One of the most frequent comments I am hearing in my coaching sessions is “It’s just great to have some time and space to reflect.” It seems that reflection time is in very short supply at present and this is concerning.
Why is reflection so important?
Neuroscience tells us that two major networks operate in our brain. One is the task-positive network, which operates when we perform attention-demanding tasks, e.g. contributing in a meeting or working on a spreadsheet. The other is the default mode network, which operates when we are in periods of ‘wakeful rest’.
The relationship between the task-positive network and the default mode network is mutually exclusive, i.e. when one is engaged, the other cannot be (Jack et al, 2013).
Have you ever wondered why you get your best ideas when you are doing something completely unconnected to work? Chopping vegetables for dinner can be a particularly enlightening time for me and it’s no coincidence that Archimedes had his ‘Eureka!’ moment whilst taking a bath. This is because these insights, literally when new synapses start firing together, happen in the default mode network, i.e. when we are in ‘wakeful rest’. So, in order to perform at our optimum level and make our best decisions, we need to deliberately build in down-time, because that’s when the insights happen.
Research has consistently shown that when individuals engage in structured reflection their critical and objective thinking improves. They are more confident to challenge (both themselves and others), team management is improved and the ability to cope with change is enhanced (Rowe et al, 2020). There is specific evidence of individual reflective practice directly influencing organisational change (Boud and Rooney, 2015), whilst getting into the habit of reflecting-on-action makes reflecting-in-action more instinctive – a crucial factor in enhancing self-awareness and performance.
What is stopping us from reflecting?
Various factors get in the way of prioritising reflection. Despite the neuroscientific evidence, we often believe that if we keep our noses pressed firmly to the grindstone, enlightenment will come. Further, our action-biased, ‘always on’ work cultures can cause us to feel that it is a luxury to take time to reflect on discussions, consolidate learning, and consider alternative courses of appropriate and sustainable action. It is not.
Most significantly, for many the barriers are rooted in deeply held beliefs and values around ‘honest hard work’ and assumptions that it’s the hours we put in that are important (rather than the outcomes we achieve). Recent research has shown that individuals who view leisure time as wasteful or unproductive gain significantly less benefit from it (Tonietto et al, 2021).
How coaching can help
Coaching can help at two levels. A coaching session in itself provides a client with the opportunity to reflect and encourages “reflection at a deeper lever than possible independently”, to quote a recent MF client. After all, you are working with someone who is qualified and experienced in helping you to reflect and whose role it is to actively listen to and play back your thoughts, to move you toward your goals.
At a deeper level, coaches can work with clients on how they go beyond simply crashing through their punishing to-do lists, to build in more space for reflection and allow time for exercise, yoga, mindfulness, family – whatever is going to drive sustainable change.
This week I coached a client who stated that she needed to ‘carve out’ more time for reflection and wellbeing. I played back her use of the words ‘carve out’, which suggested that a) this was going to be an intricate operation requiring sharp tools and b) it would be to the detriment of work (the ‘carvee’). Our subsequent coaching conversation centred around how she wanted to shift her mindset to view work and wellbeing as complementary, rather than a zero-sum equation.
Another of my clients chooses to come to my home office precisely because the drive through the countryside provides her with the opportunity to reflect and get into the right space for coaching. Once here, we often go ‘walking coaching’ which she finds particularly stimulating and inspiring. Walking coaching provides several of the most powerful ingredients for encouraging reflection: exercise, being in nature and an attentive listener (blood flow to the brain increases when someone pays us their undivided attention, Kline (2015)).
So, if you’re ever walking on the North Downs and you hear someone yell ‘Eureka!’, you’ll know what’s going on! Such is the power of reflection and coaching.
Thank you for reading this article. Now, instead of moving on to the next item on your to-do list, take five minutes to reflect.
What struck you? How did you respond – emotionally, physiologically – while reading it? What connections did you make? What relevance does it have for you? And what are you going to do to build reflection time into your schedule in future?
Finding out more
To learn more about how Management Futures coaching packages can support you with your reflection and enhance your performance, contact us on 020 7928 4841 or info@management futures.co.uk
Boud D. and Rooney, D. (2015). What can higher education learn from the workplace? In Dailey-Herbert, A. and Dennis K. S. (Eds.) Transformative Perspectives and Processes in Higher Education, Springer, New York, USA, 195-209.
Jack, A.I., Dawson, A.J., Begany, K.L., Leckie, R.L., Barry, K.P., Ciccia, A.H. and Snyder, A.Z., (2013). fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. Neuroimage, 66C, 385-401.
Kline, N., (2015). More Time to Think. Cassell. London
Rowe, N., Moore, L., and McKie, P. (2020). The Reflective Practitioner: the challenges of supporting Public Sector Senior Leaders as they engage in reflective practice. Higher Education, Skills and Workbased Learning, 10(5), 783-798.
Tonietto, G.N., Malkoc, S.A., Walker Reczek, R. and Norton, M.I. (2021). Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 97, 104198.