We’ve all had those days at work when nothing goes right: Your boss is in a wicked mood, your computer contracts a virus and there’s a two-hour traffic snarl on your commute home. It’s easy to dismiss days like these as the inevitable by-product of a modern workplace. But a new book by executive coach and former McKinsey partner Caroline Webb, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, makes a compelling case that you have far more control over your workday than you might realize.
One of the most thoroughly researched and practical personal management books I’ve read in a long time, Have a Good Day doesn’t just explain why we behave the way we do. Webb shows how small tweaks in your behavior can ensure that the good days will outnumber the bad.
Before sharing my favorite Webb tips, let me clarify what she means by a “good” day. It doesn’t mean a day free of distractions, stresses or challenges (as lovely as that sounds). Rather, Webb says, a good day is when you can answer three key questions in the affirmative:
- Did you spend your time and attention on things that matter?
- Do you feel that you did a good job and had the support of others?
- Did the day leave you feeling more energized than depleted?
5 Tactics to Have a Good Day
If you want to improve your productivity and joie de vivre, I suggest you read Have a Good Day soon. (You can download a free chapter at CarolineWebb.co.) But in the meantime, here are five key tactics from it that you can put to good use immediately:
No matter how skilled you become at setting intentions, you can’t always avoid life’s frustrations and challenges. Stuff happens.
1. Set intentions for your day: Have you noticed that when you’re shopping for a new car, it suddenly seems that every vehicle you see is the exact model you’re considering? That’s because your brain can only actually consciously perceive part of what’s going on around you at any time. What you notice is whatever matches things that are already top-of-mind. It’s a phenomenon researchers call “selective attention” and it’s why Webb suggests you become more deliberate about setting your intentions for the day.
For example, say you’ll have an important meeting with a difficult co-worker. Normally, when you focus on the fact that he or she tends to be a bit of a jerk, you’ll quickly find evidence confirming your expectations (e.g. an irritating smirk) while filtering out all else (a smile or conciliatory tone). Your fixation on the negative means the conversation is likely doomed before it starts.
Instead, Webb says, if you consciously try to notice the positive cues (as few as they might be) before going into the meeting, you’re more likely to enjoy a cordial discussion.
Here’s the daily intention-setting routine Webb recommends to start your day:
- Get clear on your goal by asking, “What really matters most in making this a success?
- Acknowledge the concerns dominating your thoughts and ask, “Do these attitudes and assumptions help me achieve my real aim, and if not, can I set them aside for now?”
- Ask, “Given my real priorities, where should I focus my attention? What do I most want to look out for?”
Practicing this strategy will help ensure you pick up on cues that foster the kind of outcomes you want, as opposed to those you don’t.
2. Practice distancing. No matter how skilled you become at setting intentions, you can’t always avoid life’s frustrations and challenges. To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, “Stuff happens.”
Distancing is a deceptively simple technique that allows you to gain needed perspective during those “Take me away, Calgon” moments. Two distancing tactics from Webb:
First, ask yourself: “What will I think about this a month or a year from now?” It’s a powerful question that can help shift your thinking when frustration threatens to get the best of you.
Second, pretend you’re advising a friend. Most people find it much easier to help a friend than to solve their own problems. So the next time you’re grappling with a thorny issue, ask yourself: “What would I say if I were giving advice on this same situation to a friend? You’ll be amazed how much easier it will be to think clearly once you remove yourself from the equation.
3. Plan strategic downtime. Webb says the research overwhelmingly shows that we make better decisions when we give our brains a break. So while this might sound counterintuitive, you’ll be more productive when you carve out small break periods during the day.
Ideally you’ll break every 90 minutes: Take a brief nap, go for a quick walk or simply get up and stretch your legs. Your brain — and your co-workers — will thank you.
4. Focus on one task at a time. Here again, notes Webb, the research is clear: Multitasking makes us less, rather than more, productive. When we constantly juggle, error rates increase and output decreases. Two of Webb’s important tips:
Rather than responding to email all day long, check your electronic mailbox just twice a day. That way you can hone in on the most important work without constant interruption.
Also, plan a block of uninterrupted thinking time to work on your most complex task and batch similar tasks together.
5. Practice gratitude. Ultimately, much of what makes our day good or bad, says Webb, is our mindset. When you make a point to note the good things (however small), your brain gets into the habit of scanning for positive things and your mood impro
So make it a habit to actively notice the good around you.
At the beginning of each day, try to notice three good things. For example: Your coffee was hot, someone held the door open for you and the train came on time. Then at the end of the day, think about the three best things that happened and write them down or tell your partner about them.
The more you practice gratitude, says Webb, the happier and more productive you’ll likely be.
Now, go out and have a really good day!
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