Since I work in an educational institution, yearly performance reviews occur around May, the end of the academic year if you are on a semester system. For many of us, this means going backward through emails, calendars, and files to recall the multitude of projects and tasks that we worked on throughout the year. Depending on your organization system, this can be fairly quick or painfully tedious. Either way, this process could be improved by engaging in professional self-reflection on a more frequent basis, and not just once a year when annual review time rolls around.
Work and Learning are Not That Dissimilar
In my past working experiences, performance reviews have often felt more like a professional necessity rather than something that mutually benefits both employer and employee. This is unfortunate because reflecting on our practices is crucial to anything that involves some kind of learning, and at work, we are almost always learning something, whether small or large.
As I said earlier, I work in education where self-reflection on one’s work performance (i.e. teaching) is often encouraged, if not required. But outside of the education environment there seems to be less emphasis on self-reflection. I imagine this may have to do with the fact that education’s “business” is learning, but the notion that what we do inside the walls of the educational institution are somehow drastically dissimilar to what we do outside of them is dangerously naive.
Learning is work and work is learning; we are all better workers and learners when we regularly self-reflect on our performances.
The Importance of Identity to Work & Learning
Evaluating work performance should serve two important purposes:
- To evaluate what we do and how we do it
- To consider how that work impacts our identities
The first part seems obvious – it is usually the purpose of performance reviews: what did you do and how can you do it better? But, the second part, the one about our identities, is rarely taken into consideration despite it having a significant influence on what we do and how we do it. How we relate to our work and identify with it matters, as does what we find satisfaction in at work. This is where self-reflection comes in.
Considering our identities in relation to our work performance is important because it requires us to frequently consider and reconsider our values. Our values are what enable us to construct meaning; doing work that has meaning to us contributes to better job satisfaction, something that benefits employers and employees alike.
For those of us in the position of not finding meaning in our current work, self-reflecting affords us the time and space to consider what it is we do not find meaningful and why, and to ideally make steps towards changing that scenario whether in the near or far future. But in order to achieve this, we need to be continuously evaluating what we find meaningful in our jobs and considering how it relates to our performance and our professional identities.
How to Implement Professional Self-Reflection Regularly
A quick Google search for self-reflection turns up the following definition:
“Meditation or serious thought about one’s character, actions, and motives”
Meditation or serious thought both require a crucial element that can be hard to come by in many contemporary working environments: the need to slow down. Therefore, it is important to set aside time first of all, and second, to ensure an environment as free of interruptions as possible. Using a tool like the ambient noise app Coffitivity or a time management technique like the Pomodoro technique can help with the focus required for self-reflection. I recommend committing approximately 25 minutes on a weekly to bi-weekly basis.
Further, while encouraging more frequent self-reflection can be a great way for employers to show their concern for employee’s job satisfaction, most self-reflection should be done without supervision from a superior because this pressure can impact the authenticity and vulnerability necessary to insightful self-reflection. After an employee has done a few self-reflection exercises, a more formal discussion can be arranged. This gives the employee time to process their thoughts and translate them into something they would feel comfortable enough discussing with a supervisor or colleague.
Since sitting down and staring at a blank screen can be incredibly intimidating, the following strategies are helpful for getting started with self-reflection:
- Create a mind map of your job duties, your skills, and what interests you.
- Write your own worker’s autobiography.
- Write a role model profile where you identify a colleague or industry professional that you admire and why.
- Write a letter of advice to yourself on the first day of your current job.
- Try bullet journaling in relation to your job.
Sometimes, writing by hand can be more effective than typing and/or a great way to get unstuck when doing something as unfamiliar as self-reflecting. Whatever particular approach or strategy you choose, always ask why. Knowing the why is what enables us to take steps towards the how.
Self-reflection takes practice, particularly in work environments where the emphasis is more on doing rather than thinking. But one of the most important, long-term takeaways of self reflection is the ability to name: to name our skills, our achievements, our interests, etc. Naming these things enables us to develop our own vocabulary and phrases to fall back on when we begin to lose our focus and our meaning in our work lives. These words and phrases can remind us of our goals and enable us to find purpose again when work becomes more about busyness and less about meaningfulness.