I was stressed. Too many competing priorities, too much to do, too few resources, too little time and deadlines looming and customers to satisfy. A hastily eaten sandwich at my desk as there was no time for lunch. I felt under enormous pressure. Close family and friends were concerned about me, and could see the stress in me, even when I was supposedly relaxing. It wasn’t pretty and I needed to find a way through and out the other side.
This happened a good many years ago. I often draw on the formative lessons I learnt during this time, which have helped me over the years to achieve more, with more responsibility and focus – all without the stress. I’d like to share with you here one of those lessons I learnt at this time. Like many profound lessons of life, what I’m about to say is disarmingly simple, but not often practised:
I took time out from my day and week to reflect
About once a week, I took myself off at lunchtime to a little neighbourhood café, where I was unlikely to meet anyone I knew from the office. I took a notebook and a pen with me, and as I munched my toastie, I started to reflect and make notes on my “impossible project”, how I was dealing with it, the decisions I was making – or not making – and what was causing all the stress (spoiler alert – it was all to do with my own attitudes and lack of perspective). As I took time to reflect, I started to realise that as the project leader, I had been given the cards to play in terms of deciding what we did and didn’t do and when, and taking responsibility for those decisions. I moved from being led by circumstance to starting to act like a leader, setting direction and priorities and pushing towards the goal, bringing others with me.
There are many aspects to being an effective leader and I’d like to talk about more of these another time. For now I want to keep your attention on the key point of this article which is:
taking time out from your day and week to reflect
Executive Coach Jennifer Porter says “The hardest leaders to coach are those who won’t reflect — particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves”. If I had not started reflecting, I don’t believe I would have developed and changed so readily, and the stress probably would have led me into a real crisis.
Taking time out from the busyness of our lives, gives us opportunity to gain valuable perspective and to think creatively (whoever had their best ideas sitting at their desk anyway…?). Reflecting helps us to reconnect with the bigger picture of why we are doing what we are doing. Reflecting gives us time to connect with our values and our vision for the life we are seeking to build and the goals we are working towards. Time to reflect on whether we are being responsible for our own actions. Time to think creatively about different approaches we could take. Time to reflect on our mistakes and valuable lessons we can gain from them. Time to consider whose help or expertise we could seek out, who we could invest in further, or who might be able to give us a valuable new perspective. Time to make key decisions.
These days I have developed many different ways of building thinking and reflective time into my life. It could be in a busy café with my notebook and pen, other times you’ll find me in the silence of one of the many churches and cathedrals that are open for reflection and prayer up and down the land. Other times I go for a reflective walk – being surrounded by nature I find is a great help. During one of my periods working on the Cambridge Science Park, I would nip out the back door of my office for a short walk around one of the lakes, and then sit on a bench, notebook and pen in hand, reflecting, thinking creatively and finding ways forward.
Cambridge, UK where I am mostly based, has numerous green spaces. Even in the heart of the UK’s capital within the square mile of the City of London, where I have visited many times, there are a large number of public green spaces – often small and hidden, and almost 50 churches most of which are open for visiting during the working day (I have actually visited every single one of them, but that’s another story!). I am sure wherever you are located, you can find places to reflect.
So, grab a notebook and a pen, get yourself out of the office, and find places where you can take time to think and reflect. If having given it a go, being solitary for a time just doesn’t fit your personality type, then find a trusted friend, with whom you can take time out together to reflect. Whatever approach you chose, I trust you will find reflection a powerful tool in taking full control of your life.