Is Action Bias Impeding Your Productivity?

October 2, 2019

How reflection can help you become a dynamic learner

I’m a guy who likes to be busy – it gives me energy but I think it sometimes drives my family crazy – so I was intrigued by an article  by Bradley Staats about “action bias” that I saw last year in the Wall Street Journal. Action bias describes our need to be seen doing something or driving forward instead of stopping to think about what we’ve done and what we should do next.

An example of action bias in the article was a study on professional soccer goalies. Data suggested that if goalies stood in the middle of the goal on penalty kicks, rather than diving to the left or the right, statistically they would dramatically increase their chances of stopping the ball. But goalies virtually always dive. When researchers shared this information with the goalkeepers, goalies said they would keep diving anyway, because they’d regret it if they simply stood in the middle and the other team scored. They wanted to feel like they’d tried – done something -- even though doing nothing was statistically the best strategy. 

PB-US-Blog-Inline-action-biasReflection boosts learning

I was intrigued. Was action bias impacting my life and work? To learn more, I picked up Staats’ book, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive, which I just got around to reading. Staats explains that our constant need to seem busy, to dive into action, actually keeps us from learning.

This is potentially a big problem, since we are moving into an economy that values the ability to learn above all else. Many occupations today require us to learn constantly just to keep pace with change and to stay effective at our jobs. At the same time, action bias is rampant in our workplaces – have you ever felt the need to put in “face time” at work or expected your team to “double down” and work harder, even when they were already working hard?

Though we might feel productive, our need for activity can keep us from making real progress. Instead, Staats says, we need to slow down and be more thoughtful.

When we make time to stop and reflect, we can actually learn faster and become more productive.

Regular readers will know that I advocate talking openly about failures with my team to figure out where we went wrong and how we might do a better job going forward. Those types of discussions are a good start, but Staats says we should engage in reflection on a daily basis to keep ourselves learning -- not just when things are going wrong, but when they’re going right, too. Each day, set aside a few minutes to ask yourself:

  • What were the key strategies that I implemented today?
  • What were the key lessons that I learned?

Taking time out may actually help you be more productive once you get back to work, helping you learn from your experiences and reducing the potential negative effects of action bias.

Practicing reflection

After reading the book, I realized I’ve always had a habit of reflecting, even though I didn’t think of it in those terms. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is think about my day: What do I need to get done? What is on my list at home and at work?

Once I get to work, on a typical day I have a meeting or two, start to work on opportunities or challenges – but then I force myself to take a break. I might chat with a coworker or take a walk to the café. These breaks from active work allow my brain to reflect and recharge and make me more effective once I get back into things.

I didn’t start doing this with intention, I was just doing what felt natural to me. (My habit might explain why one of my top Clifton Strengths is Learner.) But now that I know that making time for reflection in my day will help me become a dynamic learner, I will be more deliberate. I will regularly make time for reflection. I will practice.

How will you build reflection into your day?

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