Have you ever felt completely daunted by your to-do list? Running at 200 miles per hour — but with no clear direction of where you’re going?
Or felt like you’re working harder than ever but getting less done?
If you or anyone you know has these symptoms, there’s some terrible news: You might be totally, absolutely…normal.
43% of employees experience stress ‘a lot’, according to Gallup’s 2021 State of the Global Workplace Report.
The reasons keep shifting — first, it was the pandemic. Then, inflation. After that, a war. Today, the general state of the world.
While you could blame social media, news, and Slack, the harsh reality is: There will always be stressors and unpleasantness in the world (and in our inner lives).
So do you just throw your hands in the air and pray your to-do list takes care of itself?
There is a way out.
Why self-reflection is the key to intentional work
Research has confirmed reflection exercises can lead to decreased stress and improved mental well-being.
Not just that: Employees who spend just 15 minutes practicing self-reflection at the end of their workday perform 23% better than those who don’t.
- Less stress, anxiety, and burnout because you know your early warning signs and have healthy practices in place
- More satisfaction with your work because you’re regularly checking in with yourself
- Your team benefits greatly since any work you do will ripple out into your coworkers
“Asking myself if something supports my north star metric(s) for company and content growth makes radically prioritizing ‘simple.’”
— Diana Briceño, Head of Content at VEED
There is no doubt about it — a daily reflection practice can help you be more intentional with your work and make better choices.
But finding a self-reflection exercise that works for you can often introduce new stress. Hunting for the perfect practice means finding something you can easily fit into your varying workdays. You might have to shop around for quite a few methods before finding the perfect one for you.
We asked over 20 marketers, founders, freelancers, and therapists to share their self-reflection exercises along with analyzing who they’re best for. Here are five methods you can use as a jumping-off point for your self-reflection practice.
1. Afternoon Walk
Best for: Deep workers who forget to take a break
Time: 20-60 mins
It’s hardly a new idea: A 2014 study from Stanford found walking can increase your creative output by a whopping 60% — and yet here you are. Butt in your chair in front of a laptop for the last three hours, am I right?
Our solution? Make it official by marking the activity in your calendar or to-do list.
Having it as a “task” will make you itch to cross it off and show up when your calendar demands you to.
Alyssa Towns, a freelance writer and a serial afternoon walker, recommends asking yourself the following questions on your afternoon walk:
- Did I accomplish what I labeled most important?
- Did I leverage my strengths today in my work?
- Did my work excite me or make me feel drained?
- What do I want more of? Less of?
- Is the work that's on my to-do list aligning with my values?
Best for: Busy professionals with a lot on their plate
Time: 10-60 mins
Self-improvement creators have become journaling junkies. Everyone’s trying it, and under peer pressure, you’ve likely tried it too.
But organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich’s research has shown people who keep journals generally have no more self-awareness than those who don’t.
What’s worse? A study has even found journal-ers can be more anxious — having self-reflection but not enough insight.
Before you burn all your pretty diaries, know the inherent problem isn’t with journaling. Of all the highly self-aware people Eurich studied, 35% reported keeping a journal. So the problem is journaling the wrong way.
Truly beneficial journaling has three elements:
- It helps you explore and understand your emotions
- It enables you to interpret factual information (because emotions alone can cause rumination)
- It makes you understand your impact on others
Journaling has as much variety as ice cream flavors, so it’s never one-size-fits-all. Depending on how much space you have in your workdays, you can try many different methods. Here are five:
3 things (and 3 other variations)
Amanda Natividad, the VP of Marketing at SparkToro, uses Notion to journal — writing one notable insight from the day, one thing she’s grateful for, and checks-off three tasks important to her holistic health.
What would these three questions do for you?
“Reflecting on those questions grounds me, and they remind me that no matter what I did that day, I have something new to be grateful for.”
— Amanda Natividad, VP of Marketing at SparkToro
You can play around and alter elements however it suits you. Matthew Fenton, founder and chief soloist at WinningSolo, jots down his work wins by answering three questions:
- What were my wins? (Not just outputs — mindset or habits count too)
- Who did I help, and how?
- What did I initiate?
If the daily practice doesn’t bode well with your routine, take a page out of writer and project consultant Claire Emerson’s book. She does a weekly check-in where she asks herself:
- What went well?
- What did I put off?
- What did I let interrupt my intentions?
- What distractions did I give into?
- Which tasks made me feel good about myself?
- What tasks felt bad?
- What's not working?
- What am I avoiding?
- Did my actions this week get me closer or further from my values?
Camille Hogg, a freelance HR tech content writer, reflects on three things she noticed about her workday before wrapping up for 10 mins.
“Reflecting on the day, staying curious about any feelings that come up, and noting them down helps me approach my work from a more intentional and non-judgemental perspective.”
— Camille Hogg, Freelance HR Tech Content Writer
If you’re looking to try this method, Sunsama has a daily shutdown ritual that prompts you to think about how your day went before you wind down.
The best part? You can automatically post this journal to your Slack if you want to keep your team members updated about the projects you’ve worked on and the progress you’ve made.
The idea? Write anything and everything that comes to your mind and hold nothing back. Cameron recommends not stopping for three pages.
It helps you get a clear head before you dive into work. Alice Lemée, a freelance writer who’s been writing morning pages for two years, says:
“It allows me to brain dump my thoughts, clear out my psyche, and dedicate a few extra minutes to myself before diving into other people's affairs.”
— Alicee Lemée, Freelance Writer
The done and the to-do tomorrow list
Have that nagging imposter syndrome noodling in your ear before you shut your laptop every day — asking you, did you accomplish anything? What did you even do today?
Your brain would tell you did nothing — zilch, nada. Your done list, however, would show you did tons. Just look at Adrienne Barnes’ list.
Masooma Memon, a freelance writer for SaaS and ecommerce brands, suggests you take this exercise a step further by also making your to-do list for tomorrow:
“Having a to-do list ready for the next day allows me to prioritize the most important tasks, start my day with full clarity of what’s to be done, and get the most demanding job done when I’m most productive.”
— Masooma Memon, Freelance Writer for SaaS and ecommerce brands
The best part? You don’t face the brain freeze of what-to-prioritize-today every morning when you already figured it out last evening. Now, you can bury your nose straight to work — after patting your past self’s back for being so responsible, of course.
But not everyone has the time (or patience!) to sit and journal every day. What if you’re just too…tired?
Best for: Impatient professionals who prefer a low-effort exercise
Time: 5-10 mins
Let’s admit it, after a looong day of working, the last thing you want to do is open up a notebook and start journaling. You want something meaningful without doing a ton of heavy-lifting, right?
- Stressor/Work Event: Think of any hiccups you encountered during the workday. For example, the plumber showed up unexpectedly to fix a water leak, and all your plans went awry.
- What you did: Think about what you did in the situation. Maybe today, you panicked and got irritable with everyone around you.
- What you could do: Reflect on what you could've done better. Today, you could’ve been more accommodating and empathetic if you had padded your deadlines with more buffer.
Easy, right? Turn this around positively, too — what’s a win for today? How did you celebrate it? What did you do right to accomplish that milestone?
⚡Pro-tip: Want to run a Marie-Kondo on your to-do list through self-reflection? Do the above workplace-meditation exercise for each task on your plate.
Open Sunsama’s notes section for one task and check:
- How much time you spent on this activity vs. how much you had planned
- If any stressors were involved in finishing this task
- If yes, how you handled those stressors, and what you could’ve done better
Repeat this for every task of the week on your Sunsama dashboard.
Running your to-do list with a ‘does-this-spark-joy’ detector will tell you what’s truly essential in contrast to what’s just taking up time.
Instead of looking back in your meditation, you can also look ahead. Carole Alalouf, founder of Exaltus, reflects on how she wants to feel tomorrow before wrapping up her workday:
- The outcomes she wants
- How she wants to handle things in her control
- Visualizes the situation playing out her way
Visualization can help you stay prepared for hiccups and how you want to deal with them rather than running on auto-pilot.
“You feel like you’re in the driver’s seat of life rather than going along for the ride.”
— Carole Alalouf, Founder at Exaltus
But I don’t have the time…
Being intentional with your work — as good as it feels — is no piece of cake. It takes showing up daily, regularly assessing how your workdays are going, and being honest with yourself to reap intentionality’s benefits.
But Dr. Emily Anhalt says carving time for self-reflection will actually save you time in the long term.
“Self-reflection will also help you keep small problems from becoming big problems, which take much more time. It’s an investment to take care of yourself.”
— Dr. Emily Anhalt, Clinical Psychologist and CoFounder of Coa, the gym for mental health
And if you want more nudges to remind you of being intentional with your work, tools like Sunsama — built with wholesome productivity in mind — can help you make it a habit.
Get started with your free 14-day trial and see the results for yourself.