This Small Change Will Make You Better at Your Job

Search the Website

June 3, 2014

I have long been a fan of building some quiet time into the day. I believe that productivity is actually decreased by cramming more work into our time starved schedules. This article by Shane Snow of Contently speaks directly to that point and has an academic study to back it up.

My father often used to tell my brothers and me,”Work smarter, not harder.”

He’d tell us this while making us do some frustratingly hard thing, like tearing shingles off of a roof or building a wood floor. Clearly, he didn’t mean what a lot of people mean when they advise to “work smart,” i.e. do less work or make someone do the work for you. There would always be more floors to build. What he advocated was working in ways that allowed you to get more done with less risk and less pain, by approaching problems thoughtfully instead of through brute force. Think, think, think, in his book, was superior to practice, practice, practice.

My father would be happy to know that there’s now an academic study to back him up.

Recently, business psychologists from Harvard, UNC, and HEC Paris published the results of a series of productivity experiments they ran:

In the first experiment, they asked 202 adults to complete a brain teaser. Then, they asked a group of them to immediately complete a second and third brain teaser, while they asked another group to first reflect for five minutes on the task they just completed, before answering the other two teasers. A third group was asked to reflect and then write down what they thought was the best strategy for completing the brain teaser, as if they were teaching someone else.

The results? Those who spent time to reflect after the first task did significantly better than the first group. Whether they wrote down their strategies or not, simply thinking about the work they did made them better than powering through the rest.

The scientists repeated the experiment with another batch—this time students—and a different set of teasers, with similar results.

Next, the researchers took their experiment into the real work world. They found a tech support company in India, and got it to agree to let them tamper with their new employee training—just a bit.

The company’s training program typically lasted for four weeks. The researchers split new trainees into three groups: Control, Reflection, and Sharing. Then, they let the new employees proceed as normal, except the Reflection and Sharing groups got to duck out of training for the last 15 minutes each day to sit and think about the specifics of what they’d learned, and for the Sharing group, write in a journal as if they were teaching someone about it.

At the end of the training program, the employees in the Reflection and Sharing groups scored 22.8% better than their non-reflecting counterparts on the final examination. (In school, this could be the difference between a D and an A!) There wasn’t a big difference between the Reflection and Sharing groups’ performance.

In short, the psychologists wrote, “Individuals perform significantly better on subsequent tasks when they think about what they learned from the task they completed.”

And also, “Interestingly, we do not observe an additional boost in performance when individuals share the insights from their reflection efforts with others.”

This bucks against common wisdom in two ways:

1) It turns out that hard practice (the oft-misinterpreted 10,000 hour rule) is not the end-all formula for learning success. Rather, taking time to think about one’s experiences increases learning and reinforces subsequent performance.

2) Though it’s commonly taught that teaching others what we’ve learned reinforces our own learning, that’s not true. We conflate the learning benefits of act of reflection that must precede teaching with the non-existent benefits of the act of teaching itself.

It’s well-known that “learning by doing” works. One can study the mechanics of a golf swing in a classroom all day long, but it’s not until she hefts the club herself that she actually can master her swing. What this research tells us, however, is that after she swings the golf club a few times, if she sits and thinks about it, she’ll likely learn more effectively than if she swings it 1,000 times and goes to bed. The studies indicate that this is particularly true if we’re doing knowledge work (as they did not actually study golf swings).

What Does This Mean For Us?

First of all, it means that every time my father told me to go to my room and think about what I’d done, rather than occupying me with some sort of menial punishment, he was making me smarter.

More importantly: We wrongly equate long hours and “working through lunch” with productivity. It turns out, that’s hard work, but not smart work.

Studies show that between 1973 and 2000, American workers added 199 hours to their average work schedule—or five weeks of work. Meanwhile, labor productivity went up. And since smartphones and Facebook, we increasingly fill the crannies in our days with entertainment, communication, and content.

The time we spend to simply sit and think is increasingly scarce. We’re too busy to stop and smell roses, yet science is telling us that a few minutes of unruffled time to think about what we’re doing will significantly increase our performance at work. If we simply allotted 15 minutes for reflection after each meeting and at the end of each day, we’d get a lot more done than if we powered through every second of our day with more work, and filled the holes with frantic email-checking and status-updating.

It turns out that it doesn’t take much to work a lot smarter. We just need to find the willpower to create some space.

Shane Snow is a technology journalist in New York City and CCO of Contently. MS/Journalism, Columbia; Fellow, Royal Society of the Arts.


How Can We Help?

Contact Info

8300 NE Underground Drive
Pillar 122
Kansas City, Missouri 64161

(816) 459-8404

Valuable resources about the people and industries we serve.