Yesterday I wrote about William Heneage Ogilvie’s essay “In Praise of Idleness,” in which he makes the case for the importance of “idleness” in the lives of doctors and surgeons:
Most of us have passed through… spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods….
For many of us the war [ed: both World War I and World War II, in Ogilvie’s case] has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”
Today I saw that Jocelyn Glei wrote about the relative benefits of practice versus reflection in learning and the development of skills. She draws on an article about the role of reflection in individual learning:
In this paper, we build on research on the microfoundations of strategy and learning processes to study the individual underpinnings of organizational learning. We argue that once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past. We explain the superior performance outcomes associated with such deliberate learning efforts using both a cognitive (improved task understanding) and an emotional (increased self-efficacy) mechanism. We study the proposed framework by means of a mixed-method experimental design that combines the reach and relevance of a field experiment with the precision of two laboratory experiments. Our results support the proposed theoretical framework and bear important implications from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint.
Yet few workplaces are good at supporting this, and as Glei notes, “taking time to reflect is not intuitive.” The article makes the same point:
Our empirical evidence shows that when given a chance to choose between accumulating additional experience with a task versus articulating and codifying the experience they have already accumulated, individuals largely prefer doing to thinking. The results of this study however also suggest that this is a sub-optimal strategy: participants who chose to reflect outperformed those who chose additional experience.
Nonetheless, the benefit of doing so are pretty clear.
This article shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone living in a post-Donald Schön reflective practitioner universe, though the original article’s mix of laboratory tests and fieldwork is pretty elegant, and I quite like how they take on the question of whether people intuit the importance of reflection versus action.
I see a very similar pattern in the discovery of deliberate rest by my subjects in REST: many are hard-charging, ambitious people who only discover the value of deliberately slowing down and taking rest seriously after almost burning out. When you’re chasing a Nobel prize or facing a deadline, it’s not self-evident that you should schedule time for deliberate rest: it looks like a sub-optimal strategy.
Unfortunately, many people who overwork and burn out assume that the key to success is just working harder, not learning how to use rest more strategically. It’s a bit like being a long-term value investor, rather than a day-trader: you have to be willing to accept some ups and downs, some short-term losses and less spectacular returns, on the belief that in the long run you’ll do better. And, one might add, in the belief that you’ll have a long run.
As Glei puts it,
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.