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Reflect to Cement Everyday Learning

At ICMI, after every conference or symposium, the team will get together to go over what happened at the event and think of ways we can improve the next one. We do the same thing with any big project so that we can capture our learnings and deploy them to the next event or project. It is not an uncommon practice in business, and I expect that your company will do some "after-action debriefing" from time to time as well.

But do you take time to do your own reflection? I'm sure that the answer for some is yes and for others no, and some might say, "Who has time!" I contend that we all need to make the time. It is through reflection that we cement our learning, especially our informal learning.

I first began reflecting with a journal at the end of each workday ten years ago when I struggled to answer "Tell me about a time when…" questions during a job search. I'm terrible at coming up with specific answers to these questions on-the-fly and was trying to think of cases I could use ahead of time. I realized that if I just briefly wrote notes about my work day, I'd have lots of information to refresh my memory.

Journaling for self reflection

My purpose in journaling now is to learn from what happened each day. I try to spend the last 10-15 minutes of each workday writing in a journal about the day. Being intentional about this practice has caused me to gain new insights into ongoing issues and has helped reinforce the things I learn from experience. I don't do it every day, although I do try and succeed most days. Sometimes I've fallen out of the habit and have to restart again. I keep coming back to journaling because it helps me reflect and learn, and it helps me grow and get better at my work.

I only write (by hand) a page or two each day. I'm not trying to write down everything I've done that day but instead, focus on the important things. I also try to resist making it an extension of my to-do list - maintaining my to-do list is a separate daily practice for me. And I never share my work journal with anyone. These thoughts are only for me.

The process of learning can be boiled down to four areas. We learn:

  • through challenging experiences that stretch us
  • through practicing
  • through creative conversations that lubricate our learning and development
  • through taking the time for reflection

Without reflection, learning is hit and miss. Experience plus reflection creates learning that lasts and helps cement all the informal learning that happens for most of us every day.

One of my new reflection practices is taking an hour or so after every conference I attend to go over my notes and type up summaries that I can quickly pull up later. I try to do this as soon after attending the conference as possible, but sometimes it's a week before I can find the time. Still, I spend time going over my conference notes, pulling out the nuggets they contain, and finishing off the thoughts I only half-recorded at the time. In the long run, I expect this practice to help me get more out of the conferences I attend, and it makes it easier for me to share information with others while reinforcing my memory on those things that I wanted to follow-up on.

If you want to journal to reflect like I do, google "Reflection Template" or "Journal Template," and you will find hundreds of templates to get you started. What is critical is that you use a format that works for you, is not too time-consuming, and which helps you think more deeply about the day.

Do your "after action debriefs" with your team. This kind of reflection is essential. But don't neglect to develop a daily practice of personal reflection - whether through journaling or some other format that helps you to reflect on the day intentionally (at the end of each day, or first thing each morning). Over time, this practice will help you become a better leader and a better person. Reflection is one of the most effective development tools we have, so be sure to use it.

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