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Reflection time is fundamental to your success as an engineering leader.

September 20 – November 29 Leadership course
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It allows you to think back on what’s gone well and what hasn’t, and identify what you can do to move in a more effective direction.

I run regular training courses for both technical leaders and managers, and participants always comment on how nice it is to step away from their day-to-day activities, focus in, and reflect.

But if you’re in a leadership role, you probably feel like you’re spinning too many plates, transitioning between back-to-back meetings and having little time for reflection.

That’s why we need to reframe reflection time as a key leadership activity. In this article, I’ll share some ideas on how you can find time in your busy schedule, and highlight what you should be doing with your reflection time.

Three ways to make time for reflection

1. Pre-book time in your calendar

Reserving space in your calendar is the first and fundamental habit to build. If you’re a new leader, you might not realize this is something you need to do. Previously, as an individual contributor, you had other people plan and organize team meetings for you. Some of these meetings might include regular stand-ups, weekly planning, or retrospectives with the rest of the time often dedicated for focused work. Others created space for you to think about specific topics.

But now that you’re a leader or manager, it’s up to you to plan and organize the team meetings. Your time is taken up by more admin and regular 1:1s, and you’ll receive countless meeting invites – all big distractions from reflection time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting every meeting invite in fear of letting someone down. But as I often find myself repeating to my coachees, ‘If you don’t organize your own calendar, others will do it for you. And you probably won’t like the result.’

As a less experienced leader, you may not realize you can, and should, deliberately manage your calendar. Preallocate time in your calendar for weekly recurring tasks like checking email, organizing your to-do list, prioritizing upcoming work, reflecting, and also deep work time. Examples of deep work time for leaders might include breaking a large problem down into actionable steps, preparing for a difficult conversation, or working on a technical strategy or presentation and time to reflect.

When you pre-book time, it will also force you to prioritize requests from incoming meetings. Don’t make the rookie mistake of always accepting others’ meeting requests that overlap with your pre-booked time. If you accept others’ invites all the time, you’ll limit your space to reflect.

2. Go offline for an afternoon

A consequence of working remotely in the digital age is that  you may feel pressured to be available all the time. In my experience, US-based companies tend to have a stronger culture of treating asynchronous tools, like email or slack, more like synchronous tools and expecting almost real-time response rates.

To get around this, communicate your boundaries and establish expectations with your team, peers, and organization about when you are available and interruptible, and when you aren’t. For example, some people agree with their team on ‘office hours’ when they’re always available, and add this to their slack status as a reminder.

If you don’t have focused time on a regular basis, try planning at least one afternoon a week where you are completely offline. Communicate this to your team and peers and make sure you turn off all of your email/slack notifications so you’re not tempted to answer, since you’ll probably still be sitting at your computer.

If you’re leading your team well, it should be possible to take one afternoon a week. If you feel your team can’t manage an afternoon without you, start reflecting on what you need to put in place or who you need to grow and delegate work to so that eventually you can.

3. Plan a personal offsite

As a leader, you’ve probably taken part in a leadership team offsite, or even organized offsites for your team. Offsites are great because they change the environment, which helps stimulate new thoughts and ideas. This works for teams but also works well for you as a leader. A personal offsite should be a minimum of a day, although I know of a few leaders who take a couple of days, and even a handful that take a whole week!

If you’re based in an office, go to a different office or a different location. If you’re constantly working from home, go out for a change. Some people rent a room in a coworking space, hotel, or a conference/training venue to have a change in pace. Some people plan an offsite in a unique remote location via a service like Airbnb near nature to have time to reflect, plan, and progress.

When you plan your offsite, take it seriously and prepare properly. Plan a list of topics you want to reflect on. Make sure to bring materials such as notepads, pens, and sticky notes to allow you to think. Like with a good team offsite, minimize digital distractions by limiting your access to your computer, smartphone, and other devices that may pull you back into your day-to-day environment.

What should you be doing with your reflection time?

By now you should be comfortable with the idea of pre-booking reflection time in your calendar, regularly taking an afternoon out, and planning a personal offsite. But what exactly should you be doing with that reflection time?

Leaders feel like they should always be ‘doing’ but actually a key part to being an effective leader is ‘thinking.’ Unfortunately, there will always be more work than there is time, especially if you’re a senior leader. You have to be sure you’re working on the highest impact work and it can be difficult to know what to focus on.

Use your reflection time to think about issues that are hard to solve, or that no one is thinking about. Use the reflection time to look at your personal habits and see if there’s anything holding you back, or to prioritize areas of personal development. Use the reflection time to step back and check if you have any blind spots or areas you haven’t been paying attention to. Use the reflection time to notice patterns in data that you have, and if you want to do anything about them.

Whatever you do with your reflection time, having the opportunity to focus and plan will be critical to your effectiveness as a leader. Nobody else will organize reflection time for you, so be proactive, make space for it, and enjoy the benefits.