Creating space in your life to reflect

 

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.

New Year Resolutions don’t work – here is a better way

So it’s the time of year to make – or break – New Year Resolutions. Have you made any this year, and how’s it going so far, and do you think you’ll be able to keep going throughout the year?

A number of years ago, I decided to ditch the whole idea of New Year Resolutions in favour of a different approach, which I have found increasingly powerful and productive.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of reflecting on the year that has been, and deciding what you want to do differently in the future is solid as far as it goes. It’s just that to me the concept of a resolution is flawed, as it presumes a complete “gear change” from the way I have done things up to this point, into a “new me”, where I’m immediately so much better than ever I was before. If change and growth were really that simple, surely we’d all be super humans by now? Why is it that resolutions are something talked a lot about in January and then never mentioned again from February onwards? What a waste of our potential, as so often we give up so soon, when all the evidence suggests it takes time to form new habits and perseverance for them to become ingrained.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of change has been more gradual and progressive, yet with the potential to be dramatic and life-changing over the mid-term. Change and transformation is nearly always something you have to stick with, and work at. There are often bumps along the way, and perseverance is needed to overcome hurdles, and find creative ways through them.

So is there a better way? There absolutely is, and it may sound like motherhood and apple pie, as it will be very familiar to you, but it’s all about setting goals and working progressively towards them.

This is what I do.

Every year I create a set of goals for all the major areas of my life – such as personal development, key relationships, career and business, health and fitness, all things financial, learning and development, giving back to my community, leisure and travel and practical matters.

The most important thing is not to write down what you will start doing on Jan 1, rather to write down what you will be doing or have achieved by Dec 31. “Begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey of 7 Habits fame advocates. So then the questions become – what do I want to achieve this year? Where do I want to have got to by the end of 2018? What shall I do next in order to move towards my goal? Rather than saying “I will start running twice a week” – and risk giving up for the whole year in mid-January, why not set a goal that might say for example: “by the end of 2018 I will have established a running routine, averaging 10k a week.” – or – “in 2018 I will take part in a 5k charity run [or marathon or whatever….]”. For me, the first steps to get into running included talking with others who already run, experimenting with running routes that worked for me, and once I got going, buying a decent pair of running shoes and using a running app to record my runs.

Once a month I schedule a “meeting with myself” to review my goals for the year, re-prioritise if need be the ones that matter most, and write down what I will do within the next month to work towards the bigger goal. This personal check in is really important – a once a year reflection looking back / looking forward just isn’t frequent enough!

Oh and one final important thing. I progressively plan my goals during the “deep mid winter” months of Jan and Feb, when it’s cold, dark and not always the most motivating of seasons. Then I start implementing my goals ‘officially’ for the year from March 1, when there are signs of Spring and new growth – a perfect context in which to reach out and grow personally. It also means that any first steps towards a new goal can be “prototyped” or prepared for in Jan/Feb, as anything worth doing usually needs some decent preparation time.

One of my goals for 2018 is to set up and establish a business to help accelerate early stage companies in turning “vision into reality” and realising their ambition to get an amazing product to market at scale. Look out for further details in the coming weeks, and do get in touch if you’d like to be part of this journey.