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3 reasons the personal written debrief (PWD) can improve your performance

A PWD helps wire the brain by creating and establishing a memory file that will be used in future decision-making (just don’t call it a diary)


In education it’s called reflection, in therapy, it’s called journaling.


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 a 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 multi-cam 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 embedded 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 the 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.

NEXT: Can brain games train officers to control their minds for peak performance under stress?

This article, originally published 07/10/2014, has been updated

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at