Creating a Rhythm of Reflection

November 3, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Resource

Perhaps you have been reading our series on reflection and thinking, “All of this sounds great and I’d love to do more reflection, but how? How can I engage in more reflection when I am so busy that I skip meals or collapse into bed at night with my clothes on?” Everyone has to start somewhere and wanting to create space for reflection is the best first step to actually doing it. 

The good news is that it does not take much to begin seeing the positive impacts of reflection in our lives. A Harvard Business School study found that call center trainees who reflected on their training experience for only 15 minutes at the end of the day, instead of receiving an additional 15 minutes of training, outperformed their non-reflective peers by 22% on their final assessment tests.

In a follow-up study, the same researchers found that participants who reflected for only 3 minutes on their experience solving brain teaser puzzles, instead of taking that time to practice, solved more puzzles than those who practiced for those additional minutes. Granted, our lives are more complicated than brain teasers, but it still demonstrates that reflection, even in small doses, can have measurable effects.

So then, what’s next? How can we carve out space for reflection in our already overtaxed schedules? I believe it is a matter of discovering a rhythm that works for you and your lifestyle. Think of swinging on a swing—it can be very difficult to get things going at first, and you really have to move your body to get some momentum going if you are starting from a standstill. But once you start pumping your legs and the swing begins to move back and forth, even a little bit with each arc, no matter how tiny, it gets easier to go higher and higher. 

Tips for Finding Your Rhythm

In the same way, getting into a rhythm of reflection takes a bit of effort at first, but becomes easier as you find your groove. Here are a few tips to consider if you’re just getting started or struggling to create space for reflection:

Ditch the perfectionism. If you are an Enneagram 3 or your top CliftonStrength is Achiever, this tip might be particularly relevant. But even those of us who are not gifted in this manner can be prone to the mentality of “I’m gonna NAIL this reflection thing!” to make it feel worth doing. Some would say, “Practice makes perfect,” but when it comes to reflection I think a more fitting mantra is, “Something is better than nothing.” Did you get halfway through a journal entry before you got interrupted or fell asleep? Congratulate yourself and circle back later. The key is to keep going, even if it did not turn out the way you planned.  

Start small. Rome was not built in a day, and neither are rhythms of reflection. BJ Foggs, a Stanford researcher, developed a powerful technique called Tiny Habits and it’s perfect for developing a new rhythm of reflection. 

To summarize, find an anchor habit you already have, say, getting your morning coffee. Then trim your new habit down to something tiny, such as writing ONE sentence in your journal (or even just getting your journal out and opening it on your desk!), and attach it to your anchor habit. So your Tiny Habit would be: “After I get my morning coffee, I will sit down and write one sentence in my journal.” The last step is celebrating—with a fist pump, a pat on the back, texting a friend to give a virtual high five, etc. It may feel silly at first, but his research shows this last step is crucial! Then you eventually work up to two sentences, then five minutes, and then more. Before you know it, you have a new rhythm of reflection in your life!

There’s an app for that. Unsurprisingly, there are a plethora of apps to help you jumpstart a rhythm of reflection. The Examen prayers in Pray As You Go, Examen Prayer, and Reimagining the Examen are helpful tools for reviewing your day or week. 3 Good Things and other gratitude apps are a quick and easy way to reflect on blessings. Journaling apps like Prompted Journal not only give you space to record your thoughts, but will offer prompts if you don’t know what to reflect on. Finally, meditation apps like Headspace offer guided reflections (and student/family pricing as well). Reflective Prayer isn’t an app, but a website that will lead you in prayer and reflection. Use tools like these in conjunction with the aforementioned Tiny Habits technique to get the ball rolling.

Think outside the box (or, in this case, the notebook). Journaling is typically the go-to method of reflection, but it’s not the only one. Going for walks (labyrinths are particularly suited to reflection) or a swim—any physical activity that does not require a great deal of mental concentration or focus is a perfect vehicle for reflection (bonus points if it involves bilateral movement). Verbally processing your reflections over coffee with a friend, or making an appointment with a spiritual director or therapist, are powerful ways to reflect outside of journaling.

Have someone force you. Okay, not really. But discovering an online monthly semi-silent retreat became a transformational, anchoring catalyst in my rhythm of reflection. Whereas I struggled to do anything regularly on my own, I found it incredibly helpful for me to attend an event like a retreat, where I could join others seeking to create a reflective space every month. Although building in daily reflection time was basically impossible for my personality, I could commit to one morning a month when I knew others would be there too.

Over time, I found the monthly experiences so life-giving. They had a trickle-down effect, leading me to establish a rhythm of a weekly sabbath with a shorter time of reflection. Eventually, it also had a trickle-up effect: In true BJ Foggs-form, it led me to take a larger next step. This summer, my life season finally allowed me to attend an eight-day silent retreat. Experiencing God in an extended time of deeper, undisturbed reflection not only renewed my soul in a life-altering manner, it refueled my commitment to embedding rhythms of reflection in my life.

Sometimes starting small might mean starting big, like getting away to a retreat and doing a life reset. Or starting small might actually mean starting small, like answering one reflective question a day. Whatever the method or frequency, all that matters is that you start somewhere—and then keep pumping your legs on that swing. How will you start today?

Banner image by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash.

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