Metacognition: Thinking About How You Think Impacts Performance

Drawing of the brainHave you thought about what you’re going to do after you read this article? I mean, really thought about it?

You may know what task you’re going to do, but how are you going to approach it? What are your criteria for success? What do you need to know to do the task well? And what’s your mindset going in?

If I sound like a life coach after one too many espressos, I don’t mean to. However, I would like you to take some time and think about yourself today, because this blog is about metacognition, or thinking about thinking.

Why does this matter to lawyers? Because, despite the esoteric name, research has shown that asking oneself some quick questions before taking action can be very effective in improving performance in people of all ages, from children to working professionals.

Why is it important to develop metacognitive skills?

If you’ve ever thought, “Wow, I really didn’t think that through,” you’re engaging in the simplest form of metacognition. You’re analyzing your actions and trying to understand why you acted the way you did.

Most of us believe we are very self-aware, however, the reality is that we aren’t. (Not me, though, I’m really self-aware. It’s those other people who aren’t.)

Furthermore, a study conducted by Cornell University and Green Peak Partners found that leaders who lacked self-awareness were less successful and underperformed those who could objectively assess their own strengths and weaknesses.

If you really want to dig into a good overview of research on metacognition take a look at this summary. A more detailed summation of the topic can be found here.

For the rest of us who just want the highlights, I’ve laid them out here:

  • Metacognition is the process of analyzing how you approach a problem and the mindset you take into it. This isn’t the same as having a positive attitude, but is a realistic assessment of how you think about an issue.
  • Metacognition is a skill that can be developed and isn’t innate from birth. It has been linked to the term “growth mindset,” in that both metacognition and a growth mindset require the learner to recognize that they can change and develop.
  • Metacognition doesn’t have to be a drawn-out process. It can be as simple as asking yourself two or three questions before approaching a task.
  • You may already be doing it subconsciously, but genuine long-term improvements come from being intentionally objective and open to self-critique.

How can we develop metacognitive strategies?

Let’s start with an example. Joan, a seasoned attorney, has been going to CLEs for years. She likes connecting with people, tends to choose well-known speakers, and feels like she gains a lot from the sessions.

Since the pandemic, however, CLEs have been moved to live webinars and Joan has found that the quality has gone down. They tend to be boring and unengaging and it’s difficult to ask questions.

Understandably, Joan concludes that she learns better with a live person in the room and can’t wait to get back to it.

But what is it about an in-person CLE that Joan really likes? It is, after all, a speaker and a collection of other people, just like a webinar.

If she reflects on what she values in the experience, she may discover that it’s actually traveling to and from a location for the purpose of learning, the anticipation of discussing the topic with others, and the opportunity to stay and speak to the presenter after the CLE. This may put her in a learning mindset. But maybe turning on her Zoom a minute before a webinar isn’t providing her the preparation she needs to get into this mindset.

This simple exercise in metacognition could help Joan understand what she needs to change to get more from online CLEs. She could:

  • Schedule 15 minutes before the webinar to research the topic, or even think about what she already knows about it.
  • Prepare some questions for the presenter and stay on at the end to discuss.
  • Schedule 15 minutes after the session to encode, store, and synthesize the new information.

Metacognitive prompts

For years now, whenever I’ve been teaching, consulting, or just taking on a task, one of my favorite mantras is from an old movie: “Come on, let’s get into character.”

I use it to delineate a switch between focus and tasks or if I need to reset my mode to being a learner, presenter, collaborator, etc. That then triggers a few simple questions that help me understand where my head is at, how I’m going to complete the work, and whether my thinking is solid.

The questions you ask yourself may depend on your situation and what resonates with you. However, they should be honest, have tangible answers, and be something you can change. (I like to avoid “why” questions if I can. Instead, I ask myself “What led me to…?”).

Below are prompts that might trigger some ideas for you:

  • What do I want to achieve?
  • Have I done this successfully before?
  • Is what I have planned next moving me toward my objective?
  • Is it going as expected? What are the reasons for my answer?

And prompts for after you finish the task:

  • Were the strategies and skills I used effective?
  • How did my mindset affect how I approached my work?
  • What have I learned about my strengths and areas in need of improvement?
  • What can/should I do next time?

However you decide to use metacognition to boost your performance, the fact that you have reached the end of this blog post will hopefully change something, if even briefly.

By recognizing that you can assess your actions objectively, you’ve already started the metacognitive process, so congratulations and good luck!

Related reading:

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