The power of reflection

A man at a staring out of the window to illustrate the power of reflection

Information overload can leave time-poor business leaders even more drained and prone to flawed decision-making. But regularly taking time out for reflection can be as restorative as a good night’s sleep, writes neuroscience expert Mandy Geal

How many times did you check your work emails on holiday? The modern world of work is connected 24/7, creating constant pressure to keep in touch and up to date. As a business leader you face unending streams of information, opinions, and crises. Your challenge is to select what is important, but instead of deciding what to do, you have to decide what to ignore. This drains time, attention and energy.

The problem with never switching off is that your brain has to remain switched on. To do this it produces cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, which raids the cells in the body for energy and stimulates the fight/flight/freeze response as if there were an immediate threat. This is bad news for the body and mind.

Too much cortisol causes fatigue, cravings for sweet food (or that extra glass of wine), digestive problems, obesity, increased blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. Excess cortisol short-circuits and distorts the signals in your brain, rather like noisy feedback from an electric guitar – you simply don’t get the data in the areas where you focus and think.

As a consequence you may suffer from irritability, loss of concentration, forgetfulness, poor sleep and, ultimately, anxiety and depression. No wonder there is a steady increase in reported mental health issues at work.

There is an additional consequence for you as a business leader: the stress of keeping switched on can lead to poor thinking, bad judgement and knee-jerk reactions. So what can you do about it?

The habit of reflection

It makes sense to create the right environment for your brain to work at its best. In order to select what is important and relevant, to consider short and long-term factors, and to weigh up risk and opportunity effectively, you need perspective. This enables informed thinking, insightful problem-solving and enlightened decision-making. How do you achieve this perspective? By creating the habit of reflection.

In essence, reflection is an activity in which you ‘recapture’ your experience, think about it, and evaluate it with the goal of improving future performance. In physical terms, this means engaging your ‘rest and digest’ system instead of your ‘fight and flight’ system: cortisol is replaced by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which calms your breathing, slows your heartbeat, aids digestion, and enables your body to repair and renew itself.

Signals in your brain flow easily and connect your senses, experiences, and memories to the areas of language and higher cognition. Sounds useful? It certainly is – in fact, recent neuroscience research indicates that undisturbed reflection can be as restorative as a good night’s sleep.

The steps of reflection

Step 1: Recall the experience you wish to evaluate

• Turn off your phone or laptop for a few minutes

• If possible, move to a different spot – changing your physical location helps you to think differently

• Sit or stand up straight, relax your shoulders and put your feet flat on the floor

• Take a few deep, slow breaths

• Imagine you are observing yourself in the third person, as if on a TV screen

• Rerun the experience you wish to reflect upon, noticing how you and other people acted, spoke, and appeared

Step 2: Relate to your feelings

This has three aspects:

• Using positive feelings

• Removing negative feelings

• Containing the negative impact on you

Why do this? Emotion has a huge impact on what you are thinking. Your brain selectively recalls experiences that match your present emotional state – for example, when feeling anxious, your brain recalls previous anxious memories and how you dealt with those situations.

It does this with the intention of helping you to take action based on what you learnt from those experiences, but this has the side effect of causing you to predict that you will also feel anxious in future situations.

This establishes a pattern of feelings and thoughts. You may not be aware that your perception of the future is being distorted by your present feelings, and simply believe that you cannot cope. Fortunately, this process of extrapolation also works for positive feelings, such as confidence, curiosity and trust.

In principle, negative feelings inhibit your perception (remember the cortisol) and distort your perspective. Positive feelings enhance your perception and increase your perspective. It is therefore essential to put negative feelings aside so that you can consider things more objectively. This requires regular practice.

Step 3: Re-evaluate your experience 

Consider what you achieved and whether your approach worked with respect to your goal. Keep an open mind and be honest with yourself. Here are some tips:

• Question what, why and how you – and others – do things

• Compare and contrast approaches

• View the situation from the other person’s perspective

• Consider the consequences of what you did

• Identify and resolve problems

Step 4: Re-learning 

You learn new habits by remembering and repeating what you did and feeling good about it; this reinforces the network of connections in your brain, like treading a path into a field of tall grass. Remembering what you did badly reinforces the wrong behaviours, and damages your confidence – you learn what not to do. Instead, ask yourself: “What could I do differently next time?”

For your brain, the information bombardment of the modern workplace is like trying to find your way out of a dark room crammed full of people and noise, with random lights and images flashing wherever you look. It’s a nightmare. Now, remove the people, turn on the light, and make it quiet. Take a deep breath and give yourself space and time to think. How much better is that? That’s the power of reflection.

Find out more about applied neuroscience in the workplace at Partners is run by IoD Advance member Elva Pearson.

See also

Cortisol: tame the stress hormone 

About author

Mandy Geal

Mandy Geal

Mandy Geal is the director of Learning Partners, which offers consulting, coaching, and training services to improve clients' performance and productivity. She is certified in neuroscience and psychometrics.

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