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Building a Reflective Practice

One of the first things people say when they’re trying to make sense of some kind of crisis – professional or otherwise – is that they just desperately want the time and space to think.

Time and space are the scarcest commodity in the swell of emotions, urgent to-do’s and well-meaning supporters asking ‘what now’?  The opportunity to make meaning of what’s going in our lives is what can take us from event to insight, so we can start having an idea of what to do next.

How do we create the conditions for us to learn in a meaningful and potentially transformative way from the events that affect us?

The key is a reflective practice. Reflection allows us to consider an event or experience and sort out what it means to us, and how it might impact what we do as a result.  Critical reflection allows us to go even deeper, to see and explore the underlying assumptions and world-views that shape how we make sense of our lives, and specifically in the work I do, how we participate in the world of work and experience the highs and lows of our careers.

Through reflection, we can start to see things with clear eyes as they truly are, and then we can start generating options and making choices.  This is the thrill of personal change!

So, how to build a reflective practice?  The professionals I study and work with use a variety of tools to examine, expand and challenge themselves.  Some of them use exercise, running, sports, and other physical activities to clear their heads and literally think better.  Others rely on readings, prayer and meditation to calm the mind and connect to wisdom from their religious and spiritual traditions.

One of the most readily available, least expensive and most simple types of reflective practices available, and the one I use and advocate the most often, is the simple act of writing.  All of us can do this. Some of us were journalers in high school, have lost the habit but long to have it back. Some of us have never picked up a pen unless we were assigned by a teacher. Some of us admire the written word, but don’t think of ourselves as writers.  Starting is straightforward, and the results are remarkable.

You can start with a pen and paper. (Writing by hand does things for your creativity and memory that digital scribing just doesn’t.)

  • I sometimes have my clients start with simple lists: times when you loved work, times when you couldn’t stand it, key accomplishments, things you want to learn or try next. Then, deepen the list with details - before you know it, a bulleted list has sentences and paragraphs.

  • If you’re hurting about work or feeling stuck where you are, dream about the future on paper. Imagine the ideal work week - who’s there, where are you, what are you doing with your time? What does your environment look like? What is your day like?

  • Remember no one is going to grade this writing - it’s yours alone. A classic for more than 20 years, Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages offers a simple routine for even a writing beginner.   You can’t get it wrong – in its purest form even you don’t go back and read what you write. The morning pages are a routine of writing every morning (ideally, although I know plenty of people who schedule the pages during a more manageable time of the day), freehand, uncensored – whatever comes to mind.

  • Some of my clients start by writing letters letters of encouragement and inspiration to themselves or a dear friend when the decisions are difficult or unclear. I’ll even have clients write a letter to me, “Dear Nayla, I feel so angry/annoyed/excited/worried…”

  • Moments that matter can also be heavy.  It can be hard to write about them because of embarrassment or shame, because it’s just hard to admit they’re true.  There’s research to suggest that writing about yourself in the third person is a pathway to clarity and freedom in your thoughts. My friend Lara Zielin offers more guidance on this practice.

I know people who write on the train during their commute, or for the last ten minutes of their workday, or at the end of the day as a form of closure. The practice is yours - build it, change it, develop it - practice it. The goal is that writing creates some distance between stimulus and reaction, so that you can look at your thoughts and emotions with curiosity and interest, and be less subject to them. Clarity lies there. Give it a try - let me know how it’s going.


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