Using the technique of reflective thinking for exponential growth
Image by Ben White on Unsplash
As a self-labeled perfectionist, I am always on the go: doing, striving, and, many times I am proud to say, achieving the goals I set out to accomplish. However, as the years passed, I began to see subtle flaws created in my frenzied attempt to do more to gain more. Maybe at some point in your life, you have felt the same frustrations.
For instance, I noticed I was always trying to better my life by creating new habits or building new skills, but my course of action was too hastily made. For example, if I decided I needed to lose a few pounds, I wouldn’t actually think about strategy, I would develop a plan of attack at the moment, i.e. when I sat down at the table to eat. If I decided I wanted to exercise more, I would promise myself a trip to the gym three times a week and deal with the “when” “what” and “how long” of this goal when the day started.
The problem with this?
I was only thinking about actions. I wasn’t thinking about processes.
And having a well thought out process or strategy is the key to success.
This is where a really simple fact, learned through my study of pedagogy as a fledgling teacher, sparked a moment of genius.
The Secret to Success: Reflective Thinking
My problem was too much “doing” and not enough “thinking.” As a matter of fact, I needed to be thinking more about my own thinking. I needed to be thinking reflectively.
Sounds a bit befuddling, yes?
But reflective thinking simply means thinking strategically about what you are going to do, why you are going to do it this way, and how doing it this way will benefit you to the utmost.
It almost sounds too simple. We all think about what we do to some extent. But learning the technique of intense, focused reflective thought is a bit more involved, requiring careful planning and implementation.
I learned this technique because as a teacher, and the art of reflective thought is a major cornerstone of education.
For example, educational reformer John Dewey was a major proponent of reflective thought, discussing this in his book How We Think. He states that the “whole object of intellectual education is formation of logical disposition.”
What is this “logical disposition”? It is contemplation of things such as cause and effect, one’s own background knowledge, and how one can use this knowledge to either validate or eliminate possible courses of action.
He states that “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.”
As a teacher, I studied research and learned that students who reflect on their own learning make significantly more academic progress than those who don’t.
For example, researchers started studying the difference between students who simply made a plan for learning, such as say, the decision to study for a test, and students who pondered the process of studying and learning new information using reflective thought strategies.
The success of the latter method far-outweighed the first.
For example, students who thought reflectively pondered questions related to the “how” and “why” of study techniques. They asked themselves things such as “How will I study? Which strategies work best for me: long intense periods of study or shorter, more numerous study sessions? Which intelligences help me learn better: visual [such as pictures, graphs, or drawings], interpersonal [talking with the topic of study with others, study groups, etc] or other methods?”
Thought techniques such as these have proven in multiple studies to help students achieve faster, more substantial progress than those who do not think “reflectively” about their own learning.
But this technique is not only relevant to education. It can be applied to any situation in life. Let me show you how it worked for me in achieving a number of goals.
Reflective Thought in Action
As a writer who wanted to gain more notability, I often wrote article after article in hopes that one piece would “hit the bull’s eye” and compel a big audience.
However, my attempts were more like a frenzied housewife throwing random objects at an intruder who bursts unexpectedly through her front door. There was no method to my madness.
This is when I first started to experiment with applying reflective thinking strategies. [Actually, I was already using them without knowing it when I first began to think about how I tried to achieve growth and why it wasn’t working.]
I picked a favorite site on which I normally browse articles to read in my spare time. I paid special attention to my browsing. I let my eye wander down the page, noting internally which article titles held my eye, which of those titles “teased” me into clicking on them for reading, and which of those articles actually got me to read them in their entirety.
Then, I asked myself “why” those articles and not the others? What was the “X factor” that made one title or one opening paragraph more appealing?
I found a title that held my eye. It was called “Find Your Story’s Beating Heart” by Zach J. Payne.
I studied that title for a second, concluding that I was drawn to the metaphor of a story having a “beating heart.” Something about this poetic phrase lured me in.
But on further reflection, I made another observation. I clicked because the title was about writing. My hobby. The central focus of my goals at this moment in my life.
These reflective thoughts provided great benefit to me.
They taught me two things about my craft.
The first is that words matter, the clever turn of a phrase, a unique way of saying something that millions of other writers have already said in other terms. Maybe I would have clicked on “How to Make Your Story Exciting” or “How to Craft a Story to Achieve Reader Engagement,” but maybe not. The key, in this case, was the phrase “beating heart.” It appealed to the poet inside me.
The next thing I realized was also of great importance. Although the great title of that piece got my attention, what made me click was that I felt I could benefit from the topic. It related to me and my own desire to improve my writing.
What bit of wisdom did I glean from asking myself “why” I choose to look at and click on that one title out of a sea of titles? What did I gain from reflecting on my own thinking”?
I learned that ultimately, readers want something from a piece of writing. Information. Research. Emotional Validation.
I learned if you don’t “come bearing gifts” readers will pass your story by for more generous writers.
In this case, the amount of time I spent noticing and pondering my own actions and thinking was much more valuable than writing another article and “shooting in the dark.”
Because of this experience, I made a promise to myself to continue to approach my goals through the practice of reflective thought, consciously thinking ahead about strategy when approaching my goals and carefully evaluating my own reasoning behind what made a particular approach the best way to tackle a problem.
The lesson of this story?
Evaluate. Question. Plan. Use reflective thinking.
Reflective Strategies And How to Apply them
Step One: Identify a specific goal.
Perhaps you have heard the business acronym “SMART” goals? This means to create a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
Step Two: Gather and Reflect on Your Existing Knowledge of the Topic.
Before you plot out your plan of attack or path to achieving your goal, brainstorm everything you already know about the topic and yourself.
For example, reflect on what you have done in the past in reference to working towards this goal. Which parts of your past actions worked well, and which parts did not? What do you know about your own strengths and weaknesses in terms of meeting these goals or failing to meet these goals previously? Which goals did you meet and, more specifically, why they were successful? Also, ponder which goals you did not meet, and why you were unsuccessful.
For example, say your goal is to lose weight. Evaluate your past attempts. Determine your negotiables and your non-negotiables. What changes will be easy for you to make? What changes will be more difficult? Work with this knowledge.
For example, a few months ago, I started dieting. I loosely [and I do mean loosely] based my efforts around the idea of the Keto style of eating and used reflective thought strategies to “bend the rules” and make it work for me.
I researched this diet and selected parts of the philosophy I could implement and parts with which I thought I would have trouble. I looked back at my history of attempts to lose weight, and I also gathered my knowledge about what I knew about weight loss in general.
For one, I knew that less calories, sugar, and carbohydrates meant weight loss. This, no matter current diet trends, is an indisputable fact. I looked at my habits and at what I knew I could do easily. I focused specifically on the liquids I consumed: coffee, sweet tea, and sodas.
Every morning, I drink coffee. It is one of my non-negotiables. Usually, I drink a cup [or two] at home and then get my fix of Dunkin Donuts coffee on the way to work. I already made the change from sugary liquid creamer at home to powdered creamer, which has significantly fewer calories, sugar, and carbs, but I did treat myself to full cream and sugar coffee on the way to work. I looked up the calories in that one “treat” of delicious coffee a day: 190 calories a day. I did the math. Since I also had this wonderful concoction on the weekend, this amounted to 1330 calories a week. Since a pound is 3500 calories, doing without this one treat would amount to over a pound a month of weight loss. These reflections led to my first step: cut out this morning trip. I could still have my powdered coffee at home, so I felt this was something I could effectively implement.
I then reflected further on my dieting efforts. I was good at not drinking sugary sodas in the morning or at work, but when I got home, I usually allowed myself a soda or sweet tea at dinner and one more before I went to bed. A twelve-ounce Coke is 140 calories and 39 grams of carbohydrates. My two drinks equaled 280 calories daily and 78 carbohydrates.
I knew caffeine was a non-negotiable. [ I know its bad, but again, part of reflective thought involves knowing yourself and working with where you are at a particular moment in time.] I decided to drink unsweetened tea as a substitute for these sodas. I was still able to get my caffeine fix, but by making this change, I managed to eliminate another 1960 calories in a week and reduce my carbohydrates by over 546 grams.
Add this to the nixed cup of coffee and in one week I would shave 3290 calories a week, which is almost a pound a week.
Finally, I looked at my last non-negotiable. [Here I go again confessing.] I usually have an evening drink to relax after work. It usually consisted of Goldschlager, which comes in at 103 calories and 11 carbs. If I had vodka instead, which has 64 calories and 0 carbs, I would shave even more calories and carbs. This change would eliminate another 273 calories a week and 77 carbs. I made the switch.
Using the powers of reflective thought, I managed to plan and lose a pound a week and didn’t even change my actual eating habits. [Since this point, I have made changes in my diet using the same reflective strategies, but I also knew at that moment, I would be overwhelmed with too many changes, so I stuck to changing only my liquid diet.]
By thinking reflectively, I kept the ability to have my “treats” and “non-negotiables” but did so in a way that allowed me to also work towards achieving my goals.
In two months, I lost 9 pounds. At my starting weight of 130 pounds, this was a significant amount of progress. More importantly, it came from changes I could sustain and live with.
This is the beauty of reflective thought. It allows you to utilize your knowledge of yourself and your past to implement positive change in a way that is reasonable and tailored to your own unique personality, lifestyle, and needs.
Step Three: Focus specifically on skill and process development.
- Use the standard “5 W’s” to develop a carefully thought out action plan.
What are you going to do? How exactly are you going to do it? When specifically will you perform the action? Why are you going to do it at this time and in this specific way?
- Be very specific and question yourself about every choice you make. Evaluate your own thinking.
Let’s say for instance that, like me, you are a writer and want to produce more quality writing.
Obviously, you may say, “practice makes perfect,” so you decide you want to write more. You decide on a SMART goal of writing at least three times a week.
First steps may involve thinking about when will you be able to accomplish this goal. Maybe you decide at first thought that you want to get up two hours earlier in the morning and write.
But wait. Reflect. Are you a notorious night owl? Is getting up early each morning a task of monumental pain? Perhaps this plan is not the best.
Research has shown that we each need to work with our own biological clock to be at peak performance levels.
Thinking about this, you decide to write later on in the evening.
Wait. Reflect again. Let’s say you are a mom, and your evenings are filled with dinner, homework, or chauffeuring your children to gymnastics or football practice.
When will you find the time to write with so many other tasks to be accomplished?
Perhaps your plan of attack is to order take-out or pizza or make a previously prepared meal that you can just stick in the oven on the three days you decide you will make time to write in the evenings. This thinking ahead strategy alone will give you an extra forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes three times a week adds up to 135 minutes.
What about the times you must pick-up and drop-off the kids to practice?
While they are practicing could you simply stay at the location or find a nice cafe three minutes away to order a coffee, pull out your laptop, and write uninterrupted? If the practice is twice a week and an hour-long, you have gained two more hours to write.
Altogether, by thinking reflectively about the problem at hand, your two strategies have afforded you an extra four hours a week to write.
This is what the technique can do for you and your goals.
Step Four: Reflect, Assess, and Revise
After a short period of time, look back at the changes you implemented. Were they effective? Do they need tweaking? Question again how you can better revise your initial course of action to accomplish your specific goal.
The Bottom Line:
Sometimes we are so eager to get to our destination that we simply crank up the car and start driving. But understanding and acknowledging the old army adage that “proper planning and practice prevents piss poor performance” will help us get to our destination more quickly. Reflective thinking is the way to do this. It allows us to find the quickest route to our desired location and avoid any roadwork or traffic jams along the way to our best lives.
Here’s wishing you happy planning, thinking, and driving on the road to your dreams.
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