How to find time to reflect during a pandemic (review of Step Back by Joseph Badaracco)

Anyone else finding it impossible to pause and ponder during the pandemic?

It’s tough to step back and reflect when you’re chronically anxious and exhausted.

If you’ve been laid off or let go, you’re scrambling to find work. If you’re still working, you’re bracing for a second surge and more job cuts.

You’re worried about your bored and restless kids who’ve reached the end of Netflix and your at-risk elderly parents and relatives who’ve either disappeared into their bunkers or believe they’re magically immune to COVID-19.

So given everything that’s going on, how can we find time to wrestle with big questions about work and life?

Joseph Badaracco recommends practicing mosaic reflection

“Busy, successful men and women do reflect, but they practice the art of reflection in the cracks and crevices of their daily lives.”

Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School and author Step Back: How to Bring the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life has four guiding principles for practicing short bursts of daily reflection.

Aim for good enough. “Find an approach to reflection that works pretty well, most of the time. This is an approach that meets your needs, fits your situation and you can follow fairly regularly.”

Downshift occasionally. “Shift your mental machinery into a lower gear.” This is tough to do if you spend all your waking hours relying on highly focused analytical or pragmatic thinking where the goal is output at a breakneck pace.

Ponder your hard issues. Use reflection to tackle tough issues at work and in your life. “Step back and make a conscious effort to look at a problem or a situation from several different perspectives.”

Pause and measure up by “stepping back for a few moments, looking at your options and asking yourself what will best meet the standards others expect of you and your own standards for work and life.” Are you making the difference you’re supposed to make and the difference you really want to make?

Practice these four principles and you can make a daily habit out of reflecting for a few moments or minutes between Zoom meetings, dinner prep and FaceTime with friends. “This approach to reflection fits the busy lives so many people lead today. It works especially well for people who find it difficult because of how their minds work to withdraw and reflect for extended periods of time.

“And the mosaic approach lets us reflect on the flow of life and work and respond to what is real and immediate.”

Reflection helps us make better decisions and grapple with big questions like how to live, what to truly care about and what constitutes a good life.

All of us could some serious self-reflection now more than ever. You may be out of work and weighing your options for a career change. You may be an essential worker who’s burned out and tired of putting your life on the line. You may be a non-essential worker who’s tired of waiting to be forgotten. You may be loving your time at home with family and dreading a return to the office with its soul-crushing commute. Or you may be counting the days until you can escape back to the office. Whatever situation you find yourself in, there’s a big question in need of an answer.

“Reflection is stepping back to grasp what really matters – about what you are experiencing, trying to understand or doing. Without reflection, we drift. Others shape and direct us. With reflection, we can understand and even bend the trajectories of our lives.”

Badaracco offers a practical way of bending our trajectory without heading off for week-long solo retreats deep into the woods or to the top of mountains.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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