Self-Reflection as a Professional Practice: Looking Forward to Looking Back

Currently VM is in a state of transition. We are moving into the end of the 2015-2016 service year, and starting to put together the 2016-2017 team. VM has also been moving out of our Baltimore office and into the Crownsville office we called our first home. All of this change has really made me think about the past year: what we have accomplished, what challenges we have been able to resolve, the new friends we’ve made, the skills we’ve strengthened.Reflection like this is good. It’s good at any time in the year when we want to take stock and look at where we’ve been and what we want to do next. Although reflection is not often associated with professional development, nor is it a task we are assigned to do, it’s something that can help us grow in the professional world, because it allows us to examine our experiences. We can find out what it is that makes work fun, we can find out what to avoid in the future, we can find out what we need to work on to make our next project even better. Reflection is all about being future focused on the past.

So for this blog post, I’m going to list some ways you can go about reflecting on your professional experiences. Some are more formal than others, some require more planning than others, but I hope there’s an idea in this list that you can utilize to start your own self-reflection at work.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have this one covered! Since the beginning of our service year, we have been completing monthly journals that detail our accomplishments, challenges, and the ever-changing data most of us manage. A professional journal could look similar to monthly reporting, or it could just look like a daily list of
Google Tasks that have been completed or delegated (that’s me).

A new fad right now is the bullet journal which involves a simple system of customizable bullets, completed tasks, and short notes. Check out Buzzfeed’s fun guide to starting your own bullet journal (I’m starting mine now!). Another article I recently read suggested separating journal entries into positive work situations, negative work situations, and work-related tasks. Here’s the article for more information and resources.

Reviewing Completed Projects

Look back at your calendar and look at all of the things you’ve gotten through! Re-discover the narrative of your professional life! Think about what led to the completion of each project–be it brainstorming, budget creation, writing a report, reserving rooms, etc.–and what you learned or experienced through that process. Focus on the new skills (including soft skills like teamwork, adaptability, critical observation) that you have gained or ones that you have always had, but strengthened.

Strategic Questions

Craft a list of questions that are important to you! For example, if you find satisfaction by being challenged in your work, think of some questions that allow you to reflect on the challenge that has gone into your work so far. Here is an example of some questions from a professional dietetics association; most of the questions in that list are general enough that you could actually work straight off of the worksheet.

Group Talk

Gather your peers or your co-workers together for a sit-down, and just talk about your experiences. This conversation could range in formality from being a staff meeting with an agenda or it could just be a talk over lunch. For some of the extroverts or external processors out there, talking with a group can be a great way to better understand your experience as well as everyone else’s.

The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.
The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.

Same Page-Ing For 2016

At our December training, Patrice led us through an activity she called, “Same Page-Ing.” It was a fairly literal session, in which all of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, the Site Supervisors, and the Support Team were wrangled back into their handy-dandy, standard issue Volunteer Maryland Tool Books and onto the same page. Patrice went back through the schedule of deliverables and upcoming trainings and made sure we were all following a similar trajectory in the VM World. Admittedly, this is a pretty routine event for any organized group, but ever since Patrice dubbed the word “same page-ing,” I’ve been using it non-stop (as some VMCs and Site Supervisors might be wearily aware), because I like this idea of consistently re-aligning ourselves with a core mission.

People on the same page
Look at how empowering same page-ing can be! Especially when taken literally!

I was recently reminded of how much I like the idea of same page-ing by Vu Le’s blog post, “15 lessons for the nonprofit sector we learned in 2015.” The list begins with “1. An organization not built on strong values will crumble like dried hummus.” Truthfully, the whole blog post has me nodding and snapping my fingers in agreement, but it’s this first one that really rings true for me in the coming year, and not just because crumbly hummus is gross.

See, I’m a person who looks to (read: worries about) the future. I think about what comes next, and then what comes after that, and then after that, and then after that, and then when I die, what should they do with the body? This obsession with trying to see into the future is always exacerbated during this transitionary period between years. My mind starts to fly far from where I am now, and I forget the importance of presence. The reminder to get on the same page, reflect about who we are right now, and remind ourselves of the overarching mission (whether that be our personal mission, our organization’s mission, our family’s mission, etc.) is grounding. It simultaneously stems anxiety and keeps us conscious about what we are doing right now.

Leslie Knope GIF
In the new year, I hope we can all do some same page-ing. I hope that when we’re catapulted into 2016 we will remember the mission that motivates us to act and to be. Maybe that involves some sitting down and clarifying, perhaps editing, and maybe a gentle cutting of bits and pieces. Maybe it involves a discussion with family, friends, co-workers, etc. Maybe we should Google a template for mission drafting. Either way, let’s remind ourselves of the values that found our motivations, and let’s be led by them. 

As we step into the new year, whether with trepidation or a bold leap, let’s get on the same page with our core values and our mission, and let them be the guiding lights into what is most assuredly going to be an adventure into the unknown.  

Take Care of Yourself

In this field, we tend to focus on how we can serve others.  But sometimes you have to take a deep breath and focus on yourself.  Don’t forget that you need to take care of yourself too.

I was reminded of all this because I know that I sometimes forget to take a break and take care of myself.  It was very useful then when a few of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and I went to a seminar by MCDVS this week on stress management techniques, so I wanted to share a couple of them with you.

First, we have to be careful what we put in our bodies.  Food is the fuel that keeps you going.  Try to eat balanced, whole meals – don’t make my mistake of thinking that a box of crackers can be dinner!  Don’t skimp on the veggies and fruits which are full of goodness for the body – aim to have a rainbow of whole foods in your cart.  That way you can snack on proteins and greens, and not just carbs.  To avoid the 3 pm energy slump, try having a healthy snack every three hours or so to keep your blood sugar up.  At the seminar we were treated to cinnamon-dusted almonds, full of protein with a nice little sweetness.  Mmm!

Equally important though is physical activity – especially with all this good eating you’re doing now! As little as five minutes of exercise is enough to stimulate endorphins and decrease stress, so don’t claim that you don’t have enough time.  If, like me, you sit at a desk all day, make sure to take regular breaks to get up and stretch, maybe take a walk around the office.  The web is full of nifty exercises you can also do at your desk.

The real capstone though is sleep.   When you don’t get enough sleep, your body knows it.  Try to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night, not the 6 that the average person gets.  If you’re having trouble going to sleep, try these tips:

  • Turn off all your electronics at least half an hour before you lay down
  • Make sure you’re done eating two hours before bedtime
  • Move up your bed time in small amounts – fifteen minutes at a time at most

A little extra sleep can make a huge difference in your day – give it a shot!

The final piece of advice was to make sure that you remember to relax.  We tend to get caught up in a day-to-day routine; we don’t always have time to wonder if your routine still suits you as you are now.  It helps to reflect upon your everyday actions and think about how they fit into your values.

The key isn’t to make big changes – it’s just to be mindful and purposeful in everything you do.  You are worth the time and the effort, and you will be glad you did it.

Relaxation, Reflection, Learning, Goal-setting, and Fun: It’s a Mid-Year Retreat!

It’s been so busy I haven’t even had a chance to mention one of our recent big events.  That’s right, we just had our Class 24 Mid-Year Retreat – and what a retreat it was!

We had a few goals for our retreat: relaxation, reflection, learning, goal-setting, and fun.  And, if I do say so myself, I believe these goals were met.  We were in a beautiful setting with the sun shining and the temperature hitting nearly 80 degrees.  We had a book exchange and bikes were donated for free time.  We spent some time purposefully reflecting on the accomplishments from the last six months (and there are so many!).  We had a variety of workshops, focusing on both volunteer management and skills for “Life After AmeriCorps.”   We were also able to begin to shift gears a bit and recognize that we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the year, setting goals and priorities for the next four months.  And, of course, we spent time reconnecting and having some fun.

All of that was part of our plan.  But this class of AmeriCorps members brought so much more to our 24ish hours together.  Our Peer Leaders, Barb and Joy, put together gift bags, door prizes, and a red carpet to recognize the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  And the VMCs brought so much personality that it’s a wonder we could all fit in one room!

They held their own jam session with instruments brought from home.  One VMC started off the retreat by riding her bike from Baltimore to St. Michaels’ (a seven hour journey and she was the first one there!).  Others brought books and magazines to exchange and discuss.  And they all brought incredible humor.  I nodded off to sleep Thursday evening with my cheeks aching from smiles and laughter.

They did all of this and stayed focused on continuing their service with enthusiasm and dedication.  It’s no easy feat being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator.  Eleven months is a pretty short time to create a program, recruit volunteers, make it sustainable.  In many jobs, a person gets several months or even a year to really learn the ropes before making any big changes.  A VMC doesn’t get that opportunity; s/he just needs to dive on in and make the change.

I remain incredibly impressed with VM24.  This retreat demonstrated one reason why: they work as hard as they play – and I think both work and play benefit.

My thanks go out to the VMCs for their dedication to service, for the perseverance they continue to show, and for re-inspiring me.