Had a bad day? A bad week? A bad month? Is the stress building and the future looking bleak? Don’t panic. Behavioural science can help.
Some days just don’t seem to work out. When you eventually start for home – late, tired and hungry – all you can do is count the wasted hours and lost energy. And the worst part is knowing that the same thing might happen again tomorrow.
It does not have to be that way, says Caroline Webb, a management consultant, economist and former McKinsey partner who specialises in using behavioural science to boost professional effectiveness.
In her new book How to Have a Good Day, she explains how “science-based tweaks” in behaviour and attitudes can help you have a better day at work.
While she often refers to cases on which she has advised, she also draws on her own experiences. Over the course of the book, she distils her research and professional expertise into advice on how to have a good day.
Her five key recommendations:
The worst days are usually those that we just let happen to us, says Webb. A quick daily intention-setting routine with specific goals can be a great help, although any to-do list should be of today’s tasks only, with each day segmented into manageable chunks.
The aim is to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and for this reason Webb counsels against multi-tasking. Focus on something, get it done and done right, and then go on to the next job. It is a measurably more effective way of working, she says.
Get some rest
“Pit stops are not wasted time but an essential part of an efficient, well-planned race,” Webb says. In other words, don’t work through lunch.
“Decision fatigue” is a real problem in today’s stressed-out workplaces, and choices made under pressure are more likely to be wrong than right. And when you get home, stop thinking about work.
The other side of getting a good rest is making time to exercise
Make sure you get the right amount of sleep (the amount being right if you wake feeling refreshed). Webb notes that after a few bad nights the quality of reasoning, self-control and planning declines sharply.
The other side of getting a good rest is making time to exercise. It does not have to be a gym workout: a walk in the park can be equally useful at refreshing the mind and keeping perspective.
Invest in relationships
Everyone works with others, and a poor working relationship can make it difficult to have a decent day. Investment means putting aside assumptions and actively listening to colleagues, building collaboration by finding common ground. Reciprocal disclosure can also help to circumvent potential conflict and tension.
Showing respect can go a long way – and that means putting the phone and other distractions aside so you can be fully present in every conversation. This sort of interaction is not just good for the other person but improves your own outlook, attitude and productivity as well.
Optimising your work/life balance: taking control of your stress
There are always things you cannot control; the trick is to keep them from overwhelming you. Webb suggests having some prepared tactical responses on hand when the waters start to rise. Writing down a few lines about the situation is a good way to step back and assess it, and understand why and how it is affecting you.
The calming effect of a series of deep breaths can do much to break a building cycle of stress
Breaking the problem down into components that you can control and those you cannot is likely to provide much-needed clarity. And, says Webb, do some diaphragmatic breathing – the calming effect of a series of deep breaths can do much to break a building cycle of stress.
Smile, sing, whatever you like
We know that we smile when we feel good, but new advances in behavioural science show that smiling can also make us feel good, even if we have no special reason to smile.
Another good practice, especially before going into a difficult meeting or encounter, is to hum or sing a favourite song – Webb admits to humming Donna Summer’s I Feel Love to herself before client workshops.
Surprisingly, gossip can be healthy. Why? Researchers noted that “in people who are lying in a brain scanner, merely getting answers to questions – any questions – visibly activates their reward system”, says Webb.
The aim here is to give one’s mind a chance to relax, cool down and refocus. Little patches of mental enjoyment can undo the unrelenting rhythm of a bad day.
Webb acknowledges that having a good day is not always easy. It can require practice, although eventually it can become a habit. Many people have a mindset that the workplace is not a place for enjoyment, and subconsciously feel guilty if they have a good day.
The point, says Webb, is that good days are not only important for the individual but beneficial to the organisation as well. So next time you are about to face a difficult situation or you feel the stress starting to build, you should feel fine about humming a happy tune to yourself. It is, after all, win-win.