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How to Use Reflection to Bring Out Your Best in the New Year

Can you imagine not opening a gift you were given? Each new year offers an advantage of perspective - through reflection only created by time. Like looking at a year-in-review photo montage on your social media feed, forgotten projects that seemed all-consuming at the moment appear with a new perspective. Even with unwanted crises in business and life, reflection offers a gift. Without reflection, perspectives quickly become blurred in a fast-paced workplace with potentially devastating consequences. Reflection facilitates learning, provides perspective on self-limiting beliefs when used purposefully, and improves productivity. Here are four good practices and three powerful tools to help leaders unwrap reflection.

Why Reflection Makes A Big Difference

Effective reflection involves the ability to doubt, pause, and be curious even about the ordinary.

The practice of reflection provides a path to deeper understanding. It enables leaders to consider and learn about underlying contexts and causes for results.

Evidence suggests spending 15 minutes a day improves productivity by as much as 23% more than those without reflection time. Researchers found the benefit of additional experience is inferior to deliberately translating and organizing previously accumulated experiences.

Sometimes reflection creates discomfort and conflict at an individual and organizational level as leaders wrestle with self-limiting beliefs and failure. However, leaders risk repeating bad decisions that could prove disastrous without considering alternate viewpoints. The best mindset to adopt is not to let a past difficult situation go to waste.

By three methods, we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. Confucius

Biases are always present but not always visible. Leadership is about recognizing and leveraging the gap between stimulus and response to make a choice rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Reflection plays an essential role in a leader becoming aware of biases and making better choices.

Reflection improves critical thinking capacity. Critical thinking is the ability to use cognitive skills and strategies to increase the probability of the desired outcome when problem-solving. Critical thinking helps leaders navigate complex and ambiguous situations common in every business. It is proven to be more than a nice-to-have skill. Critical thinking improves communication, decision-making, and problem-solving necessary for companies to increase revenue and reduce costs.

The role of individual traits in reflection

Our inner game is quietly controlling our outer game in life and work. Like a computer operating system governs the computer's processing capability, our internal traits and attributes influence our external behaviors and habits.

The following traits assist the ability for purposeful reflection that facilitates learning:

  • Open-mindedness: The desire to listen to other points of view and recognize that even the most strongly held beliefs may be questioned. Open-minded leaders have very few ideas that cannot be changed.

  • Responsibility: The desire to pursue truth and apply it today to day situations.

  • Wholeheartedness: A sincere attitude toward the critical evaluation of themselves and others. An unwavering commitment to make necessary changes and overcome the fear of failure.

Conversely, narcissists generally lack the empathetic self-reflection necessary to facilitate self-reflection. While we all possess narcissism to some degree, if you are worried that you might be too much of a narcissist, relax; you probably are not.

4 Reflection good practices

Reflection can be used on past actions, in situations as they occur, and for activities you might take in the future. To make the most of reflecting on this past year, consider the following tips:

Reflection Good Practice #1: Schedule your time

This is a potentially obvious point, but crucial. Planning is often the most significant barrier to reflection. You get too busy or distracted and move on to the next thing before reflecting. It doesn't have to be a lot of time, but I recommend scheduling at least 20 minutes in a quiet place.

Reflection Good Practice #2: Narrow your focus

Let's be honest; it is hard for most of us to remember last week, much less last year. Rather than considering the whole year, break the year into periods or quarters. Then focus on that each segment of time separately.

Reflection Good Practice #3: Structure your questions

Taking a strategic approach helps identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. The following powerful questions taken from an after-action review process used by the military provide a structure for your reflection:

  • What was expected to happen?

  • What occurred?

  • What went well and why?

  • What can be improved and how?

Reflection Good Practice #4: Adopt a strengths mindset

It is easy to be drawn to what is not right and focus on your weaknesses during reflection. Having a balanced focus is not about ignoring weaknesses but prioritizing, pursuing, and leveraging strengths and opportunities to bring out your best. Consider what strengths contributed to your success.

A practical way to discover your strengths is by using strength-based assessments. The VIA Character Strengths Survey and the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment are two of the most scientifically backed and relatively low-cost strength-based quantitative evaluations. These assessments can be completed online and provide development recommendations and support materials.

  • For more information regarding the VIA Character Strengths Survey, please go to

  • For more information regarding the CliftonStrengths Assessment, please go to

By setting aside dedicated time for reflection, focusing on specific experiences or events, using prompts to guide your thinking, and adopting a strengths mindset, you can use reflection to become a more effective and self-aware leader.

3 Powerful reflection tools

Here are three proven tools to enhance your reflection on experiences and actions, identify areas for growth and improvement, and learn from both your successes and challenges:

Powerful Reflection Tool #1: Journaling

Use a journaling app like Day One to capture your thoughts, feelings, successes, and frustrations. This approach is demonstrated to be incredibly impactful on leader-follower relationships, clarity of purpose, and improving new skills. Like building any habit, start small and tie it to an existing practice, like your routine, before you leave the office for the day.

Powerful Reflection Tool #2: Follower feedback

Critical reflection should be a social process. It is proven to be most successful when collaborative. Leaders need to understand how followers perceive their actions. Using a leadership 360 assessment is one proven tool to improve critical reflection. These assessments typically gather feedback from their leader, peers, and direct reports allowing comparisons between themselves and others. This is one leadership assessment you need to be using.

Powerful Reflection Tool #3: Thought leadership

Books, articles, and assessments on leadership can enable leaders to examine a particular situation from different points of view, supporting critical reflection. Thought leadership grounded in research provides leaders with proven solutions that can be applied and short-cycle the learning process. If you are not a skilled speed reader, you may be surprised that you can learn how to read a book in an hour. Like any skill, there are tips and tricks to increase your speed and retention. Here is a bonus link to an assembled collection of my top five favorite books from thought leaders on change management, coaching, culture, innovation and creativity, leadership style, servant leadership, and strategic planning.

Being reflective facilitates learning to continuously improve and bring out your best. What is the real challenge for you to have a better year than the one you just had?


Densten, I. L., & Gray, J. H. (2001). Leadership development and reflection: What is the connection? International Journal of Educational Management, 15(3), 119-124.

Di Stefano, Gino, F., Pisano, G. P., & Staats, B. R. (2016). Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning. IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc.

Gardner, S. & Albee, D. (2015). Study focuses on strategies for achieving goals,

resolutions. Dominican University of California.

Helyer, R. (2015). Learning through reflection: the critical role of reflection in work-based learning (WBL). Journal of Work-Applied Management.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0, Gallup Press.


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I hope you enjoy reading this blog post.

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Are you ready to make this year your best ever?

Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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