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A key to continuous learning: Keep a decision log

A while back I shared my experience recording observations on events I'd like to have done differently (Some thoughts from tracking "lessons learned" for a year). Here I want to tell you about a corresponding idea, tracking the decisions you make. The connection? Writing what you decide, including the reasons and expected outcome, strengthens the process of learning, and should ultimately teach you something about yourself.

This idea is expressed elegantly in a terrific 1997 Inc.com article by Peter Drucker: My Life as a Knowledge Worker. In it he shares seven major experiences he'd learned from his teachers:
  1. Strive for perfection throughout life (even though it would surely elude)...
  2. ... and do it "even if only the gods notice."
  3. Study deeply one new subject every three or four years.
  4. Set aside two weeks every summer to review the preceding year's work (things done well, poorly, or not at all).
  5. With new work ask "What do I need to do, now that I have a new assignment, to be effective?"
  6. Keep a decision log and after nine months trace the results back.
  7. Ask yourself what you want to be remembered for, allow that to change, and value making a difference in the lives of people.
From #6 (THE SIXTH EXPERIENCE - Taught by the Jesuits and the Calvinists):
Whenever a Jesuit priest or a Calvinist pastor does anything of significance--making a key decision, for instance--he is expected to write down what results he anticipates. Nine months later he traces back from the actual results to those anticipations. That very soon shows him what he did well and what his strengths are. It also shows him what he has to learn and what habits he has to change. Finally, it shows him what he has no gift for and cannot do well.
Drucker used this method for most of his life, and said it 1) exposed his strengths, 2) indicated areas for improvement, 3) suggested which improvements to make, and 4) highlighted what is not possible to do.

He summarizes:
To know one's strengths, to know how to improve them, and to know what one cannot do--they are the keys to continuous learning.

I've been tracking them for the last month or so, and I think it'll be valuable. Like the lessons learned, it helps to defuse difficult or emotional decisions, and changes my attitude about them from fear to curiosity. In other words, makes living more of a lab for experimentation and growth, rather than a dangerous jungle.

I also love the continuous improvement angle. I'm reading a great little book on Kaizen: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. I'm especially excited about the implications for my clients adopting the work I do - for some, the "big push" approach either isn't feasible, or doesn't sustain.

I'd like to hear from anyone who's tried this. What did you learn about yourself?

Reader Comments (14)

Very good article !

April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNusku

Thanks, Jusku.

April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt. Your post reminded me of this article, which I got off of Slacker Manager long ago...

Businesspundit: How To Become a Better Business Decision Maker

April 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrownstudy

Hi brownstudy - thanks for the link. Quite right: It's the same notion!

April 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

You're right Matt, for some the big push doesn't work, the smaller ones do.

Actually, I've come to doubt the big push change works. While sometimes they work and stick, I've come to think that smaller changes done over time might be more sustainable.

Another way I liked to think about it while coaching was to help better make some incremental changes, aiming for a snowball effect. It's *impossible* for an expanded map of the world to go back to its original state after it's been stretched, and it was those little victories I aimed for.

There's a lot of wisdom in those 7 points, thanks for sharing!

April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Excellent points, Alvin. Thank you.

April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Ever since taking a Operations Management class in college, I have been interested in the connections between Kaizen and self development. Please be sure to publish results/insights that you get while studying this!


April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi Erik - will do! I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, having studied it. Right now I realize it's one of those major perspective shifts that I love to adopt.

April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt -- how/where do you keep/collect your decision log?


April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeffH

Hi Jeff.

how/where do you keep/collect your decision log? - I just use my [ Big-Arse Text File | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/08/my-big-arse-text-file-poor-mans.html ]. It's just a file with some simple tags I use to mark things wiki-style.

April 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

The Big Pushes always feel like Big Pains. I work with the small and steady and the only thing BIG now is the reward!

April 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSnap

Hi Snap. I work with the small and steady and the only thing BIG now is the reward!: Very nice. I'd really like to hear more about how you do this. Thanks for commenting.

April 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I keep a journal (the old paper type) where I write my problems and think them through on paper. I think in some way I have done what you write about here. However, the main difference is that I generally don't go back and review what I wrote. I'll give it a try.


April 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterShaine Mata

Thanks for the info, Shaine. I'd like to hear of any good ones that come up when looking back through your journal!

April 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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