Two Reflection Exercises to Help You Work Smarter

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Everyone wants to work smarter, but when you’re self-employed finding time to work on your business, not just in it, is hard. You’re already so busy doing client work, where’s the time to make improvement? It’s even harder to step back and evaluate what you’re doing, not just how you’re doing it. Working smarter is about doing the right things, not just doing tasks more efficiently. 

But how do you know if you’re doing the right things? And what does “working smarter” really mean? Most businesses measure growth rate, client retention, revenue, and profit margin. However, as an independent consultant one thing is even more important—your own satisfaction and fulfillment, or literally your “internal rate of return.” You went out on your own for a reason—how is it working out?  

Below are two simple exercises to help you assess your internal rate of return and point you to working smarter. It’s best to do one or both either while you’re on vacation or just back from one, after you’ve cleared your brain a bit and caught your breath. Another option is to use your morning run or commute to think about these questions—no music, just listen to your thoughts. 

You don’t need to do these reflection exercises at your desk. In fact, I encourage you not to. I recently spent 10 days driving around Europe and not once listened to music Instead I took in the scenery and reflected on my business, my relationships, and my personal goals. I felt like I was doing the exercises wrong by not taking notes, but the morning I got back to my desk I jotted everything down in about five minutes. The key is to do this thinking where you aren’t likely to be interrupted, then later write down your realizations. It’s OK if you don’t remember every thought; you’ll automatically sift out the dust and capture the nuggets.

Reflection Exercise #1: The Three Whats

Everyone has heard about asking why five times to get to the root cause of something. This exercise has you ask what three times to help you work smarter. It’s best for the analytical, MBA types, or anyone who likes making lists.

  • What’s Working? Obviously, these are the things you want to keep doing and perhaps do more. It could be anything from asking for referrals to posting a “do not disturb” sign on your desk. Think about what you enjoy doing—the activities where two hours disappeared and you didn’t notice. Think about how you’ve landed new clients or projects. Think about what makes you happy that you’re self-employed. 
  • What’s Not Working? What frustrates you? What tasks do you procrastinate? What do you worry about? Once you have identified these energy-suckers you can start to think about ways to minimize, eliminate, or outsource them. For example, I hate doing accounting, so early on I hired a bookkeeper. Lately I realized a certain type of client is way too much work compared to the others, so I’m not going to seek additional work from them.
  • What’s Missing? What could you do or create that would increase your internal rate of return and happiness? What are the one or two things that would help you attain the goals or the lifestyle you envisioned when you went independent? This could be something personal like carving out quality time with your kids every evening, or something business-related like getting more publicity. 

Reflection Exercise #2: Inside & Out

This exercise is similar to the “Three Whats” above but better if you’re a creative or visual person. During your reflection time (for example, while driving, running, sitting at the beach) ask yourself:

  1. What do I want to do more of?
  2. What do I want to do less of?

Then later sketch out your answers on this simple template or easily create your own. On a piece of office paper, draw a square in the middle that leaves at least a 1-inch margin to the edge. Inside the square write YES (more of…) and the outside write NO (less of…). Then write your answers in the appropriate space.

I recently came across my notes from doing this exercise 4½ years ago, and I’m pleased with my progress. I’ve eliminated three of the Nos completely, including nights with less than six hours of sleep, and I’ve made good progress on all of the Yeses. This progress happened organically. After I did the exercise I put it in a folder and forgot about it. I didn’t create a To Do List or a work plan—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why make more work for yourself? By reflecting and being clear about what I wanted or didn’t want, I programmed my subconscious and then went about my business. I can honestly say my job satisfaction is now at an all-time high. 

Why did you decide to become an independent consultant? Was it for flexibility, to escape office politics, make more money, and/or work fewer hours? Use these exercises to help you create the life you imagined when you set out on this path. In our line of work, working smarter often means doing more of what you like and increasing your internal satisfaction. Use reflection to help you get there.

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