The Habit of Reflection

by Site Author

Late one night, in 1948, a young writer was working on a manuscript. He had been distracted and away from his writing for too long. A friend of his, a poet, had visited. Now, he was finally back at the typewriter.

And then, after hours of working on the manuscript, the writer turned to his diary.

My typing was held up by all these delays. Now I figure I have at least 450 pages typed and ready, and about 500, or 550, to go — so again, I’ll set a pace and a goal, and this time, absolutely keep it. I must do at least 25 pages a day…

The writer was Jack Kerouac. A visit from Allen Ginsberg had distracted him, but now he was back at work. He would write nearly every night. And, after each writing session, he would describe the effort in his diary.

Much of Kerouac’s diary was devoted to this kind of discussion. He reflected on how the writing was going, describing each turn banging away at the typewriter. He even invented a formula to convert his daily output into a batting average. For several months, he would jot down a number that quantified how well he was writing.

Typed 30 pages today, using a new kind of self-discipline. That many pages each day, according to last week’s batting average discipline, would give me a .600 average.

Such a practice is called reflection. Kerouac was thinking back on his performance, judging how he had performed, and debating how he could improve. Roediger and McDaniel quote a surgeon who describes a similar practice.

A lot of times something would come up in surgery that I had difficulty with, and then I’d go home that night thinking about what happened and what could I do, for example, to improve the way a suturing went. How can I take a bigger bite with my needle, or a smaller bite, or should the stitches be closer together? What if I modified it this way or that way?

Roediger and McDaniel then gush about this kind of practice. They argue that reflection can help people improve.

Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.

The psychologists propose reflection as a habit that more people ought to practice. They encourage students to write down notes of reflection after each class. The surgeon they interview argues that the habit should be standard practice in medical residency.

Kerouac was not alone in using a diary to reflect. Indeed, throughout history, many effective leaders have independently discovered the utility of such a practice. Remarkable men and women kept diaries throughout their lives. The diaries weren’t just a record of events. They were tools for reflection.