Work Smarter By Not Working At All

It works on misbehaving kids, and it turns out that adults can also learn something from a “time out.”

Taking time to reflect on what we have done can help us become smarter workers, according to new research from Harvard Business School.

While most research on learning focuses on what people do, a research team from Harvard, University of North Carolina, and HEC Paris conducted a series of studies examining the power of reflecting, and sharing what we’ve learned, on learning.

It may be hard for a nation of “doers” to believe, but thinking about a completed task has a significant impact on what you learn–and, therefore, how you complete the next task.

For their first studies, researchers asked groups of adults and students to complete two brainteasers. They divided the groups into people who jumped from one test to the next, people who reflected on the first test before taking the second, and those who both reflected and wrote down what they’d learned so they could teach someone else. The groups that reflected did significantly better than the ones the jumped to the next task.

The researchers then did a similar study as part of a company’s training program. Again, the groups that reflected scored almost 23 percent better than those who jumped back to work. Interestingly, writing about what they’d done and sharing those lessons didn’t have much of an impact.

“Learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection,” the authors write.

How Thinking Builds Your Self-Confidence

Why does after-the-fact reflection make such an impact? The researchers assert that self-efficacy explains the learning boost, as it strengthens a person’s belief in their own capabiltiies. “…reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal.”

In our work culture, where long hours are supplemented by near constant checking of our emails and messages, reflection is pretty hard to come by. This type of reflection isn’t meditation–which aims to clear the mind–or something we’re sort of doing while we are doing something else. Further, because it is something we have to do on our own, managers will have a hard time incorporating it into a work day.

But it might be time to start reflecting on that.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.