A Beginner's Guide To Reflection

Ah, the benefits of self-reflection! Even small amounts of time spent reflecting can yield some pretty significant results like:

  • Reduced Anxiety
  • Lower Cortisol Levels
  • Improved Attention
  • Notably Higher Levels of Self-Efficacy
  • Better Task Performance

The list goes on!

Okay, so we agree it’s worth our time, but we won’t lie–trying reflection out for the first time can leave you feeling like a fish out of water. Actually, fish are a great place to start when trying to understand reflection.

Let’s assume you are this fish and that amorphous blob of water is your daily life.

Each day fish-you swims throughout the blob.

Some days you discover new and exciting things in the blob. Other days are a little sad or scary. Most days are the same, as you encounter the same routines and decisions, like the time you need to wake up, what route you take around the blob, what foods to eat, etc.

The day ends and you go to sleep floating, eyes hung creepily open as you slumber.

The next day you wake up in your blob, do some more swimming and eventually sleep.

Rinse and repeat.

Every thing you think inside your watery existence is what is considered Type I Thinking, or simple thinking. This is our baseline way of thinking; those often autonomous, everyday thoughts we have about the tasks or emotions at hand.

Type I Thinking is your normal, baseline way of thinking. This includes autonomous, everyday thoughts we have about the tasks or emotions at hand.

They’re what I’ll call the inside the blob thoughts.

One day as you’re swimming about, doing fish things, you decide to do something you haven’t done before. You slow your speed, stop making those immediate task-driven or emotional decisions, and pause to reflect about your life in the blob.

Upon coming to a full stop, you find yourself magically transported outside of the blob.

This is reflection! And reflection briefly pulls you out of the everyday, allowing you to survey the whole of your life.

Reflection is considered Type II Thinking, or metacognition. It’s the thinking you do about your thinking.

So instead of thinking about the tasks or emotions at hand, you’re thinking things like: how to improve on that task next time, why you felt that emotion, or if this task or emotion is something you want.

Type II Thinking, or metacognition, is the thinking you do about your thinking.

They’re what I’ll call the outside the blob thoughts.

Unlike inside the blob (Type I) thinking that happens automatically, outside the blob (Type II) thinking takes purposeful effort

Reflection requires a deliberate pause of our daily activities to analyze our actions, process our emotions, search for patterns, and think through mistakes to find clarity and make hard decisions about our futures.

It’s for that reason I define reflection as the intentional act of self-examination.

You may already see why it’s something most of us avoid; reflection can be emotionally uncomfortable. Here are three reasons why:


Reflective thinking is induced instead of autonomous. Just like working out or studying for a final exam, it requires deliberate effort and endurance to accomplish because our brains are designed to conserve energy. Taking energy away from what it deems “essential for surviving” and directing it toward something not necessary for immediate survival always takes intentionality and focus. Adding to the issue, we are busy people with longer work hours and near-constant access to entertainment and distractions. I could go on here, but I suspect you already feel this. It’s hard to find the time and energy to stop long enough to reflect.


Processing loss, unfulfilled dreams, and negative self-thoughts is simply painful. None of us enjoy the associated feelings that come with exploring these things, and we often, even without realizing it, avoid situations or activities that requires us to mentally and emotionally ‘go there.’


There are a number of resources geared towards approaching reflection, with helpful tips on paring back both digital and physical distraction, but little guidance on what to do once reflection has started. That lack of structure has often left me staring at a wall, my thoughts wandering after a few uncomfortable moments of attempting to focus on… something? Nothing? (I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be thinking or not thinking about.) These awkward encounters don’t leave me wanting more.

It’s true, reflecting can be uncomfortable–but it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little structure and guidance, reflection can be an amazing resource to help you assess your life, your thoughts, and your emotions so you can find clarity, strength, and confidence in what’s to come.

Restwell’s Guide To Self-Reflection

To start this process, first take a survey of what’s currently going on in your life. You can leaf through events from the past week, month, year–or your entire life. What sticks out to you that you want to focus on right now?At this point, these events don’t need to be qualified. They can be good or bad, logical or illogical, insignificant or important, fit your identity or not at all. If you’re having trouble cutting through the labels we usually prescribe to things, try thinking through events that elicit strong emotional reactions. This will give you a sense of the events that mattered to you, even if it doesn’t quite fit into the way you see life or yourself.

After gathering a handful of events that hold meaning, select one to explore further. It can be a single instance or a string of events that share a common theme. There is no right answer here, the goal is only to identify what it is you want to explore.

It’s time to put the chosen event, topic, or theme under a microscope, and there are a few ways to encourage our Type I way of thinking to turn into Type II thoughts and discover a different point of view.

Why Five Times
Popular in the business world is the idea of “Asking Why 5 Times.” The idea helps get to the root of a problem. Each time you ask yourself why, you get closer to the true reasons why an event elicited a certain reaction.

Exhaustive Brainstorm
Another method, familiar to creatives is the idea of writing an exhaustive list about a topic, and then forcing yourself to write some more. The first 20 or 30 things you write down are your simple, Type I thoughts about a subject. As it becomes more difficult to produce answers, you begin Type II thinking, where answers are more explorative and unique.When reflecting, different methods will work better or worse depending on the topic, but these practices will help you explore beyond the surface of your experiences.

When reflecting, different methods will work better or worse depending on the topic, but these practices will help you explore beyond the surface of your experiences.

If the end result of reflection is clarity, then it’s important to make decisions about what’s next and solidify your intentions. This part doesn’t need to be complex or contrived, it can be as simple as writing down something you learned about yourself or deciding what you want to do differently next time you encounter a frustrating situation. What’s important is that you can begin to summarize your self-discoveries and use that information to move forward.


As you gain confidence feel free to change these rules break them, or disregard them altogether. They’re simply a tool to serve you, so if they no longer do, don’t use them.

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