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Technique: What did you learn from your last project?

Make time to capture and reflect what you've learned from each project - to build upon next time, and to observe your own progression and development.

The best projects have a brief at the start, and a debrief at the end - a way of closing down the project with the team, and discussing what went well, what could have been improved, and what we might do differently next time.

Often though, things can feel like a conveyor belt, wrapping up one project, and moving on to the next - with little time to regroup or reflect upon what just happened.

When you’re self-employed, this can be even more extreme, as it’s entirely possible you didn’t have a team to discuss the project with as it closes - it could have just been you and your client, and as we know, feedback is often only offered if asked for.

So, it’s important that we find time to take a moment after a project closes, to debrief for ourselves, and ask: what did I learn from this project?

Perhaps it was a tangible lesson: a new skill you’ve developed, a new piece of software you worked with, a new sector you worked in. Perhaps it was a lesson around how to engage with the client in a more effective way, or you learned to listen more to your gut instinct when sensing red flags at the start of a project. Perhaps it was a positive lesson - that you really enjoy working in a certain way or with a certain person, or something that feels negative now, but could be useful in the future.

It’s entirely possible you didn’t learn anything from the last project, and that in itself can be a lesson on whether you’re pushing and stretching yourself or not.

If you can’t immediately answer this question, it’s possible that you’re not taking that time at the end of a project to reflect, to look back, and review for your own benefit what you gained from the project. External feedback is critical, but individual reflection is hugely valuable - so getting into an “end of project” habit of running your own debrief can help make this easier. And of course, if you’re not asking yourself what you learned from your last project, it can be harder to develop for the next.

Why is capturing lessons so important?

One of the foundations of working well when self-employed is having a sense of development and learning - that you're moving forwards and progressing individually and professionally. Countless studies show how important creating forward and upward motivation and momentum is for maintaining or rebuilding positive mental health.

Within employment settings, you might often have a "performance review" or a regular check-in with a manager, where you discuss what you've been doing recently, and how you're demonstrating progression - often with the additional motivation of a promotion or pay-raise as a carrot, and often supported with access to training courses or structured and facilitated learning.

When self-employment, the task falls to us as individuals to ensure we're investing in our own career development, yet it is something that can often be forgotten. More commonly, if we're not actively spending time to look at what we've been doing, it's so easy to forget small and intangible progressions - and when we reach a moment where we're tired, feeling low or being hard on ourselves, it's all too easy to look back, ignore what we've achieved and learned, and think "I've not moved forward in any way". 

Making an end-of-project habit of reflecting on these lessons learned, even if they're intangible or small observations, helps us to capture the specifics.

Having it documented in a journal or wellbeing plan helps us see the lessons and progression we're making more clearly - or if we're truly not moving forward, identity the areas where we can start to invest in this pillar of working well. Lessons learned and opportunities to develop are not just hard skills and capabilities, but also things we add to our toolbox of experience, like how to deal with situations, more awareness of how we work well or where we don't.

So, no matter what you've learned on each project, make sure you're taking the time to capture and reflect upon those lessons for next time.