The transmogrifying power of reflection

The transmogrifying power of reflection
This post was featured in Software Lead Weekly #490
Calvin explains to Hobbes that a transmogrifier can turn you into anything at all, from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes

Do you have up days and down days? Maybe the project you were excited about got canceled. Or you got in a bad argument with a coworker for three hours and then realized you had forgotten what you were arguing about. Maybe you've been banging your head on an engineering problem long enough to start eyeing the job opening for chief taste tester at the fertilizer plant.

I think we all hit rough patches like this. These moments hold enormous negative potential for me. They can derail me or deflate me, and if I let them worm their way too deep into my mind they can poison me against the rest of the day.

But reflection can change all of that! Reflection can transmogrify the negative into positive. Conflict can become opportunity, confusion can yield to insight. As the rapper Mystikal once said, "Sometimes you gotta get knocked down, to get up." The next time you feel like you've lost momentum or you're unclear about the path forward, I suggest taking some time to reflect.

  • Reflect on self. What are you feeling? Why are you feeling this way? What's your opinion on something, and why do you hold that opinion?
  • Reflect on situation. What are the facts? What are your options for moving forward? What's your goal? Why is that your goal?

Reflection through writing

I've found that writing habits create regular opportunities for me to reflect. I have a few habits that varying rhythms that help me write and reflect regularly, both about work stuff and just regular life.

Daily journal. Do you ever end a workday and ask yourself, "What did I do today?" Do you ever feel this way about an entire week? In my "Make a plan and do your best" post I describe how I use a Google Doc to plan my work for the day. What I don't mention is that I also record my completed tasks in a journal. When work feels frenetic, this document reassures me that I'm actually accomplishing what I set out to do. I also use it to order my thoughts on matters that confuse me or I'm conflicted on. This also provides great fodder for level self-assessments.

Monthly body-check. This is a personal document that I open up on the 15th of each month and just run through how I'm feeling about family, career, my health, and just general life satisfaction. Am I happy? Is anything weighing on my mind? I have a tendency to fall into unhealthy patterns, and this is a useful tool for spotting those.

Year's highlights. This is sort of running bucket list. Each year I want to accomplish things that are meaningful to me. This could be something as simple as having dinner with an old friend I haven't seen in awhile or completing a house project. By writing these things down I'm more likely to make them happen, and by keeping a record of the things I've done I can look back and connect the dots in my life story.

Announcement emails. Every week or so I try to send an email to the teams I lead. I use these emails to share my thoughts and understanding of broader organizational, cultural, and business contexts. What I love most about this is that folks will later come back at me with their own insights, feedback, and questions. It's basically crowdsourced reflection!

Blog. I had an overactive imagination as a kid and it's persisted through adulthood. Thoughts swarm my mind like bees in a hive. This tends to manifest as non-sequiturs on good days and stream-of-consciousness ramblings on bad days. The process of writing a blog post forces me to truly understand what I'm trying to say, which helps me maintain consistency in my thinking.

Further reading

Even if you're not interested in using writing to reflect on your work, you should also check out Colin Nissan's article "The Ultimate Guide To Writing Better Than You Normally Do". It's absolutely useless as a guide for how to improve your writing, or for doing anything practical whatsoever, but it's a great laugh!

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