Imagine waking up twenty years from now and realising that a string of unconscious decisions has landed you with a life far removed from the one that would have made you happy. Bruce Du Bourg suggests daily reflection

‘Dim the lights, please,’ chants the rather flamboyantly dressed facilitator from the front of the classroom. There is something unsettling about his tone. ‘I now invite you to close your eyes,’ he continues. As the somewhat Bohemian pan pipe music begins to fill the room, I am prompted to casually check my course pack to confirm that the word ‘leadership’ appears somewhere in the title. I forgive myself for secretly expecting a throng of masseuses to enter the room to offer complimentary neck and shoulder treatments. They do not arrive.

At this stage, my classmates and I are feeling appropriately uncomfortable. With a liberal helping of scepticism, we pretend to close our eyes and make sure that our questionable facilitator doesn’t leave our doubting gazes. In a couple of minutes, our suspicion turns to astonishment as we are transported from the classroom on a chilling journey to engage with our deepest thoughts. When our minds return to the classroom twenty minutes later, we realise that our eyes have been opened to a world that will change our outlook on life forever.

The sort of experience described above is not one that is readily received by accountants. Our professional training empowers us to analyse and solve complex and diverse problems of a financial nature. We are able to compile information and present it in numerous ways in diverse forums, with the ultimate objective of creating positive returns to the enterprise. Although these skills are very valuable to organisations, in isolation they are at risk of being one-dimensional. The impact of applying these skills may become limited if they are not executed with adequate levels of conscious decision-making.

The exercise described in the opening paragraph of this piece is a simple one. It was something that I was challenged to do during a business school leadership course and I was compelled to delve deeper. All that the exercise requires is to reflect on and evaluate the previous day’s activities.

At the outset, this idea sounds like a poor use of time and a little bit esoteric for the structured mind of an accountant. Nonetheless, I ask for you to humour me for a few moments. The power of daily reflection lies in the evaluation process. By design, evaluation requires one to develop a set of benchmarks against which to compare ones actions. I’m not talking about some nine-box matrix that we were obliged to memorise in desperate attempts to pass our university management accounting courses.

For daily reflection to have an impact, the evaluation criteria need to be deeply personal. To derive these criteria, one should first try to understand what those things are that generate purpose and meaning in one’s life. This is no easy feat. One needs to engage with one’s core attitudes, values, desires and beliefs. Once again, I emphasise that these ideals cannot simply mirror the standard expectations of societal norms. One cannot simply look around to see what people from similar backgrounds with similar qualifications have done and then try to mimic them like meandering lemmings.

So, how does one develop such criteria? A useful tool is the death-bed test. Though the name of this tool may be tinged with morbidity, it is actually rather enlightening. It does however require the application of unprecedented levels of imagination and creativity. I challenge you to picture the moment, many years from now, when you are lying on your death-bed. Try to imagine what type of person you would like to have been, what decisions you would like to have made, and what actions you believe would bring you the most happiness and peace. These thoughts should then be applied to understanding what sort of person you would like to be and what actions would enable you to become that person.

Let’s return to the exercise of daily reflection. It need not take more than fifteen minutes every day. Ideally, it should be done in a quiet place, where one can get lost in one’s thoughts. A soothing musical soundtrack as accompaniment may seem a little unconventional to some, but quite appealing to others. After a few deep breaths, the process can begin. It has four components. First, one should take a moment to engage with the previous day, to remember everything that happened. Second, one should think about all the moments of the day that appealed to one’s attitudes, values, desires and beliefs. These are the times that bring you happiness on reflection. Third, one should acknowledge all of the times where one’s actions were not in line with these four personal standards. Finally, one should consider how one is going to address these shortcomings to enable more authentic living the next day. Initially, it may be beneficial to journal the results of the analysis on a daily basis.

Please don’t confuse the journaling activity with the dreamy entries into a teenage girl’s perfume-infused personal diary. The act of writing helps to crystallise the results in one’s mind. It further provides the opportunity to review previous days to see if the progress is satisfactory. Daily reflection can lift one to unparalleled levels both personally and professionally. The power of daily reflection becomes increasingly apparent after the first month. At the end of each day, every action is reviewed and critically evaluated. Slowly, but surely, one becomes aware of the need to make small adjustments every day to live more authentically and in line with one’s true ideals. After a while, it becomes clear that making unconscious decisions on a daily basis is no longer good enough. One becomes aware of the importance of each decision. With the knowledge that one’s actions are going undergo strict evaluation, one seriously considers the consequences before each act.

Every choice has the ability to bring one closer to being the person that one aspires to be. Under these circumstances, one cannot help but be more effective as a person and as a participant in any work environment. In some situations, this new-found awareness may lead one to realise that the current work environment may be altogether inappropriate. While daily reflection may be uncomfortable initially, it has the power to create more conscious decision-making. It helps us to achieve the objectives that are important to us and ultimately to live more fulfilled lives as professionals and as people.

Author: Bruce Du Bourg CA(SA), CFA, MBA, is a Product Control manager at Standard Bank