How To Regain the Lost Art of Reflection

Every single article I read on “How to Be a Better Leader” has this advice on their list:  make time to think.  That’s a simple directive that is not so simple to do.  We all know that time and space to sit quietly with our thoughts is not just going to show up in our schedules, we have to figure out a way to make it happen.  Before we even do that though, we have to understand why it’s important, what it will do to improve our lives and the lives of our teams, and believe this solution will make a difference.  Even then, it’s difficult to go through with intentional “thinking time” on the clock if you are in an industry and on teams that expect their leaders to be constantly doing, acting, moving.  It’s hard to feel good about spending time with your thoughts when it looks to your team like you’re doing nothing, even when you know it’s essential.

This article is asking you to make time to think.  It is written against the backdrop of an executive world with lots of global-officy examples, please find a way to see through all of that.  Keep in mind that you are the CEO, “Senior Executive,” and C-Suite individual they are talking about and appealing to; surround yourself with scenarios from your life, your team, your restaurant as you read it.  Take it all in and make of it what you will.  If you want to process the information further, check out the questions following the article.

Thank you for making the time and space in your busy schedule to reflect on reflecting.  Please send me your thoughts, reactions, and challenges – I love to hear how this stuff lands on you!  -Becky

Image of Young Joni by The Restaurant Project

How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection

by Martin Reeves, Roselinde Torres and Fabien Hassan, September 25, 2017

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 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


 A few questions for you:

Think about your work day and estimate how much time you spend “fast thinking” and “slow thinking.”  How does the answer make you feel?  Do you think the breakdown is appropriate given your tasks and responsibilities, or are you noticing that you’d like to see those numbers change?  If you’d like to see change, what are your first steps toward making that happen?

Do you have a routine that includes time for thinking?

If you do, assess how effective it is.  What benefits are you seeing from it?  What drawbacks?  What do you need to do to sustain that routine or make it more impactful?

If you don’t, why not?  What could you gain from adding it into your routine?  What would you lose?  How could you make it a sustainable practice?

How can you communicate to your team that you’re taking time to reflect so that they understand it’s necessary and a priority?

Who or what could help you stay reflective when you get time to step back and think about things?  What questions could you ask yourself?  Who could help give you feedback or challenge you on the big picture things that come into focus?

Where are you on the information overload scale (from “on top of it” to “drowning”)?  If you see a need to interact with all of the information coming at you differently, what does that look like?  Do you and your team have ground rules in place for how to handle information and communication?

How do you go about solving problems?  How do you take in the information, make sense of it, and make decisions?  How does your strategy differ when you’re in a situation that is slow thinking (slow and deliberate) or fast thinking (fast and instinctual)? When the problem is big or small?  Where do you find opportunities to dream up new ways of addressing old or recurring problems?  Where are you and your team agile when it comes to solving problems, and where do you tend to rely on familiar systems and solutions?

What do you want to model for your team when it comes to reflection?  What would you need to start, stop, or continue doing to send that message?  What benefit do you see for people on your team (leaders and hourly team members) to make time to reflect?

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