Skip to content

Look Back to Look Ahead

By John C. Maxwell | November 5, 2019
Look Back to Look Ahead

I’m in London this week for an event, and while my focus is on the people I’m serving, my thoughts are turning towards the remaining weeks of this year. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, Christmas is close, and 2019 will soon end as we enter the third decade of this millennium.

Put that all together, and it’s the perfect time for reflection.

It’s no secret that I carve out time at the end of each year to reflect on what I’ve done, where I’ve been, and how I’ve invested my time, so I’m not going to go into detail on that.

But I will spend a few words to encourage you to adopt the habit.

We live in a busy world. It’s a world that tells you to move as fast as you can towards the things that matter and promises that, if you’ll just keep moving, everything will work out. I’m as action biased as a person can get, but while I value the energy generated by taking action, I learned a long time ago the importance of pausing.

Of slowing down.

Reflection is an intentional stoppage, a deliberate habit that must be cultivated.

Like all disciplines, it’s an interruption of the regular flow of life to pursue a purposeful end. And, like all disciplines, it must be practiced in order to be maintained.

In my book, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, I share four critical components of a healthy reflective discipline:

  1. Investigation—we experience so much in any given day that it’s difficult for us to truly understand everything that happens to us. When we stop to reflect, we can ask questions of our experiences and dig into what we learned, loved, and need to leave behind. This is piece of the reflective process allows us to discover new ideas and new pathways for our future.
  • Incubation—whether you like my illustrations of crock-pot thinking or iceberg thinking, the point is that deep and helpful thoughts require time. Reflection allows us to capture our thinking before something else comes along to steal the thoughts. It allows us to develop our new ideas and pathways.
  • Illumination—this is when the lightbulb goes on, the moment when your thinking transcends the messy, complicated middle and lands on a thoughtful yet simple end. Reflection allows experiences of joy or sorrow or pain or success to reveal their truest lessons. It allows you to define what really matters about your new ideas or pathways.
  • Illustration—I teach people to always ask three questions about any new learning they encounter: what can I apply? What can I change? What can I teach? Most of the time, people focus on the first two, because those are internally focused and easier to live out. Teaching requires courage—and an audience—so many people opt to skip it. But there’s no better way of mastering a fresh insight like teaching it to someone else. As you wrap up your time of reflection, capturing what you’ve learned about your new ideas or pathways will help you deliver results in the days to come.

I’m going to share one final secret about the habit of reflection: if you really want it to help you discover, develop, define, and deliver new ideas and pathways, then it’s best if you practice it daily. I wrap up each day by reflecting, and I even focus my thoughts by asking myself, “How did I intentionally add value to others today?”

Your reflection question might take a different angle—maybe asking what you learned today, or what you observed today—but it should still prompt you to spend time thinking and learning from what you experienced. Developing that daily habit will only strengthen what’s possible for you in extended times of reflection.

Before the holidays fully arrive, I encourage you to get in the habit of reflecting daily. You can begin building a discipline that will only help you as we turn the page on 2019.

With a new decade dawning, it’s the perfect time to look back in order to look ahead.

More Articles

Do I Believe The Best In Others?
By Mark Cole | March 1, 2022

Do I Believe The Best In Others?

By John C. Maxwell | October 6, 2021


The 5 Key Resilience Traits You Need Right Now
By Valorie Burton | September 21, 2021

The 5 Key Resilience Traits You Need Right Now

4 thoughts on "Look Back to Look Ahead"

  • Frank Baumann says: November 7, 2019 at 10:16 am

    I have always been a very reflective person, even as a child I spent time reflecting on my life. I have spent 1,000s of hours in reflection and I believe it has kept me sane in this crazy/fallen world. Reading John’s blog just illuminated one sad fact; all that time was “less effective” because I did not write it down.

    I have read most of John’s books, plus dozens of other leadership and “self help” books. I have been to numerous seminars and watched multiple video series; this is not the first time I have heard this, and I hope not the last. I do not know how or why I overlooked or “missed” this simple thing for so many years.

    What is clear is that this blog post was a source of Illumination for me and it will drastically change my path forward. I will start journalling today.

    We should never forget that inspiration, or in this case, illumination can come from many places and it may take 100 times before it actually “clicks”.

    Thank you John!

  • Kevin says: November 7, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    Any words of advice on the opposite of reflection? I’m an intuitive abstract thinker often caught up in the research and exploration of ideas and projects…the “why” behind things. I’m often slow or paralyzed to act as getting into the details can be confusing and overwhelming. Thanks, I’ll hang up and listen.

  • Jason Brooks says: November 8, 2019 at 9:35 am

    Kevin–John’s always said that reflection leads to insight which leads to action. If you spend a lot of time thinking, the counterbalance is to spend time taking action on some of those thoughts. I’m a thinker myself, so learning to take a step is crucial. We practice the Success Cycle here: test, fail, learn, improve, re-enter. The testing and failing are action pieces, the learning and improving are reflection pieces. Re-entering is a bit of both–taking action on what you’ve thought about.

  • Debra Boelkes says: November 12, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    Love the comment about reflecting daily, which I try to do in the wee hours of the morning while the rest of my world is fast asleep.

    Also love the suggestion about TEACHING as part of Illustration. You never learn so well as when you must teach or mentor someone else. Thanks to John for reminding us of these very important “ahas”!

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *