As professionals, our lives tend to be ever-focused on the future, on planning, dreaming, and scheming. And while this is not inherently negative, it is important to slow down occasionally and take stock of what is behind us. After all, entire weeks can pass in a flash, and in a society that prizes hyper-productivity, it is all too common to look up, stunned, weeks later and realize, “I have no idea what I’ve even been doing with my time.”
Socrates is credited with saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While this may sound unduly harsh, there is a weighty truth in the knowledge that without ever taking time to reflect, we may never seize opportunities to grow or develop. What if we shifted our focus, then, to the retrospective rather than the prospective? How would that impact our performance, productivity, and satisfaction with our work?
A 2014 Harvard Business School study indicates that taking time to reflect on our work improves our job performance in the long-term. According to Professor Francesca Gino, one of the authors of the study, “Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection we might be better off.” She goes on to say that when we “stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy,” experience increased motivation, and “perform better.”
The report was based on a series of studies. For the first study, 202 adults gathered for an online experiment to complete a series of problem-solving exercises. Participants earned one dollar for each puzzle solved in twenty seconds or less. The control group completed a second round of puzzles with no additional parameters, but two other groups—a “sharing” group and a “reflection” group—were given explicit instructions to reflect on their first round of puzzles and take notes about their strategies. The sharing group was informed that their notes would be shared with future participants.
The results were telling: they revealed that the “reflection” and “sharing” groups performed an average of eighteen percent better on the second round of exercises than the control group. However, there was not a significant performance difference between the sharing and reflection groups.
What the study seems to show is that taking the time to stop, think, and process is especially meaningful, whether the results are shared or not. Professor Gino expressed that organizations can, and should, encourage employees to take time to reflect on their performances. “I don’t see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it,” she explains. “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”
Even if our workplaces do not build in that time for us, we can—and should—do that for ourselves.
At the end of your week, take stock of your progress in a few key areas. To get you started, here are a few items to consider.
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