Hot Wash, Cold Wash
A Productive Approach to Rumination
A few weeks ago, I delivered a workshop for a major California developer that drew on the habits and behaviors in How Women Rise. We polled participants in advance and learned they were eager to discuss The Perfection Trap.
This was not surprising. The company prides itself on getting all the details right. As a result, many of the women felt their choice was either doing everything perfectly or failing.
This kind of either/or mindset can be paralyzing.
And what happens when we feel paralyzed? We tend to ruminate.
That is, we go over and over our mistakes, mulling where we went wrong and getting tangled in self-accusation:
How could I have done that?
Why did I say X?
He must think I’m a complete idiot!
Now I’ve really blown it.
When we ruminate–– and if we’re perfectionists we often do–– we may justify the time spent berating ourselves by imagining that doing so will help us avoid screw-ups in the future.
If we can just make ourselves miserable enough, we can really learn our lesson. And next time, we’ll be perfect.
But because ruminating is both stressful and negative, chewing over our regrets actually makes it harder to change our ways. By increasing our feelings of powerlessness, it keeps us stuck.
There’s got to be a better way.
And there is, as Megan, one of the participants in our California program, made clear.
Megan volunteered that she counteracts her tendency to ruminate by conducting an immediate postmortem. Rather than wallowing in regret about mistakes, she uses them as an opportunity to learn.
Say her team falls short on a project. She immediately gets active, reaching out to everyone involved and getting their thoughts. But not their thoughts about what went wrong. Instead, she solicits ideas about what they can learn from the experience. She then organizes the feedback she receives, asks for additional comments and works with her team to adjust their process.
Megan says, “This is a helpful way for me to combat ruminating because it's so action-oriented. It’s much easier to do something else, rather than to simply tell yourself to stop ruminating (in other words, give your brain something else to work on). It also gives me a measure of confidence because I can take real lessons away from what otherwise might seem like a bad situation.”
Megan’s postmortem reminded me of a highly intentional technique I’ve seen while working with the US Army, the practice of hot wash and cold wash, which comprises what is called the After Action Review.
The hot wash is an immediate, first-take debrief of what just happened: identifying where a maneuver met its objective, where it fell short, and the quick-take reasons for both. The power of the hot wash lies in its timeliness, the fact that each action is still fresh in peoples’ minds.
The cold wash comes a bit later when everyone involved has had time to digest their thoughts about what worked, what didn’t, and why. Was training insufficient? Were instructions unclear? Were assignments badly allocated? And if so, how might the process might be adjusted in the future?
Both hot and cold washes are intended as learning exercises. Participants focus on lessons. Immediate lessons, and lessons for moving forward.
The hot and cold wash template reinforces the message, as the Army defines it, that “both successes and failures are considered sources of lessons.”
This gives us another hint about why rumination is not helpful. By focusing on our regret over what went wrong, we limit the scope of our vision, which makes it hard to learn from both what worked and what did not.
The hot wash/cold wash template, along with Megan’s postmortem, also shows why Perfectionism is a trap. A key aspect of trying to be perfect is trying to avoid mistakes. For if we make a mistake, we are by definition not perfect.
Mistakes are in fact our richest, if our most painful, source of learning, an essential means by which we grow. For this reason, mistakes are in fact a powerful resource, but only if, instead of ruminating, we immediately pivot to our own version of a postmortem or an After Action Review.