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How to Practice Reflective Thinking

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting

“I’m so pressed for time that I barely get the chance to think about what I want to do next.”

One of my coaching clients, Alys, shared this with me in a recent session. She’s three years into her first job and at crossroads, unsure what direction her career should take. In response, I shared the importance of reflective silence.

According to clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, silently self-reflecting is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. Sitting in silence and self-reflecting activates multiple parts of our brain and helps us increase awareness of what matters most to us. However, in the busyness of our everyday lives, it can be hard to find the time to stop and reflect — to truly feel our feelings, hear our thoughts, and deliberate on our challenges — free from noise and distractions, where you can take stock of your present and focus on the future.

The self-reflection process may sound time-consuming or even intimidating. But there are a few easy steps you can take to gain the clarity you need to move forward. Here’s how to get started.


How to Self-Reflect

All self-reflection takes is a little bit of MAGIC: mirror, aspirations, goals, ideas, and commitments. I created this method, based on my experience and coaching practice, to help people unlock the power of silence and reflective thought. You can follow this framework yourself, as did Alys, to create some structure for your personal reflection.


Understanding our present is critical when planning for our future, but it’s often overlooked in our rush to get started. Think about it as embarking on a journey: You need to clearly identify your starting point, as well as your destination, before planning your route.

Start by imagining yourself looking into a metaphorical mirror, and reflect on your current situation. How did you get to where you are today, and how do you feel about your present circumstances?

Start positively by recognizing everything that is going well. Acknowledging your successes and celebrating your achievements will build your self-confidence and fuel your motivation to move forward. Then, identify ways in which you could improve. It’s important to be kind to yourself during this process — the point is to recognize areas for growth and development. Research by BetterUp shows that people who are high in self-compassion experience lower levels of stress and burnout, and have more resilience than others.

For example, when Alys used this framework, she first noted that she enjoyed good relationships with her colleagues and was particularly pleased with a high-profile project she had recently delivered, for which she received some excellent feedback. Regarding what she could improve, she acknowledged that she could work on her face-to-face communication skills to increase her personal impact in meetings.

To take your self-reflection to a deeper level, you can also use a tool I call the Magic Wheel. Draw a circle and divide it into six to eight sections, like spokes on a wheel. Now think about what is most important to you in your life and label each section with  a different element of your life. Reflect on your personal levels of satisfaction in each area, writing an individual score for each section, from 1 (low) to 10 (high).

Another client of mine, Bobbi, chose to fill his wheel with the following: work performance, career progression, personal development, work-life balance, salary, relationships, and health and wellbeing. As he reflected on these different areas of his life and gave them scores, he began to realize that the high satisfaction score he gave to his work performance had been achieved by deprioritizing his health and wellbeing and work-life balance, leading to much lower scores in those areas. The Magic Wheel helped him see that his life was out of balance, and this prompted him to consider some changes going forward.

You can repeat this exercise every four to six months to see how your scores change (and hopefully become more balanced) over time.


After reflecting on the present, it’s time to focus on the future. Visualize the person you want to see in your metaphorical mirror. Ask yourself these questions to help guide your reflection:

  • What does success look like for you?
  • What future accomplishments would you love to see reflected back at you?
  • If you could wave a magic wand, what would you really like to achieve in the next year?

Maybe you’re eager to get picked for a new assignment at work. Maybe you’re ready to make a big career move. Or maybe you want to give your personal life a complete overhaul. When I asked Alys these questions, I learned that her recent successes had ignited an ambition to try for a promotion and lead a team for the first time, and she felt she was ready for a new challenge.


Once you have clarified your aspirations for the future, you can really zone in on them, and turn them into specific and tangible goals, with milestones and timescales to benchmark your progress. Setting inspiring goals to work towards is a fundamental element of self-reflection, helping you become laser-focused on exactly what you want to achieve. Having a set of tangible and specific goals can provide us with a sense of purpose and motivation and give a clear target for our efforts.

Here is a simple three-step formula for putting together a great goal: do + what +when.

  1. Do: Start with an action verb (increase, reduce, achieve, gain, sell).
  2. What: Clearly specify what success looks like (become a manager, work on two high-profile projects, manage client complaints better).
  3. When: Add a target date or deadline to aim for, chunked up into shorter milestones if necessary (over two months, in the next year, every week).

Alys used this formula to create a clear and inspiring goal for herself: To achieve a promotion to a project management position by the end of the year.


Once you have a set of clear goals which outline exactly what you want to achieve, you can then explore how these goals could be achieved, and start to create an action plan. To do that, first ask yourself:

  • What activities could help me get closer to my goals?
  • What steps do I need to take to move forward?
  • Can I seek advice from anyone who has achieved a similar goal?
  • Do I need to upskill or take a course to reach my goal?

Try and generate a wide range of ideas, before selecting those which will work best for you.

When evaluating your ideas, it can help to consider two elements:

  • The give: how much effort each requires, in time, energy or resources.
  • The gain: how much benefit will be received, and whether the idea will really move you closer to your goal.

You may have some great ideas on your list but remember to assess how much you will have to “give” in order to enjoy the “gain.” If our gains are usually lower than the effort involved, or what we have to give, it can be demotivating from the get-go. It can be super motivating if you include a few quick wins in your plan, which deliver high rewards, for a low amount of effort.

Alys, for example, explored several options including more training, gaining a project manager qualification, volunteering for a new initiative, and consulting existing managers who could act as mentors. She evaluated these options and decided that seeking advice from senior people who had already achieved her goal would be a great first step, as that could also reveal the path they took and what else she’d need to do.


Finally, incorporate your ideas into a clear plan. A good plan contains specific step-by-step actions, with dates, deadlines and resources, and contingency plans for how you might overcome obstacles. Think about who could help you, by providing practical assistance or emotional support, and make your first step very specific to get yourself off to a flying start.

Alys’ plan included identifying three managers to approach, and pledging to find a new project to lead, with dates for each action. We agreed to meet in a month to evaluate her progress and plan her next steps.

. . .

Through this process of structured reflection, Alys found she had increased her understanding of her present situation, clarified her goals for the future, and identified some tangible steps to help her move forward.

Finding time for personal reflection has the power to transform your life and career. Creating space and silence to reflect on the past, the present, and the future can be a hugely powerful way to increase your self-awareness, learn from your experiences, and achieve your goals. Give it a try.

c.2023 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting