Harnessing Deliberate Reflection to Create Personal Improvement


My favorite part of last week’s podcast with James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, was the last five minutes when he talked about a potential downside of good habits.  When we decide to improve, and create a new practice with the right cues and rewards, we form a new habit.  But habits can put us on autopilot and, if we’re not careful, we can stop improving or even regress.

This is why surgeon effectiveness can peak four or five years after they start practicing – unless they actively try to improve their craft, and why “number of surgeries” may not be a metric that correlates to quality of outcome.  James Clear suggests that deliberate reflection is critical to loop back to learning to create further improvement, which can then lead to mastery.

Interestingly, Taiichi Ohno said something very similar:

Most of us look for reasons when we fail, but very few of us look for reasons when we succeed.  It is important to search for the reasons why you were able to succeed, and make sure to use the acquired learning in the future.

Not only should we reflect on success in order to continue to improve on that success, we should also reflect on success so we can learn and apply those lessons to other activities.

The deliberate in deliberate reflection is the key.  Deliberate (or “intentional”) reflection is not simply thinking about a circumstance or situation, but actively planning for and methodically executing the reflection process itself.  In fact, some of us who have come to embrace deliberate reflection will deliberately reflect on the reflection process itself.  Like any process it can always be improved.  I try to practice deliberate reflection daily, weekly, monthly, and annually – all with different formats and purpose.

Preparing for deliberate reflection includes deciding on a location with appropriate surroundings and stimuli (or lack thereof), time required, focus or topic, questions to be asked, and desired outcome.  Questions always include some form of “what is the desired future state”, “what is the current state”, “what are the gaps”, and “what should I do differently?”  I also reflect on previous reflections and the activities and goals that derived from them.  You’ll recognize a lot of kata in that process… in effect, PDSA.  On a daily and weekly basis the topics are more short-term or smaller in scope, and that grows as the time period expands.  My annual reflection takes a couple weeks of preparation, and at least a week to execute.  All of it, from preparation through conclusions, is written in my journal.

This practice has had a profound impact on my life, especially with improving aspects I was dissatisfied with.  The James Clear podcast made me realize that I need to use the process to improve aspects (not just habits) that I am already generally satisfied with, and the Ohno perspective reinforces that I need to understand and apply what I’ve learned to other activities.

I can think of a couple examples already.

I have travelled a lot, beginning with exploring most of South America during the seven years I lived there decades ago.  My wife and I continued the practice, usually traveling at the last minute, often knowing nothing about the destination before reading about it on the plane trip over.  We’ve visited nearly 70 countries.  Pro tip (from experience…): visiting a country with an AK-47 on its flag warrants at least minimal preparation.

We learned a lot about the world, met interesting people, and that changed our perspectives on many issues.  We consider it a very positive aspect of our lives – a success.  A couple years ago we deliberately reflected on our travel and decided that sacrificing some of the allure and excitement of last-minute travel for more planning could yield a more fulfilling experience.  We tried that out with a trip to Tasmania last year and found it more relaxing and felt we saw and experienced more.

We improved on a success.  Where else could I apply the lesson of improved pre-planning?  Well, where couldn’t I might be the better question.

I’ve taken a similar approach to interesting ideas and projects, where I’ve never had a problem finding things to interest me – a positive.  For the past two decades I’ve taken time at the beginning of the year to reflect on all the projects available or interesting to me and choose one to be my “do something different” goal.  This goal has led me to run a full marathon, rebuild a ’73 Triumph Spitfire, and explore the history of several religions – among many, many others.  This year I’m going to learn about and try some specialized horticulture.

I’ve been successful with finding interesting projects with an ultimate “why” of becoming a well-rounded human, and a reflection process improved on that by helping me focus on just one major “something different” project each year.  One of my favorite books, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, also helped with that.  Where else can I apply those lessons?

Lately I’ve been reflecting on my daily productivity.  For many years I’ve written down my top three projects for the day and used the pomodoro method to focus on a single key activity for an hour without distraction, then take a break.  I’m generally satisfied with my productivity, and the balance with healthy free time.  The new functionality in iPhones that reports on screen time was a wake up call – far too much time was being spent gazing at small screens.

I reflected on why and how I was using my phone, and realized I was getting too sucked into social media, especially Twitter, and that I was seeing a lot of duplicate information – even if I was learning a lot.  So two weeks ago I reviewed all 5000+ folks I follow and whacked it down to just 150.  Those were the most interesting 25 or so people in a half dozen topic areas that interest me.  Now with a quick check I can see relevant, interesting information.  With that, and some other changes such as switching my screen to gray scale instead of “look at me” eye candy color, my screen time has dropped by nearly 80%, freeing up hours of time.

I felt I was successful at being productive and through reflection I was able to improve on that.  Where else can I apply the lesson of saving time by reducing the number of information sources to just the key relevant ones, or even using a “top three” or pomodoro method?

Where would you like to improve?  Don’t forget to consider habits or areas where you are already competent or satisfied, and think about where else those lessons from success can be applied.  Develop a deliberate, intentional reflection process to understand the desired future state, current state, gaps, and experiments and activities to achieve the desired future state.


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