The personal written debrief (PWD) can reinforce positive learning opportunities, reduce stress, and improve performance of physical and mental tasks. The key to these benefits is the way the brain receives, processes, and stores information. To be most effective, PWD requires 15-30 minutes of focus with minimal distractions — doing PWD on duty is suboptimal, but possible.
The basic tools, other than time, are a notebook and good pen. Yes, PWD is writing stuff down.
In education it’s called reflection, in therapy it’s called journaling, and to teenagers it’s called a diary. I’m painting mine multicam and putting it in a black kydex tactical combat holster. Here are three reasons I believe the PWD has teaching value.
1. Sorting Positive and Negative Experiences
The PWD works because it helps wire the brain by creating and establishing a memory file that will be used in future decision-making. We know that bad experiences and traumatic experiences are imbedded more deeply than good experiences. The brain is much more invested in avoiding extinction than it is in making you feel happy.
What that means to you is that if you do something good or have a good experience, the brain notices it less than a bad or threatening experience. A bad experience is more likely to be forever recorded (even if inaccurately) for use in future decision-making.
Think of the old management rule that it takes a bundle of positive affirmations to overcome one morale-killing criticism.
PWD helps cement those positive attributes of your encounters and, most importantly, can help you correct any errors or less-than-stellar performances on a given call. If you’ve screwed up, using reflection to replay and repair the scenario in your head can help minimize hesitation or avoidance in the next encounter and create new habits and responses.
2. Changing (and Improving) Behavior and Performance
A study showed that performance of a group of non-piano players that practiced a piece on a keyboard, and a group that practiced only mentally by visualizing practicing on a keyboard, had similar performance outcomes!
In other words, mental rehearsal has real value.
Another reason that recalling and replaying an event is helpful for memory is that the act of writing uses the sense of touch, watching the words flow onto paper uses the sense of sight, and both ignite a replay of the event in your mind’s eye.
Multiple sensory engagement plus intentionality means increased retention. Asking yourself what you learned today might get the same response that your kids give when you ask that question at the end of the day: “Nothin’!”
It takes intentional reflection to sift the value out of your day’s experiences. This can lead to increased performance.
3. Processing and Resolving the Day’s Events
Another value of PWD is gaining emotional control over the events of the day. There are many days when the last thing you want to do is to think about your shift. You want to just relax and forget it. Perhaps on an awareness level you can do that, but there is often a part of your brain still churning things over and creating tension and anxiety at a sub-awareness level.
Writing things out provides a way to process and contain those events, resolving them to some degree so that you can get them “off your mind” by getting them on the page.
Finally, because much of our routine daily activity is on autopilot, we assume that we’re operating optimally if we have a normal day. The opportunity for self-improvement in our job performance, relationships, eating habits, fitness routines and other areas of life comes from a self-awareness that can only come from intentional reflection.
We like to talk about the warrior spirit and a survival mindset. On a shallow level, many interpret that kind of character as one in which we must ignore and deny our imperfections. A more honest and mature definition is a confidence that comes from mental fitness and self-awareness.
The PWD is a great workout for top performers.
Just don’t tell anybody you’re keeping a diary. They will snoop.