Reflect to Learn: How to Create Your Own Mental Playbook

One of the main reasons some people never learn and continue to make the same mistakes is because they haven’t taken the time to reflect on what they’ve learned and connect it to what they already know. In this post I show you how not to be one of those people.
Nasos Papadopoulos
“Study the past if you would define the future…Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.” - Confucius

Learning on and off the Field

Vince Dooley is one of the most successful coaches in US college football history. His record with the Georgia Bulldogs from 1964 – 1988 is nothing short of remarkable, winning six conference titles and a national championship.

In an interview with Peter Brown, co author of the book Make It Stick, Dooley reveals some of his best practices. He emphasises the importance of practicing the fundamentals to keep players sharp on their basic skills. He also underlines the importance of mixed practice, because too much repetition is boring.

On top of this, he recalls how he always practiced special plays on Thursdays, allowing for a week between sessions, and ran the plays in a varied order, so that players would have to adapt quickly.

Through his best practices Dooley was applying retrieval, spacing and variation into practice sessions, all of which have been proven as highly effective tools for deeper durable learning in all fields by cognitive scientists.

What about preparation off the field? As Dooley himself points out “everything in practice can’t be strenuous or you’d wear yourself out”. When the players are off the practice field, reflection comes in to play.

To get on top of their playbooks, they take a folder of plays home and reflect on them, mentally rehearsing what they did in practice and how they’d improve on it in the game situation.

Reflection is one of the simplest but most effective ways to instill deeper learning and while it’s used extensively in sports, learners rarely use it deliberately and effectively in other fields.

Professional sportsmen and teams spend a lot of time watching videos of their own performances to see what they did well, and more importantly, to see what they can improve on next time. They also watch footage of their opponents and reflect on how they can use their own strengths to exploit their rivals’ weaknesses.

Reflect to Learn

Reflection is a process, which combines retrieval and elaboration to add layers of meaning to your knowledge. Examples include comparing a new type of mathematical problem to one you’ve done before or thinking about what you could have done better in a guitar practice session.

Reflection is particularly important for lifelong learners who aren’t benefiting directly from the help of a teacher or mentor. Reflection doesn’t just reinforce our knowledge it also helps us to become our own teachers by evaluating our performance and identifying where we can improve.

As you’re tackling problems and learning new material, pause briefly to reflect in the moment. “What is this about? Have I seen this type of problem before? How does this information link to what I know already?”

Build Reflection In

At the very least, it’s important to block out periods of time where you’re able to reflect on what you’ve done and how you can improve. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown discusses how Silicon Valley executives like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner build blank space into their schedule every day in order to pause and reflect. 

Creating this thinking time allows you to synthesise all the information you’re consuming, identify the important ideas and connect the dots with what you already know.

So once you’ve built the time to reflect into your day or week, what do you do to make the most of it? There’s no right answer here – make some notes, sit in silence or go for a walk.

The only requirement is that you focus consciously on your recent experiences for whatever you’re learning and try to extract as much value from them as possible.

The Takeaway

One of the main reasons some people never seem to learn and continue to make the same mistakes over and over again is because they haven’t taken the time to reflect on what they’ve learned and connect it to what they already know.

Don’t be one of those people. Take the time out to reflect on your learning experiences and you’ll thank yourself for it, trust me.

Try This

1) Keep a Learning Journal

Keep a journal related to what you’re learning and write down new insights as you progress. This could involve linking new material to existing knowledge and interesting facts, phrases or quotes about your subject that you’ve addressed.

I personally prefer to use pen and paper first before storing everything digitally on Evernote at the end of the week.

2) Build Reflection Into Your Day

Whatever you’re learning make sure you build some time regularly to reflect on what went well, what you learned and what you could do better, even if it’s just for 5 minutes after practice.

Otherwise the experience you’ve gained will fall rapidly in value overtime. If it’s good enough for Silicon Valley executives it’s good enough for you!

3) Visualise Your Performance

Just like the players from the Georgia Bulldogs who take their playbooks home and rehearse them mentally, start visualising your own performances, whether it’s a high-pressure pitch or a match at your local club’s tennis tournament.

Focus on the process not the outcome – so imagine how you’ll prepare for the pitch, how you’ll hold your posture and project your voice rather than thinking about everyone applauding you after you’ve finished.


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