Reflect On This

Editor’s note: I’m lucky. I get to sit back and just think a lot in my job. But I’m often way too busy to do it. Editing, writing, networking, marketing, meetings, catching up on Tweets about my sports teams while hiding in the bathroom, not to mention family and life commitments. What used to come easy when I was a childless and underemployed comedian – just sitting and thinking – now needs to be scheduled, or at least justified. So big thanks to Brandon Routman for using studies and behavioral science’s System 1 / System 2 structure to remind me – and everyone bugging me! – that it is work when I take a walk, stare out the window or cry in the bathroom stall.


Work life can often feel harried these days. You might not think you have the luxury to sit back and reflect on it a bit, to examine your underlying goals and the processes by which you hope to accomplish them. According to a number of academic studies, however, not doing so might be a huge mistake. Being reflective about your job can pay high dividends. If that statement sounds trite or simplistic, ask yourself whether you have tested it – whether you have, in fact, carved out time and space in your busy schedule for some reflection. If you haven’t and need some convincing to do so, consider the following four studies, each of which demonstrate the power of reflection in a different domain.

Being reflective about your job can pay high dividends.


Many office workers hate their commute. Surveys show that employees often rate it as the least desirable part of their job. Worse still, commute frustration spills over into the work itself. You might think that this is just a necessary evil. Unless you are willing to relocate homes or change jobs, your commute is your commute. You have to get to work, somehow. What you might overlook, though, is that the negative impact of the commute is, in part, determined by how you use your time while on it.

According to one academic study, there are sizeable benefits to thinking about the upcoming workday, what researchers call “prospection.” As part of a randomized controlled trial, the researchers sent text messages to a group of employees encouraging them to use their commute to plan their day and to think through how they were going to be productive. These small nudges had an outsized impact. Individuals who received them were less likely to be negatively affected by a long commute – demonstrating a higher level of job satisfaction and lower level of turnover intention – compared to individuals in control groups.


The negative impact of the commute is, in part, determined by how you use your time while on it.


Many companies are enamored by the concept of innovation. Few, however, recognize that giving employees the space to reflect on their work might spur it.

One study showed such a link by surveying over 1,000 doctors, nurses and administrators, working across about 100 different teams, in England’s National Health Service. These employees responded to statements like “We regularly discuss whether the team is working effectively,” and their responses determined a measure of their team’s “reflexivity.” Think of this as the “extent to which group members overtly reflect upon and communicate about the group's objectives, strategies and processes …” The survey also asked these employees to list innovations they had instituted over the past year, including ways of better serving patients or improving administrative processes. Subject-matter experts then rated each innovation on a standard set of criteria.

Putting all this data together revealed a clear relationship: The higher a team’s reflexivity, the more innovative it was. In particular, this relationship was pronounced when the ratio of patients to doctors was high or, more simply, when there was a high workload. Of course, the researchers are also careful to point out that their methodology leaves a lot unknown. For instance, they caution that correlation shouldn’t be confused with causation. But the results are suggestive enough to warrant the attention of any manager interested in boosting innovation.

The higher a team’s reflexivity, the more innovative it was.


Giving feedback to colleagues is common practice even though academic evidence on its efficacy is mixed. There are some studies which suggest that feedback does not necessarily produce improved subsequent performance. Prompting individuals to reflect on the feedback they have been given, however, might increase these chances.

Consider an experiment in which participants undertook an exercise closely simulating office work; namely, they responded to a set of emails that dealt with project management issues. Each person’s responses were graded on different dimensions – like how specific their instructions for coworkers were – paired with suggestions for improvement, and then returned to the writer. At this point, some but not all of the participants were asked to reflect on the feedback, to give examples of parts of their emails that were good and parts that were bad. Finally, all participants responded to a second round of emails which had new content but were structurally identical to the first set. The results showed clearly that those who had undertaken the additional step of reflection performed better in responding to this second batch than those who had not.


Employees often have to learn new tasks, and one could reasonably ask how best to do such learning. Should they “learn by doing,” i.e. by accumulating more and more experience with the task? Or should they engage in “deliberate” learning, by reflecting on their experiences with the task once they have had some?

Interesting research investigated this issue in the context of an Indian call center. As part of their on-the-job training, half of a set of new hires were instructed to spend the last 15 minutes of their workday writing down the main lessons they had learned for each of 10 straight days. The other half were not given these instructions and spent this time simply accumulating more experience, practicing the job. Finally, at the end of their training, all employees took a test on how well they mastered the material. Employees in the first group did substantially better and were more likely to deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction one month later.

System 1 v. System 2 Again

Although these studies look at behavior in different domains, it is useful to think about them within a common theoretical framework. For behavioral scientists, that means analyzing them through the dual processing model of System 1 and System 2.

As noted in other PeopleScience articles – like this one and this one System 1 is cognition that is fast, automatic and effortless. Much of your day-to-day behavior is driven by it. You use a kind of mental autopilot when you commute to work. You respond quickly and emotionally to feedback on your past performance. You fall into a (not unreasonable) habit of practicing a task when you are first learning it.

But you are also capable of System 2 cognition, which is slow, voluntary and effortful. You probably use it when you are planning your day and thinking about how to be productive; when you are engaging with feedback in an honest and possibly self-critical way; and when you are codifying the lessons you have learned after performing a new task. Of course, this kind of thinking does not come naturally. Sometimes, it requires a prompt from your organization. If you take the lessons your System 2 can teach you and incorporate them into your work going forward, you might just be a better employee because of it.


(Editor’s End Note: I’m also curious about how this plays with growing research on the importance of breaks. They’re not the same thing – reflection isn’t taking a break from work, but rather taking a break from thinking about work in one way. What do you think?)



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