How to Bring the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life

Take a Step Back and Relax

Making time for reflection is more important than ever. We live in a world that is non-stop, with information overload, 24-7 access, and constant connection. It’s wonderful on one hand, but our bodies and minds are taxed beyond anything in history.

Joseph L. Badaracco is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School has written a practical guide that I found compelling because he didn’t advocate for long periods of solitude. Instead, he makes the case for how to find a crevice and fill it with reflection to change your mindset. This resonated with me, so I asked him to share a little more of his work and his recent book Step Back: How to Bring the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life.



The Value of Reflection

When did you realize the value of reflection?

I’ve always had a general sense that reflection was worthwhile. I think most people share this sense. But I became especially aware of its value as I interviewed more and more really busy people (mostly managers and executives in companies) and discovered that, despite their busy lives, they had found ways to spend more time reflecting. It was also clear that reflection was valuable to them for a wide variety of reasons. It really is a universal tool. You can reflect on work or life or issues involving your family, or you can simply try to understand yourself a little better.



Many people have the misconception that you need days of solitude for reflection, but you share a different view. Tell us more about that.

What I discovered in the interviews is that very few of the very busy people I interviewed did the “going up to the mountain” version of reflection. They had to find another approach and typically relied on reflecting, for brief periods, in the cracks and crevices of their lives. This is what I came to call mosaic reflection, as opposed to classic reflection which involves long periods of solitude and tranquility. And, to my surprise, I found that almost everyone I interviewed – and I interviewed about 100 different people – had their own particular combination of times and places for reflection – in other words, their own mosaic.



Observe Yourself

What advice do you have for a busy executive who says that there is no time for reflection given the schedule, the demands, etc.?

My first piece of advice is to simply observe yourself. Many of the people I interviewed said, just after I met them, that they were the wrong person for an interview on reflection because they didn’t reflect. It turned out that this was because they assumed reflection was the classic, “go to the mountain” approach. But, as we talked more, they discovered that they were spending time reflecting. So my advice is to observe yourself and notice the times and places when you actually do step back, take a few minutes from checking things off your to do list, and look at a window or relax somehow and free up your mind. This could be while you exercise or drive home or have the right kind of conversation with a colleague. These can be moments of valuable reflection, once you notice what you’re doing and when you do it. The reason is that you can then make it into a pattern, try to do it more often, and try to spend the time as effectively as possible.




Aim for Good Enough

“Aim for good enough” is one of your starting points and contradicts the drive for excellence in most leaders. Are most able to adopt this or is this a struggle?

It’s not a struggle. If anything, it’s a kind of an affirmation. In other words, what I learned is that mosaic reflection is real reflection, so people shouldn’t feel that whatever pattern of moments of reflection they’ve created is somehow second-rate compared to the real thing. And it is hard to find time for reflection, so if you do a pretty good job, you’re doing just fine. You can let yourself off the hook. I like the saying, “The better is the enemy of the good,” and that’s the idea behind what I called a good-enough approach.



“Behold” is one anecdote you share in the book that I’ve made a daily practice since reading your book. It’s amazing to me that something so simple can shift our mindset like that. What are some ways to encourage a mindset shift?

I think you need to find some reminders that work for you. Maybe you put aside five minutes for reflection on your daily to-do list. Maybe you take a slightly longer route on a walk that you do fairly often, around the office or near your home. Maybe it’s a five-minute break after you finish a particular task that you do most days. There really is no right approach. The key is observing yourself, seeing when you naturally pause and step back a little bit, and then trying to build on this.



When a leader fails to reflect, what do you notice? Contrast this with someone who regularly makes reflection a practice in daily life.

A few of the people I interviewed talked about this directly and without any prompting from me. They said that, if a few days passed and they hadn’t put aside at least a few moments for reflection, they felt something was missing, something was off, that life was out of control. It was almost like they had a visceral, biological need they felt to slow the merry-go-round down for a while and reflect on what they’ve been doing and what really mattered looking ahead, especially if they were in a really busy stretch.



After reading this book, I am now reading Leading Quietly and see them relate. What seems like a small, rather inconsequential practice is actually a major part of being the best leader possible. Would you comment on the relationship between your books (or other ones I haven’t read yet)?

I wrote Leading Quietly about 20 years ago, but there actually is a connection. In writing Step Back, I studied and described the three fundamental approaches to reflection that have endured over centuries. I called one of them “downshifting,” and the traditional name for it is “contemplation.” It is slowing down and trying to pay real attention to what is going on around you or to what you are thinking and feeling. The second approach is “pondering.” This is looking at a complicated situation from a variety of perspectives rather than trying to crack the case and get the answer right away. And that, I see now, it’s something that Leading Quietly clearly recommends for leaders who are trying to navigate complicated, political situations. And the third fundamental approach to reflection is also implicit in Leading Quietly. It’s “measuring up,” which is pausing and reflecting on whether you are meeting your standards and the standard others expect you to meet. Leading Quietly is essentially a different approach to thinking about leadership, but the question of standards applies to all approaches to leading others well.


For more information, see Step Back: How to Bring the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life.

Photo credit: book cover image is provided by Harvard Business Review Press



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