help or hinder your flourishing. So, in this way, reflection is all about control -- control over your thoughts, your actions, your beliefs, your life.
The connection between reflection and control goes a step further. Effective reflection requires a belief in your own agency - your ability to control certain aspects of your life. Otherwise, what’s the point? You also need awareness that you have options and alternative courses of action in any situation. You may be affected by circumstance, but you’re not a prisoner of circumstance.
Effective reflection also requires a willingness to recognize and accept your responsibility. Agency comes with responsibility. If you have some freedom and control, then you have some responsibility for your actions and their outcomes. To benefit from reflection you need to recognize this responsibility; you also need a willingness to be flexible, and to be open-minded and amenable to exploring new ways of thinking and doing things. You also need to be open to questioning your assumptions and biases. All of these are important parts of learning and growing through reflection.
There are many different ways to reflect, and you don't really need a particular method, and no single one of these is perfect for every person and situation. I’m going to introduce you to a kind of systematic method of reflection that I call the SEAL method of reflection. SEAL stands for Select, Examine, Alternatives and Learn. This method works best when you’ve experienced something that you think is important, and that might come up again in some form. I suggest using two criteria to help you choose important incidents, your purpose, and the virtues you seek. Being mindful can help you build awareness of important events that merit reflection.
To use the SEAL framework to reflect, first select an important incident from your day. This can be an interaction with someone, something that made you lose your temper or otherwise react negatively, something you heard, read, or saw, or even some thought that might have led you astray. Select an incident that is related to the pursuit of your purpose, or to the virtues and character traits you want to exhibit.
Next, examine the event carefully. I like to try to take the perspective of a compassionate third-party when I do this. How would such a person view the incident? It’s really important to practice self-compassion here. Don’t beat yourself up over something that, upon reflection, you should have done or thought about differently. The point here is learning, not pointless regret. Try to view the event, and your role in it, from different angles. Consider emotions, actions and reactions, and any assumptions that played a role.
Then, consider alternatives. What could you have done differently, that might have led to better (or worse) outcomes? Don't forget about thoughts and emotions here, they're also important. Did you engage in thoughts, or experience emotions that make the incident better or worse? Consider alternative ways of thinking about the incident. If everything went well, what were the critical elements that determined the positive outcomes? If things didn't go well, what can you do differently if you face a similar situation in the future? This is a creative task, you need to engage your imagination to create this set of alternatives and potential outcomes.
FInally, learn from your reflection. What should you do differently next time you’re faced with a similar situation? And what did your reflection allow you to discover about yourself or others that you might not have considered before?
This approach can help you exercise your control. Remember, you’re the captain of your ship. Reflection can help you adjust your course back towards flourishing. Before moving to the three things you can do this week, I want to remind you of the importance of self-compassion. I mention it earlier, but I'm gonna mention it again here. Look, life is hard, and we’re all imperfect. Be kind to yourself and engage in reflection from a position of seeking growth, not being self-judgy.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to ask a small favor. You almost assuredly know someone who could benefit from becoming more reflective or who would like more control over their thoughts and actions. If you do, please recommend this episode to them. One easy way to do this is to send them to livewellandflourish.com. All of my episodes, including this one are available there.
Thank you. On to the three things.
The first thing you might want to try is to schedule time for reflection. I know I suggest this approach a lot; but I do so because it’s effective. Put “reflection” on your daily calendar. Even 10 minutes a day of daily reflection is worthwhile. You might want to schedule two times, one early in the morning to set the stage for what's coming that day, and one in the evening to give you time to ponder the events of that day.
A second suggestion is to focus on how your assumptions might lead you astray. These might be assumptions about a person, a place, maybe as a restaurant, a thing, like a food (I might be hungry), an event. Really anything about which you have some preconceived notion. Be careful not to get down on yourself for making assumptions; assumptions are necessary for navigating the world. Just try to bring hidden assumptions to the surface and think about how they affect you and how they might need to be adjusted.
Finally, try what I'm gonna call a mini-Ben Franklin. Franklin developed a clever method for what he called “achieving moral perfection”. The short version is that he had a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to live up to. Each day, he focused on one of these, trying to consciously avoid violating the virtue. (Of course, there's a lot more to it than this. I describe Franklin’s method in more detail in an episode that was released January 5, 2022. I’ll put a link in the show notes.) You can do something similar to what Franklin did. Each day, think about one virtue or characteristic that you want to exhibit. Maybe you want to be kind, or even-tempered, or maybe you want to stay calm in the chaos. Whatever you choose, during the day, pay attention to times when you either violated the virtue, or took control of your thoughts or actions in a way that aligned with the virtue. For example, maybe you felt yourself getting angry about something and you took control and kind of settled yourself down. At the end of the day, (this is the reflection part) think back on these times, celebrate your successes and analyze your failures so that you can act in accordance with that virtue or that character trait in the future. Again, don’t get upset about the failures, they happen, just dispassionately analyze what you can do differently next time.
I’ll close with a quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
So I urge you to take a little bit of time each day and reflect. Examine your life, examine the world and how you fit into it.
Until next time. Be well, my friends.
I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflousih.com. Until next time.