Do you close your laptop, turn off your phone, and shut your office door at the end of the workday? You may be missing out on the most important activity that can make you better at your job.
According to a recent working paper from Harvard Business School, setting aside 15 minutes to reflect at the end of the workday can boost your performance and impact your career success.
"When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy," says Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, who coauthored the paper. "That is, they feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn."
The findings come from a series of field and laboratory experiments. In one study at Wipro, a business-process outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India, three groups of employees were put through training for a particular customer account. In one group, employees were asked to spend the last 15 minutes of their workday writing and reflecting on the lessons they’d learned that day. They did this for 10 consecutive days. In another group, the participants did the same reflective writing exercise but also spent an additional five minutes discussing their notes with a fellow trainee. Those in the last group, or the control group, simply kept working at the end of the day—no reflection, no writing, no sharing.
The result? The journaling employees performed significantly better than those who simply kept working until the end of their shift. The reflection group performed 22.8% better on the test, and the sharing group performed 25% better than the control group. "This in spite of the fact that the control group had been working 15 minutes longer per day," says Gino, proving plowing through the last items on our to-do list at the end of the day may make us feel we’re being productive, but in the long term, isn’t the path to success.
"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," says Gino.
The reason this works, says Gino, is because the brain needs that extra time to reflect to "codify" the things we’ve gone through during the day. "Rather than following the conventional wisdom to ‘get busy,’ our research suggests that performance is enhanced when we follow former IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson’s advice to simply ‘think,’" says Gino.
But simply thinking isn’t enough. We also need to write it down. "Psychology research shows that writing about our life experiences has many positive effects, including increasing students' grade-point averages, re-employment after losing a job, and improving memory," says Gino. Putting our thoughts to paper helps us visualize what’s important.
The impetus for the study came out of Gino’s own experience as an instructor. "After each class I teach, I take time to debrief, noting the comments the students made and what points I raised [that] led to quality discussions," she says. "I then fold these insights into the next class I teach."
The success Gino experienced in her classes made her realize this daily routine could be easily implemented across other industries to improve performance. "It’s just a matter of making an appointment with ourselves to reflect on the day’s lessons so we can incorporate those lessons into the next day," she says.