The power of reflection

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Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional, and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post recommends setting aside regular time for reflection to critically think through major opportunities, projects and issues in order to make well-considered, high-quality decisions.

This is a different kind of column. It wasn’t written neatly on my laptop, at my desk.

Instead, I generated it on a three-day hike through a remote mountain range in Norway, featuring chilly ice fields, spectacular aerial fjord views and picturesque farms dotted around; scribbling a few notes in bright July sunshine once the tent was pitched in the evening.

Time to reflect

I had decided to take out some “me” time to make a decision. A major one. A daring one. Or perhaps not. That’s why I wanted to create a little space of mind and tranquillity in a stimulating environment to properly think things through, weigh alternatives, and consider the consequences of taking, or shying away from, the call I was about to make.

In recent years, with an intense corporate work schedule in increasingly senior leadership positions, I’d come to a point where I forced myself to create – and defend – regular time for reflection. Not always a 48-kilometer hike or multi-day break; usually just a short hour or less to ponder, unhurriedly, over a major opportunity, how to approach a significant project or solve a sensitive issue.

Are you managing – or functioning?

I got to the point of ring-fencing reflection time in my schedule as the risks of constantly having to shoot from the hips felt unsustainable. Even if I seemed to get most calls right, staggering expectations and workload paired with ever tightening deadlines and diminishing resources led to an insane mix of speed, efficiency, and staccato decision-making.

Managers weren’t managing any longer. They had to function. Which also felt unfair on the person or matter this was about. Didn’t I owe the people and businesses I touched careful consideration of the full range of available options rather than quickly pivoting towards the easiest or most obvious path?

The issue: in today’s fast-paced, highly synergised matrix work environment where typically one employee handles the workload that would have occupied several just a few years ago, there never seems to be enough time – for anything. In fairness, there are decision-makers who seem at perfect ease chucking out one shot after the other, even at the expense of making poor calls, as long as they’re perceived as decisive, agile, action-oriented movers and shakers. But I’ve always felt that with leadership comes an elevated responsibility to know and reflect all aspects constituting a situation, and to make careful, well-considered decisions on that basis.

Why Fridays work

Blocking out a three-hour slot in my calendar for everyone to see, every end of Friday afternoon, helped. Before that, I explored various days and times – and failed miserably as it turned out impossible to defend slots embedded in regular in-week business hours.

The only window of time I was able to protect effectively was the very end of the working week. What helped was my own ability to better switch off other things keeping my mind busy when knowing there’s no further deadline looming nor anyone waiting for deliverables before Monday (well, most of the time anyway). As well as the fact that by Friday afternoon everyone else seemed exhausted, too, trying to wrap up their week and not keen on spending yet more time in meetings and calls.

If you work internationally, other parts of the world might go into their afternoon or evening as you embark on your Friday, so the usual flow of emails and new requests may also ebb off a bit that day, depending on which part of the world you fall in.

Create regular “think time”

Another technique that helps people create “think time” is exercise. It can also generate great energy for the day if you do it in the morning. The essence, at least for me, is to not overdo it. If you overly exhaust yourself, the oxygen pumped into your lungs and bloodstream will be consumed by your muscles, not help your brain. However, if you can find an exercising pattern to challenge yourself just enough yet leave some stamina and oxygen for the brain to continue to function well, you may discover that this can create a wonderful, daily space for reflection of all sorts.

If you’re not an avid athlete or simply don’t have time to exercise every morning, an effective alternative may be utilising your commute to and from work. Whether you drive or use public transport, try shutting out the distractions, turn off the radio, etc. Instead, focus on one opportunity or issue that may be giving you a hard time at the moment. It sometimes helps to ‘park’ an issue for that regular reflection slot you created, especially if that issue keeps nagging and prevents you from being productive. Once you’ve decided to reflect on it during tomorrow’s commute, you may find it easier to return to other priorities at hand.

Take time out

For me, the power of reflection also lies in gaining some healthy distance to an otherwise emotional issue or decision that emotionally touches me. A great way of refreshing my ability to detach myself and reflect is picking a new sport or hobby; something that binds my full focus while at it.

The beneficial effect comes after practice, not during it. While you’re engaged, literally all focus and brain power will typically go into acquiring new skills, listening to the tutor, learning from mistakes, improving at the next try. In my view, it doesn’t matter whether you book a dance course jointly with your partner, purchase the guitar you always wanted to learn how to play, join a soccer team, golf club or cooking lessons – as long as you chose something you are really passionate about learning.

Preferably, schedule practice sessions or lessons at the end of your workday. If you don’t have to haste back to work that evening, the newly gained state of mind will help you think through – and perhaps solve – a challenge in vastly different quality compared to having to solve it in the middle of your intense working day.

Lastly, there’s the method of taking out a weekend or holiday. You won’t be able to do that too frequently. But for truly major decisions, a short retreat and creating a relaxed atmosphere for your mind to fully be able to focus on solving an issue of high priority might work miracles.

I know it has for me in the past. And yes, I did make my big decision in the Norwegian mountains.

  • Ring-fence regular time for reflection
  • Critically think through major opportunities, projects and issues
  • Consider all relevant aspects constituting a situation
  • Aim to make well-considered, quality decisions
  • Try out various slots and pick one you can actually protect
  • If you exercise, find a routine that leaves oxygen for the brain to reflect
  • Utilise your work commute to reflect on one current challenge
  • Assign issues to that reflection slot to stop them from ‘nagging’
  • Consider a new sport, instrument or hobby that provides healthy detachment
  • Leverage your fresh state of mind immediately after practice for quality reflection time
  • For big decisions, take big time out
  • Create a relaxed, stimulating atmosphere to fully focus on solving an issue of high priority


About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.