If you’re interested in an easy way to improve your job performance and boost your career, it’s time to start a writing habit. A study from Harvard Business School tested whether taking 15 minutes at the end of a work day to reflect on that day’s work improved their performance and found the participants tasked with daily written reflection did 22.8 percent better on an assessment than the control group.
But wouldn’t internal reflection by itself be enough to bolster performance? “My speculation would be that writing things down would be more beneficial as the act of writing imposes a discipline on us to stay focused,” says paper co-author Brad Staats, an associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Reflection forced people to process their days, find patterns and link actions. Some people might think the experiment focused on the successes of the day, but Staats says the parameters of the experiment when explained to the journaling employees didn’t specify giving the reflections a positive or negative slant.
“What we wanted was for them to reflect more on whatever they thought was most important from the day,” Staats explains. “The positive/negative point is a great question, but not one we looked at here. In other research, Francesca and I have explored how individuals struggle to learn from failure, but when they accept internal responsibility for their actions then they learn from failure.”
One idea of why a writing habit helps is that thoughts running through your mind about your day suddenly become significant and deliberate catalysts for change through thinking them over and writing them down. “Reflection on experience and learning facilitates deep processing, which allows you to retain information for a long time — as opposed to simply cramming it in your brain and promptly forgetting it after the test,” says career coach George A. Boyd.
Despite taking a portion of time out of the work day, essentially working less than the control group, the new distribution of energy towards reflection heavily impacted performance. Even Staats was surprised by how much of a difference the exercise made.
“I thought reflection might help a bit, but I didn’t expect it to make such a meaningful impact on performance,” Staats said. “These people weren’t spending extra time at work — they were spending 15 minutes less on training each day so they could reflect, however by reallocating their time in such a small way we see a significant, positive impact on performance.”
Making writing a habit could be a simple way to both gather your bearings and be a better employee, but it is also a hard habit to adopt and keep consistently. “In talking to people, one of the real challenges with reflection is finding the discipline to maintain it,” Staats warns. “That means people need to find ways to continue the practice — whether that is blocking your calendar, finding an accountability partner who might also reflect at the same time, or something else that works well for you.”
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