Most people equate being busy with being productive. As long as we’re “getting things done,” we feel like we’re headed in the right direction. We think that doing something must be more productive than not doing anything. That action is more powerful than reflection. That being busy is better than being idle. But is it?

A recent study out of Harvard Business School concludes that we just might be all wrong when it comes to the importance of being busy. At least, that is, if we’re hoping to improve our performance over time.

The study tackled the question of what really drives learning: Is it, as we’ve been taught for years, the idea that “practice makes perfect”? Is experience—or the act of doing—the key to learning? Or is it that we learn through reflecting on that experience?

If we want to use our time wisely, should we spend it on doing or should we spend it on thinking? This is how the researchers laid out the dilemma:

Consider for instance a cardiac surgeon in training. She has completed ten operations under the eye of an instructor. It is in everyone’s interest for the cardiac surgeon to get better as fast as possible. Imagine she was given a choice in planning her agenda for the next two weeks. She could spend that time doing ten additional surgeries, or she could take the same amount of time alternating between a few additional surgeries and time spent reflecting on them to better understand what she did right or wrong. Every hour she spends reflecting on how to get better is costly in terms of lost practice time. Conversely, every hour spent practicing consumes time she could have spent reflecting on how to get better. What would be the optimal use of her time?

It turns out that once you’ve accumulated enough experience, reflecting on that experience to “articulate and codify” what you’ve learned is the most powerful way to improve your performance in the future. There are two reasons why this is true:

1. On an emotional level, reflection increases your self-efficacy, which is essentially your belief in your capacity to execute the behaviors necessary to achieve certain goals. When we reflect on our past performance and identify what is positive (and negative) about it, we are giving ourselves feedback that makes us feel more confident, capable, and certain of our ability to complete future tasks. And, as a result, we do perform better on future tasks.

2. On a cognitive level, reflection increases your understanding of the task. Think of Albert Einstein’s saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” By reflecting on past experience and performance, we refine our knowledge of exactly how we achieved what we did—deepening our understanding the causal relationship between our actions and the outcomes.

Whether the task was delivering customer service, trying to detect cancerous cells, or simply solving math problems, the researchers found that taking time to reflect what you had learned boosted performances in all cases. It also made the learnings stick.

The customer service reps who participated in the study, and regularly reflected on what they had learned throughout their training, outperformed their fellow trainees by almost 25% on their final test, and improved their chances of getting the highest ratings for outstanding service by almost 20%—an effect that lasted until at least a month after the training period.

Taking time to reflect is not intuitive. Almost everyone prefers doing to thinking.

Even so, the researchers found that taking time to reflect is not intuitive. When they allowed participants to choose whether they would rather spend time reflecting on their efforts or spend time practicing their skills, they found that almost everyone preferred doing to thinking—even though reflection always resulted in a better performance.

For me the primary takeaway here is: In order to stop doing busywork and start doing our best work, we have to make a point of scheduling in regular time for reflection. We have to celebrate, appreciate, and analyze our past performances, so that we can synthesize what we’ve learned and apply that knowledge to take it up a notch next time.

To be clear: I’m not talking about idle navel-gazing or daydreaming here. I’m talking about reflecting on specific lessons learned, attempting to unpack the causal relationship between what you did and what the outcome was—so that you can adapt your strategies in future.

A few reflection exercises you might consider:

  • Do a post-mortem on a recent project. Analyze what was successful and what was not successful about the way a recent project played out. Don’t try to assign blame for any mistakes. Instead focus on extrapolating best practices for future projects and identifying new approaches you could take to avoid repeating the same mistakes. (I also love doing “pre-mortems” on projects, where you try to identify everything that could possibly go wrong and then plan for it.)
  • Conduct a productivity audit. For one week, set aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to jot down a few thoughts about what helped you move the needle on your most important projects as well as what were your biggest distractions and interruptions. Review your notes at the end of the week and see if you can identify some patterns. What were your biggest productivity drags, and what strategies could you use to minimize them in future?
  • Identify your creativity killers. Try tracking these items every day for a week: Amount of sleep, amount of energy on waking, amount of exercise, amount of negative intakes (cigarettes smoked, drinks drank, hamburgers eaten—whatever your vices are), and amount of creative output (words written, designs iterated, business ideas generated). At the end of the week, see if there’s a positive or negative correlation between your creativity and any of these items. Does exercising regularly make you more creative? Is drinking too much or sleeping too little sabotaging your creativity?

It’s reassuring to know that taking a break to get some perspective isn’t just restful, it’s productive. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed (or just over-busy), take a time out. Reflect on what you’ve accomplished and appreciate what you’ve learned. Sometimes the common wisdom is wrong: Practice doesn’t make perfect. But practice + reflection does.

The illustration above is from this Behance project and the animated gif is from Jan Hamstra.

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