It’d be safe to say that we’ve never faced so much input into our brains as a species as we do today. The tiny supercomputer in my pocket sent me two news alerts, a direct message on Instagram and a notification that someone else liked someone else’s tweet on Twitter, between me finishing that first sentence and starting this current one. And before I finish the next two paragraphs I’ll have had two more pings or beeps either from the laptop where I’m typing this now, the phone sat next to me on the table or the watch on my wrist, which is linked to both but has it’s own unique set of alerts.
Responding to those alerts as they appear throughout the day might lead me into an email conversation about a piece of work that I’m doing. And, even if my computer is tucked away in my bag, say at 7pm this evening, I’ll still be able to respond to the conversation as the email chain will be in the email app on my phone. An alert might trigger a set of events which leads me to scroll through 1,000-odd posts from people that I follow on Twitter, or remind me to put the bin out on Wednesday evening when I get home from work. But they will always typically provoke a response or disturb a task. The notifications exist to demand my attention.
Even when we’re not alerted to look at things, our phones are always there to be called upon to fill the time in between things. Things like the the time between us getting from home to the bus stop, or the bus journey itself. Or when we’re on the toilet, in between tasks at our desks or putting our children down to sleep for the night. We might all check our phones in the pub, at dinner or as we sit together to settle down for the evening. We probably will. And there’s always new news for us to read, even in the dead of night when we can’t sleep – somewhere is awake and the broadcast machine will be working there.
From time to time I remind myself of the inside cover of a Gil Scott Heron CD I bought a little while back (I’m New Here was the album), and the clear instructions it gave me for how I should properly listen to it for the first time:
“There is a proper procedure for taking advantage of any investment, music for example. Buying a CD is an investment.
To get the maximum you must:
Listen to it for the first time under optimum conditions.
Not in your car or on a portable player through a headset.
Take it home.
Get rid of all distractions (even her or him).
Turn off your cell phone.
Turn off anything that rings or rattles or beeps or whistles.
Make yourself comfortable.
Play your CD.
Listen all the way through.
Think about what you got.
Think about who would appreciate this investment.
Decide if there is someone to share this with.
Turn it on again.
And so it is for taking the time to reflect. It’s an investment in yourself: time alone to think, to properly digest and process the days, weeks, months and years behind you, to check in, and ask ‘how do I feel?” And it’s important that you do.
Every day presents a different set of challenges for us to face; a different set of emotions for us to feel in response to the things that happen around us, maybe a tough conversation to have, or even a word or two left unsaid. The chances are that a lot happens in your days – it’s said that the human brain (the supercomputer you get for free at birth) makes 35,000 decisions per day. That’s a lot of real life stuff, and that’s before the 10,000 notifications from the supercomputer you bought. How did you feel about all of the things that happened to you? Have you asked yourself? When will you make that time?
Reflection is a practice, rather than a specific technique. Done properly, it becomes an important and valuable ritual and routine, much like getting dressed for the day, having a morning coffee, walking the dog or brushing your teeth at night. You might even spend the time whilst doing those things practicing reflection.
Journaling has been a popular way for people to check in with their mind and the multitude of things in it for thousands of years, and it’s having something of a revival of late. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the amount of input we get from our devices and the growing amount of research that shows a number of positive effects for the mental and physical health of those who keep them.
The act of sitting and writing about how you felt as the day passed helps you to clearly see your thoughts and feelings written down. It’s much easier to work out why you felt the way you did if you’re fully aware of the feelings, thoughts and clearly identify the source of them. But writing these down also helps to soften these emotions and thoughts – to help you to reduce the strength of feelings or thoughts, to more easily rationalise them. All of this works together to help calm your mind, to help you see and therefore better understand yourself, your decisions, your mind.
Over time, this collection of micro-stories, from good and bad days, creates patterns, which helps with decision making. It builds up resilience as you unload your emotional baggage to more easily pick through it. It helps you see how your relationships affect your mental state and how certain situations make you feel – meaning you can more easily act upon these things before they arise. It can also help you to better understand how your actions affect the other people in your life.
Depending how you journal, there are a myriad of other benefits. If you want to develop a more positive attitude, try listing three things that you’re grateful for every morning, or writing about a great experience you had in the day. If you want to make a change in your life, use your journal to make your intentions clear and the steps you’ll have to make and track your progress as you go.
The positive health benefits of journaling extend to your physical health. Journaling is known to reduce stress and anxiety, which when left uncontrolled lead to physical ailments. An early study into the benefits of journaling by Dr. James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas, Austin, asked 46 healthy college students to write about either trivial topics or personally traumatic events for 15 minutes for four consecutive days. In the six months following the trial, the participants who wrote about traumatic events visited the campus health centre and used pain relief less frequently than those who wrote about trivial things.
Another ancient reflection tool, mindfulness meditation, requires no phones, paper or pens at all – just a bit (or in my case, a lot) of quiet. People have been meditating for millennia – the earliest recording of it dates back to 1500BC.
Mindfulness is the ability to exist in the present, fully aware of what you’re doing, where you are in life, the things happening around you and your emotions and feelings. Mindfulness meditation is about taking the time to exist calmly and quietly and focus on the present moment, as a way to develop mindfulness. Practised regularly, it can help to reduce anxiety and stress, increase focus and make you more aware of your thoughts and feelings and more able to quieten them.
Whilst you don’t need your phone to practice mindful meditation, it’s how millions of people (people like me) are being drawn to the practice using apps like Headspace and Calm which offer guided meditation, wherever and whenever you need it – if you have enough battery remaining. You can even be notified by both to remind you to take the time to do it. Time to relax, Beattie – ping!
If taking the time to reflect has real and tangible benefits to our personal lives, then the same must be true for our work-lives, right? Right.
All of the benefits reflection as a tool for your personal life are just as applicable for your work life, but reflection is a tool that teams, or even entire organisations, can benefit from – when used right.
In his book, Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux tells the story of Heiligenfeld, a company of 800 employees that runs four mental health and rehabilitation hospitals in Germany. The organisation has a number of practices within the company that make sure that team members have regular opportunities and the space to reflect on their work – so that they can learn individually and collectively. Including:
- all new team members can learn how to meditate and take part in 30-minute meditation sessions
- coaching sessions for all team members
- coaching sessions for all work teams, between two and four times per year
- every Tuesday morning, the company invites 350 team members to a 75-minute to come together, with a new topic for joint reflection raised every week
The last of those is perhaps the most valuable, from a reflective perspective, in that it happens every week. The chance for employees to come together regularly creates a regular chance for the team to learn together, as well as individuals to consider a new topic to reflect at least on a weekly basis.
Many of us understand the physical benefits of regular exercise to keep our bodies in good condition, but the same is true for our mind. Making journaling, meditation or even group reflection a regular routine – and taking the time to work through the challenges you face; understanding how your life, work and the relationships in them make you feel and think, means you’ll be much more resilient to the next challenge that comes your way. And more able to come through it with clarity of mind.
So, turn off the notifications, get rid off all distractions (even him or her), get yourself comfortable, listen all the way through, think about what you’ve got, and ask yourself, “how do I really feel today?”