How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection

Schedule Time for Reflective Thinking Every Week

A famous but possibly apocryphal tale about Albert Einstein is that he dreamed up the theory of relativity when riding his bicycle. Warren Buffett is on record as saying that he reads for six hours per day and has very few scheduled meetings. Both of these examples stand in stark contrast to the ways in which most leaders use their time. Many are slaves to email (one CEO only half-jokingly defines his job as “answering 2,000 emails a day”) and have much of the remainder of their time filled with meetings. But a focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection.

In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information. Brain science, popularized in Daniel Kahneman’s book, has shown that this type of “slow thinking” is negatively correlated with “fast thinking,” as might be employed when driving a car or solving a simple sum. In other words, reflective thinking (slow and deliberative) and reactive thinking (fast and instinctual) effectively exist at opposite ends of a switch. When one is “on,” the other is “off.”

Senior executives are victims of information overload and over-reliance on fast thinking. But some CEOs have managed to resist these tendencies. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, share Warren Buffett’s discipline to read extensively, safeguard time for personal development projects, and constantly seek new stimulus and perspectives. John Young, Group President of Pfizer Essential Health, remarked to us that reflective thinking improves his decision making by grounding it in a more integrated and coherent world view than one can have from acting only in the moment. From such leaders and from our counseling conversations with CEOs, we suggest some simple principles for leaders to rediscover and unlock the art of reflective thought.

Schedule unstructured thinking time. Time is a precondition for slow thinking. To develop a routine, time for reflection should be a regularly scheduled and a protected event on the leader’s calendar. A 2015 Harvard Business School study showed that CEOs’ schedules typically leave them with as little as 15% of their time for working alone. It is fair to assume that a large proportion of even this modest amount of time is likely consumed by reviewing information and dealing with urgent tactical matters, leaving only a tiny fraction for reflective thinking. A survey of 267 C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies suggests that they dedicate as little as 30 minutes per day for “personal development,” usually late in the evening.

There is no single optimal way to carve out time for unstructured thinking. Some will spread it out over the week: Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn, blocks between 90 minutes and two hours everyday for reflection and describes those buffers as “the single most important productivity tool” he uses. Susan Hakkarainen, Chairman and co-CEO of Lutron told us, “I use 40-minute walks to reflect and I read articles for personal stimulus and development over my morning coffee.” Yana Kakar, Global Managing Partner of Dalberg, reserves 3 two-hour blocks of time for reflection each week. She comments, “Thinking is the one thing you can’t outsource as a leader. Holding this time sacred in my schedule despite the deluge of calls, meetings, and emails is essential.”

Others concentrate reflection in a single day. Brian Scudamore, the serial entrepreneur at O2E Brands, sets aside all of Monday for thinking and organizing the rest of the week, which is filled with back-to-back meetings. He also creates a suitable environment for deep thinking by not going into the office on Monday. Phil Libin, former Evernote CEO, uses time in airplanes to disconnect from daily work.

Get a coach. The Socratic Method remains the most efficient way to stimulate reflection. To inspire and refine reflective thought, leaders will often benefit from structured dialogue with a trusted partner. If their relationship is strong, this partner can prompt the CEO with questions, observations, and challenges.

The role of the discussion partner is to facilitate the exploration of ideas, to make reflection more productive, and to build reflective habits and capabilities. In Plato’s dialogues, the principal role of Socrates is to ask guiding questions and provide catalytic inputs that lead students to structure their thoughts and articulate their learnings. The method may be even more relevant today than it was in ancient times.

Cultivate a list of questions which prompt reflective thought. Ideas will rarely simply appear to you. Even the most intuitive forms of thinking often require stimulus and inspiration. In the context of business thinking, a list of divergent questions can be a very useful tool for elevating oneself above tactical considerations. Questions can be adapted to resonate with each CEO’s way of thinking, but would typically include ones pertaining to personal vision, strategy, organization, and leadership, such as:

  • What is the purpose of the company?
  • What would I do differently if I could recreate the company from a blank state?
  • What would I do now if there were no legacy constraints on my actions?
  • What do I not know about the industry and the company?
  • What unique value can I add in my role as CEO?
  • What imprint do I wish to create as a leader on employees and other stakeholders?


Protect yourself and your organization from information overload. Peter Drucker famously recommended to “follow effective action with quiet reflection.” CEOs should ensure that opportunities for quiet reflection are not crowded out by information overload. Simple solutions are available. Think of email norms: chat and messaging to replace internal emails, limited access to large mailing lists, automatic scheduling of emails during working hours, easy disconnection from non-urgent messages, etc. Thierry Breton, CEO of IT services company Atos, referred to his own experience struggling with emails when he designed and launched a “Zero-email” program in 2011. By the end of 2013, emails were reduced by 60%. They were never fully eradicated, but the initiative is still perceived as a trailblazer, especially as Atos managed to reduce administrative costs from 13 to 10% in the same period.

However, information overload remains a cultural issue, a collective addiction. Communication is often shaped by implicit cultural norms weighing on employees. For instance, what is the email response time expected from subordinates? Making those norms explicit is essential to ensure boundaries are set in an equitable way, and not just at the discretion of every manager. In France, a widely commented upon 2017 law created a “right to disconnect” for employees. In practice, large companies will have to negotiate offline time with their staff, forcing them to have a strategy for electronic communications outside working hours. It is too early to judge the outcome, but if disconnecting on weekends simply leads to overflowing inboxes on Mondays, the law will not solve the problem. For reflective companies, the primary challenge is to ensure that excessive communication does not undermine productivity and prevent reflective thinking. To be effective, communication norms needs to be decided, clarified, embraced, and implemented company wide. We would suggest adopting a variant of an oft quoted adage, “Communicate, communicate, think quietly.”


Reimagine yourself as a meta-problem solver. As philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, “there is far too much work done in the world.” Your job as a CEO is to make sure that all work done in your organization is useful and productive, i.e. addresses the right questions.

A meta-problem solver thinks about problem solving. They question the process by which ideas are generated and problems solved, and ensure that the right questions are being addressed in the best manner.

One of the most critical issues for a CEO today is to ensure the relevance of strategies in complex and rapidly changing business environments. The reflective CEO not only questions the strategy itself, but also the suitability of the approach for developing and executing strategy in each situation. Depending on the predictability, malleability, and harshness of the environment, different approaches to strategic thinking are appropriate. Reflective thought is a powerful antidote to the mechanical application of familiar approaches to new situations.

Rather than questioning details of the execution, leaders need to ensure that teams have the right approaches and tools to solve complex problems. If a problem is escalated to you, always ask yourself why your teams were unable to solve it and what you can do to expand their thinking.

Be a role model for your employees. Reflective thinking routines can trickle down the organization with senior executives serving as role models. As part of the radical transparency that he promotes, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh shares his schedule publicly, thus modeling how he uses his time to others.

The most straightforward way to diffuse habits of reflection is to require people to adopt them. At AOL, Tim Armstrong has simply instructed executives to spend one-tenth of each working week on reflective thinking.

There are also more implicit ways to encourage reflection. At Microsoft, when he was appointed CEO, Satya Nadella was “known for listening, learning, and analyzing.” The behavior he displayed was essential to promote the culture of exploration required to transform the company.

The CEO’s use of time effectively contributes powerfully to the definition of a corporate culture. Reflective thinking should not be the privilege of the enlightened CEO presiding over an organization which merely executes. As automation and artificial intelligence reduce the share of employee time spent on fast thinking and acting, promoting a culture of reflection will be even more critical in creating a sustainable advantage.

By reviving the art of reflection, leaders can reclaim their time, deploy their fully cognitive powers to the increasingly complex challenges they face and, by inspiring the same behavior in others, liberate employees from the corrosive effects of information overload and incessant reactivity.

Martin Reeves is a senior partner and managing director in the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and the director of the BCG Henderson Institute. He is the coauthor of Your Strategy Needs a Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). You may contact him by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow him at @MartinKReeves.

Roselinde Torres is a senior partner in the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and leads CEO Advisory.

Fabien Hassan is an ambassador to the BCG Henderson Institute.


Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)

When people find out I’m an executive coach, they often ask who my toughest clients are. Inexperienced leaders? Senior leaders who think they know everything? Leaders who bully and belittle others? Leaders who shirk responsibility?

The answer is none of the above. The hardest leaders to coach are those who won’t reflect — particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves.

At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more nuanced than that. The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.

Research by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats in call centers demonstrated that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. A study of UK commuters found a similar result when those who were prompted to use their commute to think about and plan for their day were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.

So, if reflection is so helpful, why don’t many leaders do it?  Leaders often:

  • Don’t understand the process.  Many leaders don’t know how to reflect. One executive I work with, Ken, shared recently that he had yet again not met his commitment to spend an hour on Sunday mornings reflecting. To help him get over this barrier, I suggested he take the next 30 minutes of our two-hour session and just quietly reflect and then we’d debrief it. After five minutes of silence, he said, “I guess I don’t really know what you want me to do. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been doing it.”
  • Don’t like the process. Reflection requires leaders to do a number of things they typically don’t like to do: slow down, adopt a mindset of not knowing and curiosity, tolerate messiness and inefficiency, and take personal responsibility. The process can lead to valuable insights and even breakthroughs — and it can also lead to feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, defensiveness, and irritation.
  • Don’t like the results. When a leader takes time to reflect, she typically sees ways she was effective as well as things she could have done better. Most leaders quickly dismiss the noted strengths and dislike the noted weaknesses. Some become so defensive in the process that they don’t learn anything, so the results are not helpful.
  • Have a bias towards action. Like soccer goalies, many leaders have a bias toward action. A study of professional soccer goalies defending penalty kicks found that goalies who stay in the center of the goal, instead of lunging left or right, have a 33% chance of stopping the goal, and yet these goalies only stay in the center 6% of the time. The goalies just feel better when they “do something.”  The same is true of many leaders. Reflection can feel like staying in the center of the goal and missing the action.
  • Can’t see a good ROI.  From early roles, leaders are taught to invest where they can generate a positive ROI — results that indicate the contribution of time, talent or money paid off.  Sometimes it’s hard to see an immediate ROI on reflection — particularly when compared with other uses of a leader’s time.

If you have found yourself making these same excuses, you can become more reflective by practicing a few simple steps.

Identify some important questions. But don’t answer them yet. Here are some possibilities:

  • What are you avoiding?
  • How are you helping your colleagues achieve their goals?
  • How are you not helping or even hindering their progress?
  • How might you be contributing to your least enjoyable relationship at work?
  • How could you have been more effective in a recent meeting?

Select a reflection process that matches your preferences.  Many people reflect through writing in a journal.  If that sounds terrible but talking with a colleague sounds better, consider that.  As long as you’re reflecting and not just chatting about the latest sporting event or complaining about a colleague, your approach is up to you.  You can sit, walk, bike, or stand, alone or with a partner, writing, talking, or thinking

Schedule time.  Most leaders are driven by their calendars. So, schedule your reflection time and then commit to keep it. And if you find yourself trying to skip it or avoid it, reflect on that!

Start small.  If an hour of reflection seems like too much, try 10 minutes.  Teresa Amabile and her colleagues found that the most significant driver of positive emotions and motivation at work was making progress on the tasks at hand. Set yourself up to make progress, even if it feels small.

Do it. Go back to your list of questions and explore them. Be still. Think. Consider multiple perspectives. Look at the opposite of what you initially believe. Brainstorm. You don’t have to like or agree with all of your thoughts — just think and to examine your thinking.

Ask for help. For most leaders, a lack of desire, time, experience, or skill can get in the way of reflection.  Consider working with a colleague, therapist, or coach to help you make the time, listen carefully, be a thought partner, and hold you accountable.

Despite the challenges to reflection, the impact is clear. As Peter Drucker said: “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.”

Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.