Many of us find ourselves going through life on autopilot, jumping through the hoops in front of us, focused on checking off items on our our to-do list. How often do you take a step back from your day to get a sense of where you’re headed and what all your work is building up to?
If the answer is not very often, you’re in good company. In our current culture, we are constantly bombarded with information. Many of us spend a significant chunk of our time consuming information, whether by watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading articles online.
Regardless of whether this information is valuable (and let’s be honest—much of it isn’t!), the relentless flow of content into our brains has a big downside: It leaves us no time to reflect.
What do we mean by reflection? Reflection is the pause between actions. Reflection occurs when we pull away from the process of doing something and instead evaluate how the process is going for us, how we feel about it, and whether there might be a way to do things a little better.
Reflection =/= Repetition
In a world where “being busy” is valued just as much as “doing important things,” being still for a few moments to take stock of where we are can feel like a waste of time. But in fact, the opposite is true: The elite performers in any field are the ones who prioritize reflection as a regular part of their development.
Let’s use professional athletes as an example. In every sport, from volleyball to ice hockey, athletes and their coaches make a regular practice of “reviewing the tape.” After games, meets, or matches, they’ll sit down, watch the video of the game, and discuss what they see to identify areas for improvement. Then they shape their next rounds of training to address those areas and make steady, significant gains in performance.
In other words, being at the top of your game isn’t about practicing what you’re good at. That’s repetition, and it’s certainly valuable. But being at the top of your game is more about identifying weaknesses and “working smart” to improve those areas. That’s called iteration, and it can only happen when you make time for reflection.
Now before we get ahead of ourselves talking about peak performance and elite athletes, we want to make it clear that we are not advocating pushing yourself beyond what you’re capable of in order to “be #1.” For most of us, that path creates intense pressure that just isn’t required for true success.
Benefits of Reflection
Everyone can benefit from the gifts of perspective and space. For students, reflection can help you refine your study process, decide which extracurriculars to pursue next year, or choose the honors courses that interest you the most.
Making room for reflection allows you to be deliberate about your choices. With reflection, the ways you choose to spend your time and energy will align with your values—what is most important to you. When your goals link up with what gives you purpose, the work of reaching those goals becomes less burdensome.
The pause created by reflection also allows for critical thinking. We all grow up absorbing certain narratives about who we should be—what we should study, which career we should pursue, etc.. These narratives can come from friends, family, local community, nationality, and the world at large. You may have accepted certain narratives about yourself before you had the opportunity to examine whether they aligned with your personal values and beliefs. Reflection provides the space to step back and look critically at those stories, understand whether they are useful, and potentially shed beliefs that don’t match the individual you are becoming.
Some of this might sound a little vague, so let’s bring things back down to earth for a moment with a concrete example of the power of reflection in action.
We recently had a student who began working with Signet to improve her study habits. She was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work she had to complete each night and didn’t know how to change her situation.
Before our tutor walked her through our signature study method (which you can learn about in our Guide to Successful Studying), the student was asked to reflect on her current study habits. What she shared was that she tried to get all of her work done on weekdays and didn’t do any work on the weekends. This might sound like a great plan, but in this student’s case it was leaving her tired and overworked.
As our tutor guided the student through this reflection, a simple solution emerged: She would shift some of her non-urgent homework load to the weekends. This change helped her get her assignments done more easily and with significantly less stress.
If you’re overwhelmed, we understand that it feels like the last thing you need is to pause and reflect on what you could do better. But the above example illustrates how doing exactly that can lead to major improvements in process, performance, or both.
How to Reflect
Whether reflection takes the form of a structured writing assignment or a freeform thought exercise, it can feel weird at first. It’s hard to break out of the mindset of “the way things are” to see other possibilities. Our advice is to try different methods. Eventually, you’ll find a process that works for you. That said, here are some of the basic outlines for reflection.
1. Complete a “big picture” reflection at least once a semester. We’ve created a Semester Reflection with guiding questions that can be downloaded right here.
2. We also recommend reflecting on a weekly basis. Where the Semester Reflection focuses more on long-term goals, a weekly reflection will focus more on processes. Ask yourself whether your current strategies are the best ones possible for reaching your goals, and consider adjustments to allow for continuous iteration and improvement.
3. Finally, learn to take pauses to reflect in the moment, particularly when you feel overwhelmed. Reflection in the moment can be as simple as asking two questions:
Is this important? Is the way I’m approaching this a good use of my time and effort?
Although everyone’s process will be unique, we recommend written reflection, especially longhand. Using a blank pad of paper or empty notebook to journal about a question often provides interesting and unexpected answers and insights about your priorities.
In some cases, it may help to go through the reflection process with a mentor. It is often difficult to reflect on our own lives: we tend to be caught up in living them! A tutor or mentor stands on the outside and can see alternate possibilities and paths forward, helping you frame your circumstances in a different way.
We call reflection a secret weapon because it’s about doing the opposite of what we think we need to do. When you reflect, you stop pushing ahead blindly and instead take a step back and give yourself space to gain a better sense of what needs to happen next. Students who can commit to a consistent process of reflection will be much more successful, not only at accomplishing their short-term tasks, but at reaching their long-term goals as well.