Improve Your Life Through Deep Reflection

Why pausing to reflect could amp up your productivity, creative thinking
January 25, 2018 Updated: June 29, 2020

Reflection is a word with two meanings: It’s the image that you see when you look in a mirror, but it’s also the act of serious thought. Particularly powerful is a combination of the two, in the form of self-reflection.

When you’ve regretted something you have said or done and taken the opportunity to use it to see some aspect of yourself more clearly, you’ve used this power of reflection to elevate your self-awareness. This insight can save you from future personal disaster and reveal hidden beliefs limiting your breadth of mind.

Such realizations often sting as we see something about ourselves more clearly in hindsight. Yet once the pain passes, we can easily forget the value of looking inward.

Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew is an author and consultant who has lectured on leadership at the University of North Texas at Dallas. She is also the founder and CEO of Soulstice Consultancy.

She warns that reflection has become a rare trait in our world, particularly online.

You can see it all over social media where people are just saying things and not really reflecting on the implications of their decisions.
— Dr. Frowsa Booker-Drew, author

“You can see it all over social media where people are just saying things and not really reflecting on the implications of their decisions,” Booker-Drew said. “And the consequences can be debilitating.”

One glaring example comes from YouTube celebrity Paul Logan, who posted a video on Dec. 21, 2017, of a man who hanged himself in Japan’s notorious Aokigahara “suicide forest.” Logan’s channel is popular with kids and teens, so his footage of a recent suicide spawned immediate outrage. In response to complaints, YouTube removed Logan from a web series, shelved his upcoming film project, and terminated his top-tier ad revenue.

In a video apology, Logan expressed regret for posting the offending video and admitted he should’ve known better. It’s an extreme case, but in a world where success is measured in likes and views, the impulse is all too common.

“We’re always ready to hit the send button, but the backlash can be even worse than the comments to your posting,” Booker-Drew said. “People are losing jobs and opportunities just because they’re not taking the time to think about it.”

Slowing Down in Fast-Paced World

Reflection helps us avoid bad decisions and can reveal creative solutions. Albert Einstein is a remarkable example. He claimed to have conjured his innovative ideas through thought experiments, such as imagining what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light.

Einstein was 16 years old when he first began to use these sophisticated daydreams to realize a new understanding of the universe. Meanwhile, his teachers considered him a failure because he fell short in their most valued form of education: memorizing facts.

There are many cultural pressures that can squelch our reflective nature. One of the biggest culprits is busyness—we always feel starved for time. Who can afford a moment of quiet contemplation when we’re so rushed, overworked, and overbooked?

In our race to beat the clock, we try to work more and multitask. But this high-speed strategy may actually set us back.

In the last few years, researchers have discovered that slowing down, focusing on one activity at a time, and taking breaks can ultimately make you more productive and creative.

In the past few years, researchers have discovered that slowing down, focusing on one activity at a time, and taking breaks can ultimately make you more productive and creative. As a result, many companies–such as Google, Apple, Procter & Gamble, and General Mills—have initiated mindfulness programs and other unorthodox methods to help boost creative thinking.  

Author Carl Honoré has been promoting the benefits of slowing down for over a decade. He’s written several books devoted to the subject and has consulted with companies around the world on how to take a more reflective approach.

“As human beings we are prone to skimming the surface and being distracted. We actually need that reflection time as an anchor,” Honoré said. “It’s in those moments of quiet stillness that we find ourselves. In some ways, I think that’s what human life is all about.”

Religions have taught the importance of reflection for centuries, but it’s a concept humans have always been at odds with. It can be uncomfortable, tedious, and even frightening to be alone with your thoughts. And today, the opportunities for distraction are greater than ever.

“We live in an intrinsically superficial society and the temptations are all around us—the next update from Instagram, or the next incoming message from your inbox,” Honoré said. “It’s much easier to go for the distractions and avoid the metaphysical heavy lifting involved in deep reflection.”

Making Space for Reflection

Quick thinking has its place. In emergencies, for example, we need to act fast, not dwell in chin-stroking wonder at the possibilities. The trick, said Honoré, is to find balance and match your speed with the situation. When we get caught up in the frenetic pace of modern life, we lose that flexibility and get stuck in fast forward.

When you have an opportunity to put yourself in a reflective mood, Honoré suggests starting with something that shifts your mind to a lower gear, such as yoga, gardening, reading a book, taking a walk without your phone, or soaking in a hot bath.

Booker-Drew recommends journaling; putting words to paper can help identify our fears as well as our blessings. Her most devoted reflective ritual is processing her day before bed. Nearly every night, she takes at least 5 to 10 minutes to think about what irked her and analyze her response to it.

“I may be really angry with someone in that moment, but hours later, when I sit and reflect on what bothered me, I sometimes discover that it had nothing to do with that person,” she said. “This way, I can create peace, and have resolution around that situation, instead of carrying this baggage and anger with me.”

While everyone favors a fast response, Honoré says we may actually gain more respect when we ask for time to ponder our answer.

It’s much easier to reflect when we’re alone. But this act of deep thought takes time and mental space, which can be difficult in some environments, like our work. When someone asks us to make a decision on the spot, we may feel compelled to answer right away. While everyone favors a fast response, Honoré says we may actually gain more respect when we ask for time to ponder our answer.

He urges us to break through the taboo that slow means stupid. And if we ask for extra time, it might influence the people around us to do so as well.

“Very often we’re locked into a standoff in the workplace where everybody is wondering who is going to say ‘I want to slow down’ first,” he said. “It’s terrifying to be the first person. But once somebody says it, you realize that others were thinking that and often there is a big relief.”

In order to access our sense of reflection, we have to make space for it. This means learning to say no to the unnecessary activities that eat up our precious time. For many of us, this involves having clear boundaries with the technology we consume.

Despite the numerous avenues for entertainment and time-saving tools that technology offers, staring at a screen ultimately prevents us from looking inward. Honoré believes it’s critical that we learn to use our gadgets wisely, because we can’t tune in until we unplug.

“I’m not a Luddite, I think gadgets are great, we just need to find a better way to use them,” he said. “Putting them in the right place gives people the space to find themselves … and not to live in this unhealthy, unsatisfying state of constant distraction.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner