How to have a good day, today

16 February 2016

By Pan Macmillan

We all face things we can’t change – a heavy workload, cranky colleagues, the steady stream of emails. But what if we could make every day feel more like our best days, where everything seems to go our way? That’s where How To Have a Good Day comes in.

Over the course of my life, I’ve done a lot of different types of work, some of it worse and some of it better than those two early jobs of mine. I’ve been a hotel maid, receptionist, and waitress. I’ve had demanding careers as an economist, a management consultant, and an executive coach. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector; I’ve been part of a huge global company and I’ve launched my own tiny start-up. And through it all, I noticed the same thing over and again: that the quality of my day-to-day experience wasn’t necessarily defined by my title.


So how can you have a good day?

Using science-based shortcuts, Caroline Webb reveals how easy it is to achieve a good day at work and beyond:

Priorities: setting deliberate direction and focus for your day

  • The science: Your conscious brain can only process a certain amount of information. To stop it getting overloaded, your subconscious brain filters out anything that seems ‘irrelevant.’ What your brain makes sure you do see and hear is anything that fits what’s already top of mind for you, e.g. your mood, expectations, pressing tasks. Anything else? Not so much.
  • Upshot: If you’re in a bad mood, your brain will make sure you see things that confirm you’re right to be in a bad mood. But if you decide to notice positive things, you’ll see more of them.
  • The advice: SET INTENTIONS. Before any important task or conversation, take a moment to articulate what you want to pay attention to. It will change the way you experience it. 

Productivity: making the hours in your day go further

  • The science: When you skate across a lot of tasks (e.g. checking email, while keeping an eye on a website, while chatting), your brain isn’t actually multitasking. It’s switching off one task and switching on the next. That takes time and mental effort.
  • Upshot: We make 2x as many errors and slow down when we do more than one thing at a time. We think we’re getting more done, but our days are longer and harder if we constantly flit from one type of task to another.
  • The advice: BATCH YOUR TASKS. Group together similar tasks and tackle them together, to take less time over them. For example, create 1-2 ‘zones’ in the day when you blitz your email, and you’ll spend less time on it than if you scatter it throughout the day.

Relationships: making the most of every conversation

  • The science: When anything undermines people’s sense of competence, autonomy, security or belonging, their brains launch an automatic defensive response involving fight, flight, or freeze behavior. In the modern world, that might look like a snappy comment, passing the buck, or an email that goes unanswered.
  • The upshot: Most dysfunctional workplace behavior is a result of someone’s brain launching this automatic defensive reaction to a perceived social or personal ‘threat.’
  • The advice: ASSUME GOOD PERSON, BAD CIRCUMSTANCES. If you need to stop someone from behaving badly, assume they’re decent people and consider what might have triggered their defences. It’s the quickest route to reducing tension.

Thinking: being your smartest, wisest, most creative self

  • The science: To save mental energy, our brains always look for easy answers – for example, by focusing on evidence that confirms our expectations (confirmation bias) or falling in with people around us (groupthink) – without us realizing it. We rarely think objectively.
  • The upshot: Our many mental shortcuts are useful in speeding up small decisions, like where to get lunch. But when we’re making more important choices, we need a routine to broaden our perspective before we take action – one that’s simple enough to remember easily. 
  • The advice: PRE-MORTEM. A great cross-check routine is to imagine a time when your decision has played out, and it’s turned out badly. Ask yourself: what went wrong? What does that suggest you might be missing? So what should you do differently now?

Influence: maximizing the impact of all you say and do

  • The science: We have powerful social brains – it’s probably what’s enabled us to form tribes and stay safe over the millennia. So we remember information more easily if it’s ‘socially encoded’ – i.e. it’s about people and interactions. Stories stick more easily than lists of facts.
  • The upshot: If you’re trying to get a message across, even if it’s about technical issues, it helps to weave in a human angle. People will remember and engage with it more easily.
  • The advice: HUMANISE YOUR MESSAGE. If you have an idea to share, describe how it affects a real person or group of people. If you’re trying to get people to pay attention to a problem, give an example of how life will be better for someone when it’s fixed.

Resilience: sailing through setbacks and annoyances

  • The science: When we’re feeling unpleasantly stressed about something, our own natural fight-flight-freeze response reduces activity in the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and planning. That can make it hard for us to see how to get out of a difficult situation. But when we imagine that the challenge is being faced by someone else, not us, it reduces the sense of immediate threat, allowing us to reengage our more sophisticated cognitive skills.
  • The upshot: We can help ourselves think more clearly when we’re in a challenging situation by adopting someone else’s perspective on the situation – or even that of our future selves.
  • The advice: GET SOME DISTANCE. For example, imagine you’re looking back on this in a year’s time, or imagine you’re giving advice to a friend about the situation you’re in.

Energy: boosting your enthusiasm and enjoyment

  • The science: When we decide how much we’ve enjoyed or disliked something, we don't consider our whole experience. Our rating depends disproportionately on two points: its peak, and the way it ends – something known as the ‘peak-end effect.’
  • The upshot: People rate an unpleasant experience as much less awful if it ends on a slightly better note – even if involves being uncomfortable for longer. People rate an enjoyable situation as being much less positive if it ends on a lower note.
  • The advice: END ON A HIGH. Finish every day – and ideally each task and conversation – with something upbeat, by taking a moment to recap the best bits. “It was so good that this happened/we did this/to hear about that…” You’ll remember it more positively as a result. 


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