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Reflection – as Elusive as it is Effective


I started writing this back in January with all the talk of New Year's resolutions and am now editing it in the midst of Olympic heartache and triumphs. We're now long past when most of us do our year-end or New Year reflecting and resolving, and most of us are only experiencing the Olympics from the comfort of our own homes. As invested as we may feel in a certain team or competitor, when the final whistle goes, they cross the finish line, or see their final marks posted, we are just not experiencing those highs and lows the same way they are.

Having said that, this blog is about reflection, and we don't need to be Olympic athletes to have important highs and lows in our lives to reflect on; we don't need to wait for New Year's to reflect on where we've been, what we've done, and how we should move forward. Reflecting may seem like a pretty straightforward and easy thing to do. You might be thinking, "yep, I think about something that's already happened and that's reflecting on it." The truth is, it's a bit more complicated than that, and a lot of the time, when we think we're reflecting, we actually might not be.

Reflection is about more than looking at what is there.

In my line of work we talk a lot about focus, and I like to use something called the 3Ps as a nice reminder of what an ideal performance focus looks like. The 3Ps stand for Present, Positive, and Process: stay focused on what is happening right now (present), what is going well and what your strengths are (positive), and the simple things you have to do to be successful (process). This is great for during your performance, and if you listened to interviews with any of the Olympians you likely heard them say things like "I just stayed focused on what I had to do," or "we're just going to worry about one game at a time."

Once the performance is over, however, we get into a situation much more like our New Year's resolution time. It is important that before we plough forward with new plans, we take some time to look back.  Especially when things haven't gone well, it can be tempting to just forget the bad, ignore our past failures, and either carry on as if it hadn't happened. Or maybe we redirect towards a new goal thinking we can avoid remembering or reliving those difficult times. On the other hand, when things are good, we sometimes would rather just celebrate and move on without thinking about it much further than that. Looking forward and planning for the future with a positive outlook is definitely an important step, but ignoring the past (good or bad) can actually hurt our future planning.

Now, here is the big difference: we don't want to LIVE IN the past, we want to LEARN FROM the past and let that learning INFORM our decisions for the future. We don't want to get stuck ruminating on the past - going over the same thoughts or ideas again and again and again. Reliving situations and feelings from the past and wallowing in the negativity (or basking in the positivity) can keep us from moving forward. Instead, we want to be able to grieve or celebrate for a short time and then reflect on our success and failure to help us determine the best way to move forward. While this may involve reliving the situation and feelings, it should go further than that to consider things like the actions taken by you and others, and the level of control you had over those actions. You can read more about controlling your attributions in my last post 'Heros, Villians, and Attributions.'

In order to really get the most out of our reflections, however, we have to consider more than the event itself. We can do this by asking ourselves questions, taking different perspectives, revisiting past situations after a fresh experience, and comparing current situations and feelings with similar situations from our pasts. We want to compare a single event or time period and our thoughts and feelings related to it, with other experiences, thoughts, and feelings in order to learn as much as we can about ourselves and also the world around us.

Good reflection can help us to see things in a way we never have before.

If you're not sure where to start here's my advice.

1. Start with the facts.

•     Get started by writing down what you remember as the main ideas from the event or time period you are reflecting on. Remember the longer the time period, the more there may be to write about, but the more general you can be as well. If reflecting on a longer period of time, hopefully you have done some smaller reflections within that time (don't wait until the end of the Olympic quadrennial or your entire undergrad to reflect on all four years, instead reflect after each event, season, or year as they come), but, if not, still focus your energy on the bigger picture -  look for patterns and events that stand out the most.

•     Questions to ask yourself: What happened? Who was there? When and where did things happen?

Keep your reflections in one place so you can always come back to them.

2. Fill in your subjective experience.

•     Now you can get away from actual facts and into your experience of the events. These may feel like facts to you but they are your own thoughts, perceptions, and interpretations of the facts.

•     Questions to ask yourself: What were you thinking? How did you feel? What did you imagine other people were thinking and feeling?

3. Compare and contrast.

•     At this step you should look at the similarities and differences not just within this time period or event but between this time period and others. If reflecting on a larger time period, look back at reflections you've done during that time period and ask yourself what has changed?

•     Questions to ask yourself: Have you ever experienced this before? How was this experience the same or different from your experiences in the past? Did (or do) certain feelings remind you of another time or experience in your life? Does this experience remind you of an experience you've heard or read about (real or fictional)?

4. Imagine and connect.

•     This is where some great reflection can happen. Use your imagination and critical thinking to question and try to understand even more of your experience from new perspectives and with new information. You can pretty much ask yourself any question you can think of and include any information you might have to bring your reflection to an even deeper level. You could even question why you are asking the questions you are asking!

•     Questions to ask yourself: How would you feel if you were a different actor in this scenario? How would you want to act if a similar situation were to happen again? What have you read or heard in the past that might support or contradict your beliefs on this topic? How do these other views make you feel about your own opinions and beliefs? What other factors could play a role in a situation like this one? How do you feel now looking back at these facts and experiences - is it the same or different than how you felt at the time and what might have caused it to change or stay the same?

Often, when we think we are reflecting, we don't actually get past steps one and two, which means we're remembering without actually reflecting. If we can give ourselves the time and permission to really delve into some deeper questioning, we can move beyond remembering or ruminating and create an opportunity to learn and grow from our experiences. This allows us to move forward in a healthier and more positive direction.

As a bonus, developing these reflection skills not only helps our self-growth but it also helps to develop important critical thinking skills. Also, the practice of taking other perspectives and questioning our own beliefs can make us more open to new ideas and more empathetic of other people's situations. In other words, a little reflection could make us all better friends, parents, partners, teammates, leaders and more.

Make an appointment with a helping professional or plan a regular time to reflect on your own.

Finally, like anything else, knowing how to reflect does not have any effect unless we actually make or find the time to do it. This might mean scheduling a session with a mental performance consultant or another professional. Having a trained neutral third party can help you take your reflection further than you might on your own. If you don't have access to a professional, a trusted friend can also be helpful, but usually, your best bet is to see how you do on your own first and then bring in outside help to prompt some new perspectives.

Whether on your own or with a helper, a quiet, distraction-free environment is going to be best for this. I'm not saying you need a solo weekend forest retreat, just half an hour with your phone turned off after the kids have gone to sleep, or a few extra minutes in the parked car at the beginning or end of your workday. Some people find they think better when they are active and might prefer to work through some of these questions over a lunchtime walk or morning run - just make sure that if you do your thinking while moving, you leave yourself time to consolidate in writing soon afterwards.

Fresh air and activity can be helpful to get your reflection started - just be sure to make note of your questions and revelations afterwards.

Now you're all set to start reflecting and learning from events in your life. Maybe it's a recent promotion or demotion, or an interaction with a teammate or colleague that is keeping you up at night; maybe you were cut from a team or had a change in your relationship status; maybe you've been trying to make a lifestyle change and don't seem to be having much success. Whatever is going on in your life - take some time to really reflect and give yourself the opportunity to learn from your past and move forward ready to take on new challenges. Let me know how it goes, or reach out to me if you have questions or would like to chat.

winner being announced in a boxing ring

Heroes, Victims, and Attributions


Heroes, Victims, and Attributions

Attributions are the reasons you attribute your success or failure to. We don't always pay that much attention or think that much of them, but, in fact, your attributions can affect your self perception, and, in turn, your attitude towards future challenges. Paying attention to those attributions and being purposeful in making your attributions can change your perception of the world and your confidence and sense of control over your performance.

An easy way to think of attributions is in the form of a story we make up to explain various events and outcomes. Think about a recent situation of success or failure: if you were to write out that story would you be the hero or the victim? Was there an evil villain working against you or just plain luck and circumstances? Did you have a sidekick or were you the sidekick or the one being saved? Most stories can be written several different ways to get to the same outcome, and, often, the story we write is more important even than the outcome itself.

what's your story

Now into the nitty-gritty. There are a few general classifications for attributions, which fall along three spectrums: Internal-External, Stable-Unstable, and Controllable-Uncontrollable. Internal attributions relate to the individual's skills and traits like intelligence, strength, time-management, work ethic, etc., whereas external attributions relate to situational factors like other individuals' skills and traits, weather, luck, technology, etc. Stable attributions involve factors that will remain consistent over time, while unstable attributions are situation or time specific. Finally, controllable attributions hinge on factors that are within an individual's control, for example, effort exerted, or resources utilized, versus factors that are not within an individual's control, which take the blame in uncontrollable attributions. Healthy attributions are those that allow for growth and promote self-worth no matter the situation or outcome: successes attributed to internal, controllable, and stable factors and failures attributed to unstable, internal and controllable factors. Healthy attributions can lead to positive emotions, increased motivation and confidence, and a sense of control over future outcomes. Unhealthy attributions can happen in either extreme: some people avoid taking ownership for failures and often take undue credit for successes while others self-criticize for failures and dismiss successes as unstable, uncontrollable, and external, in other words, luck and the mistakes of others. While completely different, both of these extremes prevent you from learning, growing, and building true confidence.

You might be wondering why this matters because we can't change what happened. The reality is that we are not very good at accurately assessing the factors involved in any given outcome, and, at the end of the day, what matters most (as with everything) is not the reality but our perception of the reality. Researchers have identified some common attributional biases that help us to understand the ways in which we tend to perceive situations. For example a self-serving attributional bias involves attributing more internal, stable, and controllable factors to positive outcomes than negative outcomes. This allows us to feel like the hero when things go well, and the guilt-free victim when they don't. Something called the fundamental attribution error says that we are more likely to attribute success or failure in others to internal factors, such as the individual's character or intent, and ignore or dismiss external and situational factors. This often leads to us building others up as heroes for their successes and can result in our blaming the victim in certain crimes. When attributing factors to our own successes and failures we are more likely to consider the situation or context. In other words, I might say that you succeeded because you're a natural at this, whereas I succeeded because I worked really hard. You failed because you're not very good at this, but I failed because it wasn't a fair competition. Other factors like mental health, confidence in a specific skill set, and experience with the context or situation can also affect the types of attributions we make.

Attributions are learned from the people and situations around us. While you may never have known the term attribution before today, you've definitely been making them every day from a very early age. We can help others to make healthy attributions by modelling that behaviour ourselves and by providing feedback and support that includes healthy attributions. There is a delicate balance between taking responsibility and ownership for our failures and belittling our efforts and abilities, just as there is between celebrating our successes and strengths and believing ourselves to be perfect or invincible.

blank notebook open with pencil

Most of us like to be sure. We like to have a reason, a cause, someone to blame or credit. And we like for this reason to be simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. The truth is, as I've said before, that's not always (or often) the case. It's unusual to find just one factor as the cause of an outcome - if we can even find a direct cause. Unfortunately, that leaves the door open for our minds to make up a story that fills in those blanks. Next time you find yourself secretly or otherwise dolling out credit or blame, take some time to think about all of the factors that could be at play and (evidence or not) pay attention to those that allow for you to learn and grow and move forward in a positive way from the experience, good or bad. This may involve seeking out help from a trusted friend or neutral party with whom you can be vulnerable. It may involve writing out a list of possible stories with varying villains and heroes. It may involve quiet reflection on your own or imagining yourself as a different character in the story and trying to see things from their perspective. Whatever form it takes, remember that our minds will create stories and assign blame and credit either way. It's up to us to intervene enough to oversee the writing process and edit as needed to ensure we're headed towards the ending we want.


Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is There a Universal Positivity Bias in Attributions? A Meta-Analytic Review of Individual, Developmental, and Cultural Differences in the Self-Serving Attributional Bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711-747. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711

empty road going off into the horizon

Resolutions and Goal Setting


You might be thinking, "Jocelyn, it's almost March. Why are you writing about resolutions and goal setting?" In that case, I would say, "Read on! There's more to goal setting than New Year's resolutions."

Ok, so there are a lot of articles out there about New Year's resolutions and how to keep them, and how setting goals instead of resolutions is better. It seems like all the information you could ever want is out there, so you might be wondering why I'm writing about this too. The answer is that despite all of this information, many people still don't succeed in keeping their resolutions or achieving their goals; therefore, something must be missing.

Let's start with the basics. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines a resolution as "a  firm decision to do or not to do something" and a goal as "the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result." These two things are not the same, but they do go hand in hand very nicely. The goal provides the direction and target whereas the resolution provides the motivation and commitment to strive for the goal. A resolution on its own is often vague and a goal on its own can lack personal meaning. In order to be successful, it is important to have both the motivation and the target. At the end of the day though, people throw these terms around a lot and often use them to mean the same thing, especially when speaking of New Year's resolutions. For the sake of this article I'm going to talk about goals, but please know that I believe all goals should be made with a resolution to achieve them.

Now if you were to use our friend Google and read a few of these articles with titles like "9 ways to keep your New Year's resolution" and "top tips for successful goal setting," you would find all sorts of advice for how to set yourself up for success. I'm going to try to avoid replicating such a list for two reasons: the first of course is that they already exist, but the second (and perhaps more important) reason is that I don't think that just reading those lists is all that helpful. That doesn't mean this article ends here though; it just means that hopefully, you find my approach to be a bit different.

It's not that I disagree with any of the standard tips, but, while some are pretty standard, others can seem to contradict each other, and at the end of the day we're all different and just because something works for one person (or even most people) doesn’t mean it's what is best for you. In addition, even if you had the perfect list, stating exactly how to achieve success in every area of your life, that knowledge doesn't mean anything until you act on it - and that is often the hardest part.

That said here is my 'list of tips' to help you navigate the overwhelming information out there, start and continue acting on your goals, and, ultimately, get the most out of them.

1. Talk to someone

man talking to woman sitting in office
Talk to someone you can trust

Whether this is an MPC or another professional, your spouse, best friend, parent, sibling, teammate, coach, co-worker, or barista, talking helps for many reasons. There's the typical reason you hear - that by sharing and making your goals public you become more accountable to them - but it's actually much more than that. Talking can help you set more adaptive and meaningful goals in the first place, but there's a catch - don't just talk to anyone. Talk to someone with whom you have or can develop mutual trust - if you can't trust each other, you can't be honest with each other, and if you can't be honest with each other, they're not going to be much help to you despite their best efforts. Talk to people who know you well and share your outlook, but also talk to people who can provide outside perspectives (without judgement) and help you to see things in a new and different way. Finally, if you can't think of anyone in your life like this right now, and you aren't comfortable talking to a professional, try talking to yourself by writing in a journal.

2. Think about all the specifics

The Thinker statue
Take time to think through your plan

Setting specific goals may be the most commonly used tip out there, and for good reason. If your goal is just to be better, it is both the easiest and hardest goal you could come up with to accomplish. Better at what? Better than what? Better by when? Better how? Better why? On the one hand you will never know if you've accomplished this goal, but on the other hand, you could claim that you've accomplished it at any time. So yes, be very specific in your goal setting including creating a plan of smaller steps or goals to help along the way. I usually suggest starting with the big ideas and longer timeframes and working down from there asking yourself questions as you go to get more and more information. This is where talking to someone can definitely help. What do you want to accomplish? What will that look like day to day? When and how will you accomplish it? What might get in the way of you accomplishing this and what could help you? What steps will you have to take to accomplish it? Why do you want to accomplish it and what will your life be like when you do? Koestner, Lekes, Powers, and Chicoine (2002) found that creating specific action plans known as implementation intentions resulted in greater goal progress. Implementation intentions are plans linked to specific environmental cues which help to automatize goal-related behaviours. In other words, it allows you to work towards your goal without as much conscious effort or
decision making.

3. Be flexible, positive, generous, and kind

snail bridging the gab between two rocks
Adapt to overcome challenges

Now that you have this super specific goal and detailed plan in place to accomplish it, it can be very intimidating. While the details and specifics are in place to help us succeed and help us better recognize and celebrate those successes, it often just feels like there are now many ways to fail. This is where the flexibility comes in. Specific goals can still provide a window of success. For example, if your goal (or part of your goal) is to workout 5 days a week, consider making it 3-5 days where 5 is your ideal, but you understand that some weeks might only be 3 or 4, and that doesn't make you a failure. Alternatively, make 5 your average number of workouts a week knowing that some weeks will be better and others worse. Positive, generous, and kind might seem like just good advice for life in general and maybe that's why it applies here too. Be gentle with yourself - change takes time and is never without setbacks, but stay positive - knowing that perfection isn't possible doesn't mean that you can't continue to strive for it and achieve some incredible results. And remember, while it's good to dream big, you don't have to do it all at once. Start with small manageable goals that can gradually build to your ultimate goal.

4. Reach out and keep talking

two hands interlocked
Reach out and support one another

We've established that there may be setbacks. Life happens and things are always changing, so keep talking. Other priorities will try to take over and new challenges will arise that you hadn't thought of. Check in with your helper regularly to update them on your progress, celebrate your successes, commiserate over setbacks, set new goals, and brainstorm solutions to help achieve old ones. As time goes on you may also have more people to talk to who can provide more support and new perspectives; and you may learn more about yourself, which will help you to refine and adapt your goals as you go. Remember all the hokey sayings like "success is a journey, not a destination?" Well, they're true. A goal may be defined as a result, but having accomplished one goal doesn't mean that you just stop there. Depending on the goal you either continue striving to maintain it or set a new goal and begin striving for it. For some people, an event like New Year's, a birthday, anniversary, new job, or new school year helps them to get talking or take action, but an average Tuesday is just as good a time as any.

5. Be authentic

woman jumping in forest with water in the distance
Go your own way

This is another popular tip and, again, for good reason. Setting goals that are important, meaningful, relevant, and exciting to you will increase your odds of accomplishing them (Koestner et al., 2002). I would like to go even further to say that, not just the goals themselves, but the manner in which you go about striving for them should be specific to you. Dr. Seuss has many beloved quotes but the appropriate one here is, "there is no one alive who is youer than you." You are the only person who truly knows and understands all of your unique dreams, values, and quirks. Others can be great motivators, valuable resources, strong supports, and inspiring role models, but, at the end of the day, you are the one living your life. Set goals that will get you closer to your dream life and then strive for them in a way that works with your everyday challenges.

And that's it. Do you have a favourite tip that has helped you in your goal pursuit? Or a big obstacle that seems to keep getting in the way? I'd love to hear about it. Send me an email or share with everyone in the comments section. We're all in this together. Now go get talking and planning and reviewing and goal crushing!


Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Powers, T. A., & Chicoine, E. (2002). Attaining personal goals: Self-concordance plus implementation intentions equals success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 231-244. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.1.231