This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Stopping to reflect during a project may seem to slow down progress, but research shows it pays. Very few companies give their employees time for reflection, especially when competitive pressures are escalating. Usually the imperative is to work harder. But Harvard Business School research demonstrates the value of reflection in helping people do a better job. Reflecting on what you’ve done teaches you to do it better next time. What’s more, the act of documenting the lessons learnt, both during and at the completion of a project, is even more effective.
The research team conducted three studies including a field experiment with a business-process outsourcing company. The researchers studied several groups, assigning them one of three conditions – control, reflection, and sharing information. During the course of a month, workers in the reflection group spent 15 minutes at the end of their working day writing and reflecting on what they had learned that day. Participants in the sharing group did the same, but spent an extra 5 minutes explaining their notes to a fellow worker.
Result: workers in both the reflection and sharing groups performed significantly better than those in the control group. On average, the reflection group increased its performance on the final test by 22.8% than did the control group. The sharing group performed 25% better on the test than the control group, about the same increase as the reflection group.
This was in spite of the fact that the control group had been working 15 minutes longer per day than the other groups, who had spent that time reflecting and sharing instead.
Photo: Professor Francesca Gino
Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino said she hoped the research would provide food for thought to overworked managers and other employees.
“I don’t see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect – or give them time to do it,” Gino said. “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, this research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”
This article updated in 2020.
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