Self-reflection, retrospective and journaling

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Imagine an iceberg floating in the ocean. Only one tenth of the iceberg is visible, while the rest of it lies deep beneath the surface – mighty, intimidating and alluring. It’s the same with your mind. Your conscious mind makes up less than 10 % of your brain function. The mighty rest is your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind is composed of unintentional and habitual thoughts, behaviours, and actions.

That’s why no human is the master in his own house. The subconscious mind is like an autopilot that triggers certain behaviours in certain situations. The triggered behaviour doesn’t necessarily lead to the desired outcome. Even more: you often don’t have a clue about why you’re doing a certain thing and why you feel the way you feel. In some situations, you can even become self-destructive or completely misinterpret the feedback from your environment, which leads to an entirely wrong decision.

Self-reflection can help you with that. Through self-reflection, you can change how you see yourself and how you feel about certain situations and, at the end, how you act. Consequently, you can also change how other people see you.

We could define self-reflection as careful thought about your own behaviour and beliefs. If we develop the definition further, self-reflection is really asking yourself thought-provoking questions so that you can develop a deeper level of understanding yourself.

The most important direct or indirect benefits of self-reflection are:

  • Understanding and knowing yourself better, for example why you were feeling a certain way and why you did something or made a certain decision
  • Becoming more aware and thus more proactive than reactive, meaning you have more personal power and control
  • Having a clearer picture about your true desires and who you really are
  • Analysing feedback from your environment based on your actions and taking it into account for the desired final outcome of your actions (every action in life brings a reaction)
  • Removing inner roadblocks and releasing emotional tension

There are also many side benefits of self-reflection, like developing better communication skills, critical thinking, self-learning, self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, analytical capabilities and sensitivity to cultural differences, meaning you become more tolerant. Long-term benefits of self-reflection are also increased professional value and value for personal relationships, resulting in you having a greater capacity for work, creativity, love and, at the bottom line, being happier.

There are two levels of self-reflection you should be doing regularly:

  • Action retrospective for regular improvements and adjustments to the environment after every sprint
  • Self-analysis for knowing yourself better and being happier in life in the long-term

Sprint retrospective

No matter how productive or successful you are in life, there’s always an opportunity to improve. There’s always a way to do things better. The more you become aware of yourself, your actions and your environment, and the more you are open to experiment and try new things (frequently out of the box), the better your potential for improvement is. In different words: becoming wiser unlocks the opportunity for improvement.

As Confucius said, we may learn wisdom by three methods: “First, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.”

Since we don’t want to be bitter in life and we don’t want to only imitate other people, much less the wrong ones, let’s focus on improving ourselves by reflection. In agile development, we know the so-called sprint retrospective. The purpose of the sprint retrospective is to learn what works for the team and what doesn’t, and to make adjustments for the next sprint. A sprint retrospective usually takes two to four hours and the team tries to answer a few basic but hard questions:

  • What went well during the last sprint that the team will continue doing?
  • What could the team do differently?
  • How can the team implement the change?

Based on that, the team should make three decisions and stick to them:

  • What to start doing
  • What to stop doing
  • What to continue doing

There is no reason why you couldn’t do the same in your personal life. When living the Agile and Lean Life, you don’t just do work and execute tasks. You have to think regularly about why you’re doing something and how you’re doing it, and whether you’re making real progress –progress that brings value to your life. Being strong and passionate about the reason why is the best motivator you can have in life, and as mentioned before, there’s always a way to do things better. That’s why personal sprint reflections are so important.

In the Agile and Lean Life productivity framework, you have regularly scheduled intervals (seven or fourteen days) for planning the next sprint and reflecting on the previous sprint. While planning the sprint and doing the retrospective in your personal life, you should do the following:

  • Review the tasks done in the previous interval
  • Connect with yourself and straighten out your life vision (why)
  • Measure your real progress
  • Adjust the strategy and plan
  • Reflect on new things you learned
  • Gather new ideas
  • Identify potential improvements
  • Set new tasks for the upcoming interval

Thinking about the elements listed above during your interval planning and reflection, you should ask yourself the following questions: what went well during the last sprint, what you were doing right, what didn’t go that well, why that is so and what you could do differently and how. Based on that, you should make three decisions:

  • What will you start doing in your life?
  • What will you stop doing in your life?
  • What will you continue doing in your life?

To really implement the change in your life, you have to consider your own behaviour, the desired result, people involved in the process, relationships, the process itself and the tools that can help you improve your work.

There are two options for when to take time for reflection:

  • Every week or every two weeks when you make time for planning the sprint and doing reflection
  • You plan the sprint in the beginning of the week and do reflection at the end of the week or in two-week intervals. Whatever works better for you. Some people like to combine planning and reflection, others don’t.

The process is simple: you sit down and go through all the planning and reflection elements and questions listed above.

If there is no change in your behaviour – the decisions you make, the strategy you follow, the actions you do etc. after your reflection, your reflection simply had no real value. The purpose of the sprint retrospective isn’t just to feel a little bit better about yourself for planning and strategizing. Avoid the fake feeling of progress at all costs. If you don’t know what you’ll do differently after the reflection, if you don’t know how you’ll change your behaviour, you’re doing it wrong. Applying wisdom in practice is the key to progress, not only being aware of something.

Self-analysis and journaling

Self-analysis is kind of a different story and takes reflection even a step further. Don’t get me wrong, you need both processes for the best results, but you do have to know the difference between both tools.

To start with the biggest difference: if you have to force yourself to make a certain decision after self-analysis, you haven’t done it right. Self-analysis is about understanding yourself and noticing, not judging and forcing yourself into anything.

There is no “stop doings”, “start doings” and “continue doings”. It’s about changing the course of your life without any force, by better understanding who you are and what you are through analytical thinking.

With self-analysis, you’re going way deeper. It’s not only about your plan, actions and environment anymore, but about you, your whys, about who you truly are and what you want in life. It’s more about getting rid of emotional shit and intruded behaviour you’ve accumulated in the past, which consequently increases your capacity for love, self-worth and self-respect.

Of course in the long term, self-analysis is also strongly connected to your performance level, productivity and success, much as sprint planning is in the short term. If you look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, the sprint retrospective is more about what and how, while self-analysis is more about why; and you should always start with why.

There are two main ways of doing self-analysis:

PsychoanalysisFrankly, we aren’t talking about self-analysis anymore, but more about the professional process of gaining insights about yourself with a therapist. As you probably know, psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud and its aim is to release repressed emotions and experiences by making the unconscious thoughts conscious. It’s also about rebuilding your inner blueprint for healthy relationships.

It’s a very valuable process, but the downside is that psychoanalysis is time-consuming and there are no quick answers. It usually takes a few years of regular weekly meetings with a psychoanalyst. You have to be very motivated to go through the process, but you know how it is: you only get out as much as you put in, and this process can be pure gold for you, especially if you have many cognitive distortions.

JournalingThe second option, less professional, intense and scientific but still with great value, is to lead the self-analysing process yourself. You won’t internalize a new healthier blueprint for relationships, but you can get many insights about yourself. The best way to keep the needed discipline and to trigger analytical thinking in your brain is journaling.

Journaling and your self-reflective journal

Instead of having a psychoanalyst, a journal can be your tool for self-reflection and analytical work. When I talk about journaling, I’m not talking about writing down everything that happened to you on a specific day. I’m talking about why it happened, how you felt, why did you feel that way, how is that connected to your values and beliefs and so on.

Keeping a self-reflective journal is not about your day and what happened, but about your thoughts, your perspective, your feelings, your words, your actions and about the feedback from your environment. It’s about becoming aware of why you acted like you did and what the result of your behaviour was. It’s about becoming aware of who you are, what your true desires are, identifying your cognitive distortions and so on. All that should lead to insights, understanding and better knowing yourself.

Regularly reflecting by writing a journal will enable you to:

  • Get to know yourself step by step throughout different life situations
  • Be better connected to your true self, your values, emotions and desires
  • You will become more aware and come to more insights as well as understand your environment better, especially the people who are the closest to you
  • Develop deeper relationships by developing a greater capacity for love and by better understanding yourself. Being more tolerant towards yourself means being more tolerant towards others.
  • Have outstanding clarity and focus
  • Track your personal development and personal evolution. It will also accelerate your personal growth and development. You’ll be able to track your linear and rapid improvements.

Other benefits of journaling:

  • You get things out of your head and clear your mind, which can relax you and give you more creative and analytical potential.
  • You gain insights you would otherwise miss, especially since you’re keeping track of your thoughts and thinking. You quickly forget what you don’t write down, even the best business ideas.
  • Journaling is also a very powerful problem-solving tool, especially for complex problems.

There are three main ways of how to keep your journal (it’s not rocket science, but still):

Notebook – By far the best way to do self-reflection by journaling is writing things down. Your hand is connected directly to your brain and it’s a good feeling to have full control, while nothing is buzzing or blinking or distracting you. All you have to do is buy a notebook, schedule some time and start writing.

Applications – You have many applications you can use for journaling, such as text processors, editors, notepads and journaling software. If you decide for an app, you should test a few of them and select the one that works best for you. Maybe you can start with Evernote.

Private blog – The third option, also electronic, is having a private blog. Here are the instructions for how to open a blog (a public one, but all you have to do is keep it private). It’s probably not the best option and it’s also not the safest, but if it works for you, why not use it.

Some additional directions for keeping your journal as a self-reflective tool:

Be constant

The easiest way to start journaling is when you’re pissed off or have had a very vivid day. That’s okay, a journal is a great tool for situations like that, but to get the most out of journaling, you should do it consistently, daily. For example, for 30 minutes every day before you go to sleep.

It will become a habit for you, your mind will get into the state for self-reflection faster and you’ll have consistent history. The most powerful thoughts you can work with usually come when you have an empty head.

Be alone and without distractions

Keeping a self-reflective journal is about association. Associations always lead you to the core of the problem. An important part of it is that nobody should distract your flow of associations. That’s why it’s good to be alone and without distractions such as a phone or anything else.


Encourage your association flow by asking yourself why. Do it five times if necessary. Even ten if it leads you to more insight. As already mentioned, associations will slowly lead you to the core of everything, you’ll become aware sooner or later. You will get an insight into why you feel like you do and why you’ve found yourself in the situation you’re currently in.

5-Whys is also a great problem-solving method. Write down a problem you have and ask yourself “why” five times. After every answer, you ask yourself “why?” again and that will lead you to the core of the problem. Here is an example (source: Wikipedia):

  • The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
  • Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  • Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  • Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  • Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  • Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, the root cause)

Intellectual and emotional body

You need to distinguish between your mind and your emotions. It’s true that our thoughts and emotions are strongly connected, but you’re often in situations where something seems totally logical (how you should feel or do), but your emotions tell you a completely different story. Your emotions are the compass that leads you to the real insights.

For example, it may be logical that you take a new job that has a higher pay-check and more opportunities. But your emotions may not completely agree with the rational decision. You can feel your emotional body resisting. It’s part of your analytical job to ask yourself why. Five or even more times, if necessary.

You can help yourself with the following questions and guidelines:

  • Clearly describe a situation that happened to you
  • How does it make you feel and why? Continue with whys.
  • The situation you’re in and your feelings, what do they remind you of the most?

No judging, just noticing

The purpose of self-reflection by journaling is not to judge and criticize yourself or analyse what you should do and what you shouldn’t. It’s about being understanding, tolerant and noticing things about yourself.

It’s not about strengthening your inner critique, but vice versa. It’s about increasing your capacity for love towards yourself and others by becoming more aware and knowing yourself and your past. No matter what, be gentle with yourself when self-reflecting.

For increasing your short-term performance, productivity and improvement, regularly plan sprints and do reflections. And for increasing your long-term performance and happiness, do regular reflections and self-analysis by keeping a journal. It may seem like a huge investment, but it’s an investment that will enable you to really go for your true desires and goals. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you aren’t doing the right thing. Dare to be yourself!

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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