How to have a good day: think bigger, feel better and transform your working life by Caroline Webb is all about making life at work better. It starts by asking what does a good day look like for you? What about a bad one? The evidence-based advice it offers is then about helping to turn bad days into good ones.
As with many of my favourite books on happiness it emphasises the importance of investing in exercise and sleep (see also my blog on The Sleep Revolution) as well as taking moments to breathe deeply, smile and stand taller. It points out that being tired makes it harder to respond intelligently to the unexpected, to think up new ideas or to stay calm under stress. It also dents our ability to remember or learn something new, as sleep is essential to the brain’s ability to convert the day’s experience into long-term memories. Meanwhile, exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain as well as releasing dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin which boost our interest, alertness and enjoyment. So having a good day at work of course starts with what you are doing outside of work.
But in terms of what you can do once you get to work, there’s plenty of great advice in here. It points out that faking it ’til you make it works – we can reverse engineer the state of mind we want. This means that if you focus on finding new opportunities for collaboration or hearing useful input from your colleagues you’re likely to discover more of it. This is because if you change intentions, you change your brain’s filters and facts can appear to change with that.
There’s a lot to learn in here about the myth of multi-tasking. Webb shows that the toll that multitasking takes on our work isn’t marginal. People doing two tasks simultaneously take 30% longer and make twice as many errors as those who did the same tasks in sequence. Multitasking also hurts the quality of decision-making. Habitual multitaskers take longer to switch between tasks than others – as if they have lost the knack of focusing for any length of time. In contrast, productivity is achieved by doing one thing at a time, doing the most important thing first and starting now.
If you want to have a good day at work, having ditched multitasking, you could do worse than starting by assuming that other people are coming from a good place. There’s probably a good reason that someone is doing something that to you looks annoying, so assume good person, bad circumstances. If you treat difficult people as coming from a good place, you’ll see more of the good things that they do.
It’s also important to be prepared to give something of your personal self at work. Less than an hour of reciprocal disclosure is enough to create remarkable closeness between strangers. This may sound calculating but I don’t think it is – having been on a fantastic leadership course that used this technique I know how well it works. If you want to build rapport, then you really do need to reveal a little of yourself. Being near someone in a good mood is enough to lift motivation and being near someone grumpy can do the opposite, so make sure too that you are not the grumpy one.
When it comes to dealing with major setbacks there is lots to learn from in here. Firstly, you can’t work when you feel under threat. It is difficult to come up with good work when you are upset, angry or tired, so take the time to recognise how you are feeling before jumping straight into solution-mode. Once you’ve done that, focus on the longer term. You need the faith that you will prevail in the end. Research shows that ensuring that colleagues feel that workplace decisions are fair keeps their reward systems happy and leaves people with more mental energy to focus on other things. But when things happen that aren’t fair, you need the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality. After all, it is what it is. This realistic idealism is key to bouncing back. Then you need to focus on what you can control rather than what is being imposed on you. The main thing you can control is your personal response to the situation. You can’t always change the direction of events, but you can set the tone. And then stick your head down and get on with the parts of your work that remain untouched by the upheaval.
Whether it’s how to have a better meeting, how to send a better email or how to deal with a setback, or indeed for anyone wanting to just have a better day, this book is highly recommended reading. So many thanks to my fantastic former colleague Louise for suggesting it to me earlier this year. She always ensured that I had a better day at work.