We'd all like to regulate our actions and habits better, but that's impossible until we develop greater self-awareness. Why? Because we need to know where we're at and where we've been before we can plot our course to where we want to go in the future. It’s also important to assess if our actions and habits are consistent with our guiding purpose, mission, and core values so that we can make course corrections when necessary. In this article, we'll explore several tried-and-true methods for regular and productive self-reflection that you can use to assess what's working well in your life, what you could do better, and what needs to change.
Practice the Productive Pause
Before he was a successful entrepreneur and executive and performance coach for several Fortune 500 companies, Jim Harshaw Jr. was an All-American wrestler at the University of Virginia. He then became the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I and guided many athletes to nationals and honors on the mat and in the classroom. So it’s fair to say that Jim knows his stuff when it comes to setting and achieving big goals. One of the keys to his success? Self-reflection.
On his website, Harshaw asserted that almost all of the high achievers he’s coached and interviewed practice some kind of habit that involves silence and heightened sense of self-awareness, such as meditation, prayer, and journaling. These are all daily activities that take time out from doing to focus on simply being and thinking. They are also unafraid to ask themselves tough questions to which they demand brutally honest answers. Harshaw advises his clients to begin this process with a technique that’s so potent he trademarked it: the productive pause™. He defines this as “A short period of focused reflection around specific questions that leads to clarity of action and peace of mind.”
Such queries should bring your past actions, your present habits, and your future intentions into alignment. For example, ask yourself if you’re doing something a certain way because it’s effective, or just because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Then ponder some alternative methods that you could try to see how they stack up against your existing way. Finally, set the intention to shake things up and then check back in to re-evaluate in a week or two to assess you’re getting on.
Ensure You’re Not Being Ruled by Passion
If you want to push yourself and achieve your full potential, it’s not enough to simply dream big or establish lofty targets, as important as these two stages are. To turn these aims into reality, you need to go all in and commit to showing up and working hard every day. This is where passion can come into play. When you’re truly passionate about something – whether that’s building a business, pursuing a lifestyle sport like surfing, climbing or running, or making a difference in your community – it provides a kind of long-lasting fuel that keeps you going through all the ups and downs and allows you to continue moving forward even when your motivation wanes.
Yet for all its benefits, being driven by passion and a deeper sense of purpose also has some pitfalls. “When you are in the throes of a passion, your ability to see beyond it often deteriorates,” Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg state in their compelling book The Passion Paradox. “As a result, you lose the power to choose how you want to spend your time and energy. Your passion controls you, rather than you controlling it.”
You can probably recall a time when something that really mattered to you started to minimize or consume everything else– like hobbies, the relationship with your significant other, or your friendships. Certainly, success requires ongoing sacrifice, and to commit fully to one thing, you may have to diminish or temporarily let go of other priorities. But if the flame of your overriding passion project starts to burn up everything else in your life, is it really worth pursuing? Fortunately, there is a way to become more moderate while still pushing hard toward your goals: regular self-reflection that increases your awareness of what you’re doing, why, and where you need to make adjustments to ensure your passion is sustainable.
“The key to protecting yourself from the intense inertia of passion lies in cultivating self-awareness,” Magness and Stulberg wrote. “Ironically, the best way to do so is to step back from yourself. Regularly self-distancing (thinking about a situation as if a friend is experiencing it, rather than yourself, or thinking/journaling in third person) and deliberately gaining perspective (by exposing yourself to awe, meditating, or reflecting on mortality) are two of the most effective ways to remain self-aware and maintain your ability to choose, even in the midst of pursuing a passion.”
Find Your Strengths
It’d be easy to dismiss self-reflection as a touchy-feely pursuit that yields little practical benefit. Yet some of the most influential thought leaders in the business world have identified a strong connection between becoming more self-aware and being more effective. One of these is management theorist Peter F. Drucker. In his classic book Managing Oneself, Drucker makes the case that developing self-mastery doesn’t start and end with you, but is actually a prerequisite for leading others well.
According to Drucker, one of the simplest ways to improve self-reflection and make it more actionable is to tie your goals, intentions, and behaviors to tangible outcomes through a process he calls feedback analysis. He suggested writing down several key decisions and actions and then predicting what you anticipate the results will be in a set period of time. Drucker then advised scheduling a check-in for nine months to a year hence, when you will “compare the actual results with your expectations.”
Performing such a feedback analysis not only allows you to identify blind spots in your thinking and to see how you need to adjust individual goals. It will also give you a clearer picture of what you’re best at and how you can harness this to focus your time and attention on making the most of your talents.
“Practiced consistently, this simple method will show you within a fairly short period of time, maybe two or three years, where your strengths lie—and this is the most important thing to know,” Drucker wrote. “The method will show you what you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths.”
In Ancient Greece, the writer Pausanias observed that the first maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was “Know thyself.” All these years later, this advice still holds true – before we can make sense of the world around us and our place in it, we must strive to understand ourselves. Whether you use one of the techniques we explored in this post or a combination of them all, establishing a consistent practice of self-reflection will enable you to become more self-aware, which you can then use to better self-regulate your thoughts and behaviors for your own benefit and the good of those around you.