by Susan McCarthy
When you’re trying to get things done, whether it’s decluttering your home or starting a side gig, it’s easy to devote a lot of your attention to what needs to get done. You want to make progress, so it makes sense that you focus on steps that move you forward.
Personally, I love making to-do lists (even though I know they aren’t the most productive system for accomplishing goals). If I didn’t accomplish what was on my to-do list, I’d just add it to the next day’s list. (And sometimes, the next day’s and the next day’s, shifting increasingly stale breadcrumbs that were supposed to show me the path to follow.)
I finally had to acknowledge that some weren’t going to get done unless I changed my tactics. So instead of continuing to focus on the next step, I decided that I needed to add a component of reviewing and reflecting upon what I was doing (and not doing).
Yes, every planner I’d ever used included spaces to review and reflect on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis but I’d tended to brush over these tasks. After all, I’d done what I’d done and if I didn’t accomplish something, then I needed to focus on the future and not the past.
I recently realized that I’d been bumping along the same task for over three weeks. Yes, on occasion, I’d give it some effort, but not enough to see progress of any sort. I was stuck and pushing the task along from day-to-day was simply a distraction. It looked like I was going to do the work, but I didn’t.
In a mixture of annoyance and curiosity, I did what I’d been ignoring – I took the time to review and reflect upon what I was doing and more important, what I wasn’t doing.
The Benefit of Reflecting
Reviewing and reflecting on the past helps you learn from the past. Let me clarify what I mean by reviewing and reflecting because I used to view it as rumination, you know, running through the same thought over and again.
One of the reasons I’d been dismissing reflection was that its only purposed seemed to be to dwell on the past. Sure, I’d see something that hadn’t worked, get upset about the waste of time, and then decide it would be more effective to push through these errors and focus on what I could do. After all, I couldn’t undo the past.
And, no, you can’t. However, reflection creates space for you to see what worked and what didn’t so you can move forward effectively.
You stay focused on what you want to accomplish. When you’re working toward a goal, chances are that you plan to take some action toward that goal each day. Even a few minutes of reflection at the end of the workday helps you to determine what you did and if it’s moving you forward.
If you didn’t accomplish what you thought you would, reflection creates a buffer before you simply move the task to the next day’s to-do list.
You avoid getting ruled by distractions. It’s very easy to get caught up in all the small things that demand to get done over the course of the day. We’re busy so we might not notice that we're procrastinating instead of being productive until we fall into bed thinking of everything that we must do the next day and we find ourselves asking the question, “what did I do all day?”
You know you did something, but in retrospect, you realize that it wasn’t all that important. But mulling over these things in bed does little more than to leave you frustrated. Taking the time to deliberately review your day helps you see what things call your attention away from your bigger goals…and allows you to plan what to do when those distractions come at you the next day.
You shake off negative patterns. Review gives you the space to question if your actions for the day show a pattern of behavior. If you focus on what you’re doing and what needs to get done, you might not see that you are repeating negative patterns and making the same mistakes as in the past.
Review might help you notice that you agree to other’s requests for your time without considering your own needs first. Or you might see that you don’t pause to evaluate if a task or project is more important than other things you want to get done before you jump into action.
You sidestep negative opinions. Maybe you have naysayers in your life who don’t think you should work toward a goal. They may be a source of some of the distractions and urgent requests that limit your time to work toward what’s important to you.
Regular reflection will help you notice that, no, it’s not just in your mind that this person (or group) is trying to control where you focus your energy and attention. This will allow you to create a plan for dealing with their distracting opinions.
You see that you’re on the wrong path before you go too far. I have a horrible sense of direction when it comes to driving. (Even with GPS I’ll still misinterpret the directive to take the next right by thinking that I should take the right turn after the one I’m about to drive past.) Fortunately, GPS will call you out for a wrong turn almost immediately and get you back on the correct road, even if that means taking a detour.
Reviewing your day shows you that you’re going off track before you go too far into that interesting project that grabbed your attention even though it’s taking you away from the goal you’d already identified.
How to Add Review and Reflection into Your Day
Don’t save doing a review until the end of the year or even the end of a quarter. Doing a daily review doesn’t have to take a lot of time and provides a quick check-in before you get pulled off track for days (instead of hours). I've provided a few prompts below, but remember that you'll be more productive when you use the methods that work for you.
If you like to write, jot down a sentence or two in response to the following questions. If you prefer to talk, then talk to an accountability buddy or make a video of your reflection (you don’t have to post or share this).
I’d suggest doing something active over simply thinking about your answers to the questions. This will help you stay focused and motivated. To avoid reflection from becoming a distraction, you could set a timer. Keep your answers brief. If you enjoy and find benefit to reflecting on your day, you could spend more time reviewing your week, month, quarter, or year while incorporating a planning element to keep you moving forward.
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Hi, I'm Susan.
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