"“We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience." —John Dewey

How to Perform 20% Better By Doing Less Work

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By Janet Choi

"We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience." —John Dewey

The power of self-reflection is simple but mighty. It’s how you recognize and celebrate progress, gain nourishing motivation, and detach from the workday. Successful people like David Heinemeier Hansson and Marc Andreessen use this tactic to keep their momentum going while managing the pressure of always having more work to do.

But like most activities that aren’t yet a daily habit, even taking out five to fifteen minutes a day just to think and write about your day feels like a drag. That’s because a deliberate practice of reflection, like regular exercise, isn’t always easy or fun. It requires energy, discipline, and some time. Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey explained in his 1910 book, How We Think, why the beneficial act of reflection can feel like, well, such a chore:

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.

So self-reflection can be tough, but it produces more value than whatever you would’ve spent those minutes on anyway. When you’re constantly chasing that feeling of being productive by conquering more items on your to-do list or cranking out those extra emails, you’d be better off stopping your work to think a little.

Self-Reflection Boosts Learning and Performance

Researchers from the Harvard Business School wanted to test the illogical but persuasive mental trap that many individuals and organizations fall into — believing that the solution to all productivity problems is to work even harder. Instead, they found that it’s much more effective to give people more time to think.

In their field study, the researchers split employees into three groups — reflection, sharing, and control — as they went through a training program for a call center job requiring deep technical knowledge and problem-solving. Everyone’s day was the same except for the last few minutes. The reflection and sharing groups spent the last 15 minutes of their day writing about at least two key lessons they learned. The sharing group spent an additional five minutes explaining their notes to a fellow trainee.

Both groups that had reflected and written for 15 minutes showed over a 20% increase in performance on their final training test, compared to the control group who had just kept working through the end of the day.

“Reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive,” the study authors explain, because reflection improves your sense of self-efficacy. When you feel confident that you’re able to achieve a goal — that’s self-efficacy, which is a basic booster of human motivation. And it’s hard to tap into the realization of “I can do this!” without stopping to think about what you’ve done and learned.

As Francesca Gino, one of the study’s co-authors, explains to Entrepreneur, working more is less productive: “If we take the time to reflect, a glance at the clock may suggest we’re working less, but we will find our minds are more engaged and our performance is improved.”

Why Write it Down?

Expressing your thoughts in writing is vital too. Writing is a way to “codify[…] knowledge that is tacit into an explicit form” that benefits yourself and others — a process seen at companies like Toyota, as the researchers point out.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, the authors of The Progress Principle who discovered that the most powerful motivator is making meaningful progress, encourage journaling to prompt self-reflection. Without reflection and review, it’s almost impossible to understand where you made progress and how. They used daily work journals in their comprehensive research project analyzing over 12,000 entries, because “[j]ournaling can render … sensemaking explicit, enabling fruitful reflection.”

At the end of their study, Amabile and Kramer were surprised to hear gratitude from participants for a ritual that required such daily discipline. Writing down their thoughts at the end of the workday allowed people to pin down significant thoughts, track patterns, increase mindfulness, and gain greater self-knowledge and insight into what was going on in their work lives. As one person wrote, “When you are working at a hectic pace, reflection time is rare, but is really beneficial.”

* * * * *

The workplace isn’t an environment known for encouraging self-reflection, despite its powerful benefits. While companies might gather thoughts in groups meetings, reviews, and post-mortems, as the Harvard research study authors point out, “there has been almost no effort to encourage individuals to reflect, and people often fail to engage in self-reflection themselves.”

Gain an edge by getting started with your own practice of daily self-reflection. Here are five prompts to ask yourself at the end of the workday (be as specific as possible):

  1. What did I learn today?
  2. What did I get done today?
  3. What impacted my progress?
  4. How can I turn negatives into progress tomorrow?
  5. What stood out about the workday and how did that make me feel?

Give yourself, or give your team, real time to think. In as little as five to fifteen minutes of time investment, you can fight the siren song of productivity, that the simple solution is just to do more and more.

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Photo: Adapted from Kaje


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