Reflections on reflection

Good heavens! Is that the time? It seems that we just celebrated last Christmas and here we are again. I’m working on a journal article based on my PhD research listening to Christmas music sweltering through 30 degree heat here in Sydney and starting to drift away and ponder the year that was. A lot of people do that. Take stock, review the year, revisit their goals (for the more organised among us). It’s a fantastic practice, one that I often, if sporadically, do.

Reflection is such a key part of learning. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my Results chapter and one of the findings was around a lack of reflection in workplace learning. In the case of my research it appeared when I asked people about the greatest barrier to their learning. Not surprisingly ALL the participants answered that time was the main barrier for them.  In this case a lack thereof. I think I may be preaching to the choir here because everyone can relate to the sense of rush and overwhelm that is so endemic these days that it’s almost a badge of honour for some (ask someone how they are these days and you’ll likely get the response “So busy” rather than the traditional “Fine”). This is a problem for effective learning at work or otherwise since this feeling of not having enough time and being constantly rushed is the enemy of reflection. Countless articles have told us that we need to daydream to be creative or that we need to reflect in order to learn properly (see the classic Argryis and Schon for this in a workplace context) but still we struggle.

My research suggests that, in the workplace, it’s because this sort of thinking time is not recognised as learning and is, in fact, seen as unproductive and “slacking off”.  Organisations are doing a great disservice to their employees by not encouraging more…well…thinking time. A lot of successful people incorporate thinking and reflection time into their work practice. The most recent example of this that I saw was the Australian mining magnate and Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer. Whatever you may think of his politics or his antics he was interviewed by Annabel Crabb on her Kitchen Cabinet show on the ABC and revealed that he dedicates 4 hours a day to thinking time. 4 hours! Imagine having the luxury of 4 hours a day to do anything, let alone just think and reflect?! What great insights could you gain from that? What fresh ideas? Of course, 4 hours is beyond the reach of most of us but how about 1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 5 minutes at lunch and 5 minutes at the end of the day? Every little helps.

It’s also important to teach people a bit about reflection while you’re at it of course.  Maybe some questions or a template to get them started.  My research participants reported that they struggled for time with reflection but that they didn’t really feel like they knew what they were doing anyway and so any learning gleaned from reflection was ad hoc and came in the form of sudden “ah ha” moments when they had a few minutes to come up for air out of the maelstrom. I’m a big fan of the coaching model GROW. For those not familiar with it you can find a nice little video here. Basically there are sets of questions that go with this framework to help people work through decisions/problems/whatever in a coaching scenario. I’ve also successfully used it when consulting to help get all the client’s needs and expectations down as well as for personal goal setting and reflection. It’s an acronym that stands for Goal/s, Reality, Options, Way Forward. Simple as that. Maybe give it a go with your New Years’ Resolutions!