For Reflection, Focus on Establishing Habits

This column is a byproduct of my lack of motivation to complete a reflection assignment. Last week, I recorded a podcast for a group project in one of my classes and, sure enough, this week I was hit with the realization that, on top of the assignment itself, which required group coordination and several scheduled meetings, I would also have to write a reflection about my experience working on the project.

I might be writing from a place of unjustified bitterness here, given the fact that I’ve been swamped by other assignments, but the project prompted me to wonder how effective it is to ask people for reflections. And I don’t just mean the short essays professors assign at the end of projects. I’m also referring to the greater introspection Boston College demands from its students. Is reflection something that can be prompted externally?

Don’t get me wrong, I think reflective habits are important and, with ample time, can be diligently practiced. Just taking five minutes before bed to assess how your day went, or how you’ve been acting toward the people you care about, can help you better understand yourself. The problem here is that we don’t always have those five minutes.

I for one know that I’ve been trading my five minutes of reflection for five extra minutes of sleep (nevertheless, I still wake up not-at-all refreshed and aching for coffee each morning). And during the time I would originally be sleeping, I’m reading an entire book for my next class or revising my essay for the fifth time. BC’s curriculum and its encouragement for constant improvement produces a plethora of high-achieving students. And these students hardly have the time to be reflective.

On BC’s website page that explains Jesuit Catholic values, the school claims that it “urges students to reflect deeply on who they are and how they want to live their lives.” The page goes on to say that BC “encourages members of its community to be attentive to their own experiences, [and] to reflect on them.” While these Jesuit values all sound good on paper (or recited into our parents’ ears as they fork over more tuition money), in all honesty I have no idea how they come into play on a daily basis. 

I know I’m not the only one here who has no idea what I want out of my life, and as much as I try to solve the issue through good ol’ reflection, I’m still at a loss.

BC is not the only institution that tells us to be reflective. As young adults, many of us are applying for internships and jobs. Some of us suffered the horror of college applications a little less than a year ago. Just about every application, every interview, asks the same questions: “tell us something interesting about yourself,” or “reflect on a time when you collaborated in a group setting.” All of these questions force us to either recite a practiced script that shows a moment of reflection, or to cram some sort of meditative experience into the two minutes of time we have before the long silence makes the interview awkward. 

Of course, every employer wants a thoughtful, reflective employee, but the truth of the matter is that not everyone has a reflective moment they can recall on the spot. Even if they did, there’s a significant chance that the moment is contrived because of the pressure.

I believe that true reflective habits often have to be solitary. I don’t mean to say that you can’t learn about yourself by talking to other people, but rather that building reflective habits starts with small things like enjoying a quiet cup of tea or contemplating the events of your long day instead of simply sleeping them off all the time.

Acts like these might help us achieve that ideal of the reflective student, but little more than this can be forced. Reflection isn’t reflection, after all, if it’s simply for a material purpose like bolstering an application. In order to actually cultivate self-awareness, we need to take a step back from the constant external stressors that tell us to reflect without showing us how. We have to make conscious efforts, little by little, that center on what reflection means to us.

I find that these constant calls for reflection ultimately diminishes the effectiveness of the practice. Reflection has become an elusive concept that I don’t really understand in full. 

It’s difficult to gauge how authentic reflection is nowadays, and yet, more and more, the concept is thrown at us. We’re told to “make time for self-care” or to “take care of our mental health” so often that these words lose meaning. 

We shouldn’t be striving for some sort of greater ideal of reflection. This word is too broad and overused to mean anything anymore. Rather, we should focus on establishing specific reflective habits. Reflection starts small and should consist of daily acts that can help us become more thoughtful and caring individuals.