A reflection: Making the most of the now while thinking long-term

Strategies for more systematic reflection

Tl;dr:

A personal reflection about balancing work, play, and thought on a short and long term basis. Two strategies for more systematic reflection; clearing my brain in interstitial spaces and scheduling in time to step back.

I found first semester in a new business program to be an invigorating time of meeting amazing people and incredibly rapid intellectual growth. It was also a rollercoaster of recovering from a hip surgery, balancing passions and extracurriculars with school commitments, and adjusting to a new way of thinking about structuring problems.

There were busy, unexpectedly challenging days, and weeks where I felt like I was experiencing tunnel vision and solely focused on getting things done. When I have a lot going on, my usual approach is to go into execution mode — plan things out, deliver work, study for the exam, and keep grinding. I live with this bias for action and a mindset of getting 1% better every day at a new skill, the gym, or a student organization. It’s kaizen in real life. Like the compound growth formula, if you invest 1% daily, you’ll have 320% of your original value 120 days later. Investing consistently in learning also means exponential growth. This mindset is a great way to execute day after day, but it also can promote some form of presentism — when someone asks how I’m doing, I focus almost entirely on my past few hours and maybe the next few days, not the last week or month. This mindset also isn’t so great when you feel like you’ve hit a wall. This really hit me hard when I was doing my physio in October, two and a half months post-surgery and still felt like I was making no progress. I was in a vicious cycle of being discouraged and frustrated because I wasn’t able to go to the gym to destress and other school commitments were consistently present.

It’s hard to have perspective in the moment when you hit a wall and your first instinct is to just keep going. Starting second semester, Bell Let’s Talk Day reminded me of the importance of mental health and being resilient through the professional and personal fluctuations of life. It’s also really important to acknowledge that you won’t always be in a place of strength, but that sometimes you can step back and think about how a challenge pushed you to grow. During the Break the Silence panel at Ivey, Benjamin Leisin talked about checking in with your ‘operating system’, with restarting and installing those updates you’ve pushed off as a metaphor for caring for your mental health. As someone with a huge passion for tech, this really resonated with me.

I left the panel asking: How often do we reboot, step back, and ask ourselves why our current actions matter in a broader context?

20/20 vision in hindsight says that I should always make time for the luxury of being able to think big picture. Realistic me knows that I don’t always take that time when I’m incredibly busy and focused. Via trial-and-error of personal habits, I realized there are a few things I can systematically do to balance living in the present with this concept of long-term perspective.

1. Clearing my brain in interstitial spaces & times

Interstitial spaces are those wait times in the grocery line, the 15 minute walk or bus ride home, or the moments before class starts where you have short durations of latent time. I used to scroll down social media feeds in these times — but I realized that these micro-moments are great times to call my family or a close friend, or reflect on the last day or week. Now, I generally run through the last few days, and think about what motivated me and why, relationships built, things that went well or fell through — then put those in the broader context of last and next month. Even after a disappointing outcome, I ask, ‘how could this thing that happened be good?’ I haven’t tried committing to mediation, but taking a moment to think in these spaces has helped me appreciate the space and environment I’m in.

2. Scheduling in time to unwind

With the initial inability of gym & physical activity post-surgery, I instead focused on art, reading, and writing as reflection go-tos. Recharging for me now is usually workouts again or a good conversation with close friends or family, because I love being able to come out of the gym or hang out with friends and just be focused on that single activity. Pinpointing what activities work for your schedule are best and following through on them is trickier — it’s really hard to make time to read or write when the schedule is busy 8am to 11pm. But prioritizing what’s important, always makes my day and reminds me to step back and remember the why behind my actions.

I’ve thought about the Godot-like absurdist irony of systematically doing things to break out a focused cycle of execution. Why systematically approach reflection, and how much time should I allocate to long-term thinking versus the value of living in the moment? I’m still thinking about this dichotomy and pondering if it should change as I begin my next decade of life. Generally, my current rationale for thinking long-term is a) remembering the purpose behind daily actions and b) being able to buffer against setbacks and continue moving forwards.

Finding an equilibrium between short and long term, and balancing work, play and reflection are consistent struggles of the human condition. For me, tough yet busy and exciting periods in the last year have provoked this reflection. These two strategies have helped me to be more present and navigate the rollercoaster, to make reflection a constantly iterative process, and to be more grateful for the opportunities and people in my life.

Thanks to all who helped me think through this & encourage me to write and reflect.

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