The need to have time to reflect is critical to solidify learning theories for students and professionals alike. By acknowledging the space between what we read or hear and what we already know we are able to create links between the two. It is through these associations that new ideas and perspectives are born.
When I headed back to school to complete my MBA in 2012 I had an instructor (Kim Gunning-Mooney) recommend we focus on taking the time to reflect. She explained what I think was some version of my description above (honestly I was mentally and physically exhausted for most of MBA so I can’t guarantee that I am totally accurate here, but she deserves credit), and rationalized that we would never imagine what this space could do for the development of our ideas.
Honestly, I thought it was crap. What would writing down my thoughts about what I had read, seen, or heard do for my ability to write an assignment or to do my job?
We often don’t realise how our brains create connections, but in many cases it is when we aren’t studying a topic that we begin to understand it. Have you ever had that moment in the shower or driving to work when everything suddenly makes sense?
That is the power of space to reflect.
I spend a lot of my professional time telling stories to clients and partners. Customising the story to each individual is critical to making it relevant to them and this is where I discovered how reflection helps us make connections.
Many of the early years of my career were spent in the home improvement industry. This causes me to tell a lot of stories about how computer software/employee engagement /management/ marketing/leadership is like the plumbing in your home.
Stay with me here….
You often don’t take the time to think about your plumbing or FILL IN THE BLANK business challenge until it is broken and find yourself in a hurry to get it fixed before you are covered in poop. In a really bad circumstance, it is being covered in poop that tells you the problem exists in the first place.
The importance of the analogy (or any analogy really) is the fact that people can suddenly see the connection between two ideas and just how urgent or serious the challenge they are facing has become.
Our ability as experts to connect the dots matters more than the dots themselves
By walking away from a challenge, literally or figuratively we are able to encourage our brains to connect these new concepts with the information that we have already internalised.
Build compelling arguments
I used to follow my gut on everything. Gut instinct is a powerful thing, to be sure, but honestly it is meaningless when you are pitching a multi-million dollar venture to the board for sign off. You need to have evidence (shown through the connections) in order to make a point.
You: “Hey board of experts I just know that this is a good idea so can I have some cash, please?”
Them: “Yeah, nah bro.”
But when we have some evidence (I consider all ideas evidence to create a compelling argument), and then we combine it with gut instinct and past experiences we are able to make connections that create a compelling and successful business case in many situations.
You: “Hi board of experts we have a challenge and it can be met by combining this times that. We believe it will work because of this idea X connection = result and this idea X connection = result.”
Them: “Well of course! Here are your millions of dollars”
Yes, this may be a bit of a simplified circumstance, but the likelihood of creating those connections is infinitely higher when take the time to reflect and internalise new information. A few steps that work for me are below, but feel free to reflect in whatever way you find effective.
- Write down what the content told you in your own words:
- Create a summary of what you read so that a fifth grader can understand it.
- Journal about the items you are reading. When you start telling the story you connect items without thinking about it.
- If you can’t summarise it yet, that’s ok move to step 2
- Brainstorm around the topic:
- Use a mind map or fishbone diagram to list concepts and create connections between them. The lines are the part that matters most
- Use a word blurb to see what concepts repeat most in the article. Tools like Wordle are awesome for this.
- Use your favourite method of brainstorming, the method is not as important as taking the time to do it
- Walk away
- Go for a run, take your kids to the park, binge watch some OITNB, read a trashy novel, it doesn’t matter what it is just get away from the work for a few minutes/hours/days as your timeline allows and let your brain do its thing.
What’s in it for you?
This is the age-old question when we put a task in front of someone. Why would you give up something you value (time, space, money) in exchange for this thing?
Reflecting makes connections faster than reading or listening to lectures alone. It helps us to find ways to internalise the idea and merge it with our personal expertise to make it valid and relevant. AND even if you don’t get anything special from it at that moment, we are raising our likelihood for shower Ah ha! moments exponentially just by trying something new.