It’s easy to go through the day in reactive mode, rolling from one commitment to the next. But research suggests that we’re likely to miss valuable things if we do that. That’s because studies have found that we only perceive a part of reality at any given time, and what we notice in a situation is strongly influenced by what we already have top of mind as we go into it. So if something annoying happened to us first thing this morning, we’re more likely to notice all the annoying things in the rest of the day – and potentially blank some of the more positive things without realizing it. Go into a meeting expecting it to be awful, and we notice everything that confirms we’re right to have dreaded it – meanwhile, we might fail to hear a nice comment or an opportunity for collaboration. So before you tackle an important task or conversation, take a moment. What do you want to have top of mind as you go into this? What good things do you want to make sure to look out for? Just a few seconds of deliberately setting your intentions will make sure you notice more of what matters most. (Read more about harnessing the science of selective attention and confirmation bias in Chapter 1 of How To Have A Good Day: Choosing Your Filters.)
Research has found that the way we frame our goals makes a big difference to our chances of actually achieving them. So if you often end the day with a feeling that you’re not spending your time and effort on the right things, don’t beat yourself up about being unfocused. Try tweaking your goal-setting approach. For example, one powerful finding from research on goal-setting: you are dramatically more likely to get something done if you decide on a “when-then” cue – “when X happens, I will do Y”. It creates a mini-plan, and bakes in a reminder to get it done. So instead of saying “I must make that important call today” and then feeling bad when it gets competed out of the day’s priorities, decide “when I’m walking to the station at 10.30am today, then I will make that important call I need to make.” (Read more about this technique and three other research-backed ways to improve your goal-setting in Chapter 2 of How To Have A Good Day: Setting Great Goals. You’ll also find advice on how to write a brain-friendly to-do list that will make you feel good rather than guilty.)
With the best of intentions, we can all get derailed by unexpected things happening during the day. But we don’t have to be completely at the mercy of circumstance. Studies have found a number of techniques can help us stay on track in the face of challenges. For example, at the beginning of the day, think about a goal that you’d like to achieve today, and be realistic about what’s most likely to get in the way of that happening. (For example, maybe I want to go for a walk. But realistically if it rains, I probably won’t feel like it.) Then do some pre-emptive problem-solving – what’s going to help you overcome that issue when it arises? (If I had my waterproof coat and hat by the door, that would make it much easier to stick to the plan.) Finally, visualize yourself overcoming the obstacle by using this plan. (I picture myself reaching for the coat and hat when I see it’s raining outside, and opening the door and heading out into the fresh air.) The result? Research suggests this technique makes you three times more likely to get the challenging thing done. Read more about this and other techniques for improving your chances of success in Chapter 3 of How To Have a Good Day: Reinforcing Your Intentions.
We tend to believe that by doing several things at once, we can fit more into the day. And in our ‘always-on’ lives, many of us spend our days in a state of continuous partial attention as we’re surrounded by digital distractions and ambient noise. But research is clear that although we might feel busy when we’re multitasking, our brain is frantically working to switch our attention between the different tasks. And in each of those switches, we lose some focus and some insight. As a result, studies show that we are wiser and faster, not to mention more accurate and more creative, when we do one thing at a time – when we “singletask.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have variety in your day. But if you can even get yourself 10 minutes of undistracted time when you next tackle an important task – turning off notifications, for example – you’ll see real benefits in the quality of your work. (For advice on how to do more singletasking in the modern world, take a look at Chapter 4 of How To Have A Good Day: Singletasking.)
Taking a break can seem like an indulgence when you’re busy, or an annoyance when you’re desperate to get something finished. But here’s the thing: our brain functions far better when we give it opportunities to refresh, reflect and reboot. If we take even a moment to step away from what we’re doing, we come back with fresh insight – we see solutions and ideas we didn’t see before. If we take a little time to reflect on what we’ve just heard, we retain the information better and reach deeper insight on what to do with that information. And researchers have found that the breaks only need to a be a few minutes to have this effect on our productivity and performance – so even standing up and stretching makes a difference. You can read more on this evidence, and ways to act on it, in Chapter 5 of How To Have A Good Day: Planning Deliberate Downtime.
Most of us have times when we have too much on our plates – and the stress that this causes can make it hard for us to be at our best, just at the point that we need to rise to the challenge of having so much to do. One way to reduce the unpleasant sensation of overload is to set aside your long to-do list, and instead grab a blank piece of paper. Write on it the most important thing you need to do today. Then, identify the very smallest step you can take to get that ball rolling, and write that down. Then, take that tiny step. It seems simple, but when we’re overwhelmed it’s very calming to reconnect with our sense of competence and control – and that’s what this small exercise does for us. In Chapter 6 of How To Have A Good Day (Overcoming Overload), you’ll find a range of other techniques for helping you move forward and feel in control when the workload is heavy – including a powerful way of saying “no” to requests.
It’s not just you – human beings are wired to procrastinate. It’s because our brains are naturally more attuned to the present than to the future, and to concrete things versus abstract ideas. So in our minds, the reality of putting in effort now looms far larger than the sense of possible future benefit from getting something done. So it’s no surprise that as a result we tend to put off getting things done. The trick is to work with these biases, to make the initial costs of action feel smaller, and the eventual benefits of action feel larger and more real. For example, it helps to actively picture the benefit of doing the thing you’re putting off. Imagine the sensation of looking back on the day and feeling good about yourself. The more vivid and specific you can make this in your mind’s eye, the more motivation you’ll feel to get moving on the task. You’ll find more on this and other tools to help you overcome procrastination in Chapter 7 of How To Have A Good Day, appropriately titled: Beating Procrastination.
Obviously you can’t always create an unforgettable rapport with every single person you meet. But there are predictable factors that we know encourage trust and connection, even in the first few minutes of an interaction, and this points to several practical things that anyone can do to make a stronger, warmer bond with other people. For example, human beings generally treasure the experience of being listened to – truly listened to, with curiosity and interest – and tend to be drawn to people who listen to them in this way. But it’s actually pretty rare to encounter this type of listening. Our exchanges are often focused on getting things done, conveying information, or superficially oiling the wheels with pleasantries. To make the quality of a conversation stand out, ‘double click’ on something someone says, and ask a real question to go one level deeper – “that’s interesting, what made you decide to do that?” or “that’s interesting, what is it you enjoy about doing that?” And then, of course, listen with authentic interest to the answer. For more practical tips on ways to deepen the openness and warmth of an interaction, take a look at Chapter 8 in How To Have A Good Day: Building Real Rapport.
We’re such social creatures that even a little bit of interpersonal tension can get in the way of us having a good day. And tensions are pretty inevitable from time to time, not least because everyone has different personalities and priorities. It helps to understand that when someone’s not behaving at their best, it’s likely that their brain is subconsciously on the defensive as a result of something that they perceive to be challenging their self-esteem or social standing – perhaps they feel out of their depth, or they feel excluded from a project. Whatever the trigger is, research has found that if we can do something authentic that gives the other person back a feeling of competence, control, fairness or respect, we’re likely to get their brain off the defensive and restore their ability to think constructively. That can be as simple as finding something appreciative to say, however small it is – perhaps we can praise the effort that they’ve gone to, or the attitude they are bringing to bear. It's a surprisingly powerful way to get a conversation back on track. (You’ll find much more on ways to masterfully deal with difficult conversations in Chapter 9 of How To Have A Good Day: Resolving Tensions.)
Everyone around us has their strengths and weaknesses, and some of that isn’t changeable. But the way we treat other people has a surprisingly big impact on how smart and resourceful they are able to be on any given day. And if you’ve ever had a boss, mentor or friend who always makes you feel witty and wise, you’ll know that one major thing that brings out the best in people is treating them as if they have the potential to solve problems for themselves and achieve great things. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide them with support and guidance. But research suggests that preserving a person’s sense of autonomy is crucial to them performing well on complex tasks. In practice that means creating space (with regular check-ins) rather than micromanaging; asking exploratory questions when they need help (how are you thinking about this?) rather than jumping to telling them the answer. (You’ll find more techniques for doing this well in Chapter 10 of How To Have A Good Day: Bringing the Best Out of Others.)
We think of some people as being naturally creative thinkers, readily able to come up with new ideas when the old approaches aren’t working. And yet, there are things that all of us can do to increase our chances of having an “aha” moment when we’re trying to solve a problem and can’t see a way forward. The trick is to see the problem from a different perspective so that you can spot new connections between different pieces of the puzzle. One of the simplest ways of doing this is called “rubber ducking” – explaining the problem you’re trying to solve to someone else who knows nothing about it (the idea being that you might as well be talking to a rubber duck). Just the fact of putting yourself in the shoes of an “explainer” rather than a “solver” can be enough to spark fresh connections in your brain that help you see a new idea. For more on this, take a look at Chapter 11 in How To Have A Good Day: Reaching Insight.
Decision-making is a taxing activity for our brain, because even small choices require us to conceive of an unknown future and evaluate the likely pros and cons of different options. So without us being aware of it, our brain uses simple rules of thumb to make it easier and save mental energy. For example, if other people we know have gone for Option A, our brain will tend to follow along (a bias called ‘groupthink’). If we recently heard something relating to Option B – whether relevant or not – we’ll likely go for that instead (‘recency bias’). These subconscious neural shortcuts often lead us to make poor decisions – but you can sharply improve the quality of your choices by getting into the habit of using a cross-check routine. One such routine is to do a “pre-mortem” – to imagine that in a year’s time your decision will have proved a disaster, and to look back and see what caused you to fail. You’ll find more on this and other cross-check routines in Chapter 12 of How To Have A Good Day: Making Wise Decisions.
Sometimes, we’re firing on all cylinders – we feel smart, sharp and capable. But sometimes we don’t feel quite as clear-headed – perhaps we’re short of sleep or in the middle of an especially tricky task. The good news is that we know enough about the way the brain works to know how to create clearer thinking when we’re feeling bogged down. For example, we know that worrying makes it hard to be brilliant. So one powerful technique involves asking a positive framing question to get us refocused on the possibilities and resources we can draw on – for example, “when have I solved a problem like this before, and what helped me back then?” or “what does the ideal situation look like, and what would be the first small step towards that?” These sorts of questions remind us that some kind of solution is likely within reach, reducing our stress and helping us bring our full intelligence to bear. (You can find more tips like this in Chapter 13 of How To Have A Good Day: Boosting Your Brainpower.)
Everyone’s busy with their own stuff and everyone’s deluged by information all the time. So it’s not always easy to get heard when you want to get your message across, whether you’re writing an email or making a comment in a meeting. The good news is that research points to several ways to increase the chances of people paying attention to what you’re saying, by working with the grain of what naturally engages the average human brain. For example, all of us (even very analytical people) are wired to pay disproportionate attention to social details. So even if you mostly need to share numerical data, if you can also share an example involving a human being or a quote from someone they know, people are way more likely to notice and remember what you’re saying. For more tweaks that will help your communication have the impact it deserves, look at Chapter 14 of How To Have A Good Day: Getting Through Their Filters.
It can be hard to change the status quo. People have established habits and ways of working, and it’s far easier for them to carry on doing what they’ve always done than to do something new. Even just persuading someone to make time to talk can be a challenge, since asking them to spend time with you means they have to give up time on something else. But there’s now a lot of evidence on what it takes to influence people in a positive, respectful way. One of the most robust findings is that you have to make it incredibly easy to act on your ‘ask.’ For example, that means simplifying your communication to make it easier to process; creating easy default options (“if I don’t hear from you I’ll assume you’re happy with X”); being proactive in removing obstacles – and so on. For more on how to make more compelling requests and nudge people in your direction, take a look at Chapter 15 in How To Have A Good Day: Making Things Happen.
When the stakes are high, it’s nice to be able to radiate the kind of quiet self-confidence that tells people that you’re in control and on your game. Of course, it’s also the time that it’s hardest to do this, since we might be full of uncertainty about whether we can achieve what we’re hoping. Luckily, there are several steps you can take to make sure that you’re maximizing your personal impact when it matters most. For example, if you find yourself feeling nervous, it’s been shown that it helps to reframe your nerves as positive signs of excitement and readiness. The initial physical signs of getting keyed up, like a faster heartbeat, are signals that your brain and body are increasing their levels of alertness and focus. If you start to feel a flutter in your stomach, telling yourself “this is my body getting me ready to rise to the challenge” can stop the feeling escalating into something more panicky. For more techniques like this, see Chapter 16 of How To Have A Good Day: Conveying Confidence.
When you’re in the middle of a challenging situation, it can be hard to stay as centered as you are when you’re at your best. Anything that undermines our feelings of self-worth or social standing can be perceived by our brain as a threat, triggering the kind of fight-flight-or-freeze response that constrains our ability to make good choices in the heat of the moment. But there are proven ways to dampen the sense of threat and clear our minds when we’re stressed, making it easier to see a good way forward. One technique that researchers have found effective is called distancing – in other words, you take yourself out of the heat of the moment and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. For example, imagine that you’re one of your wisest mentors, and consider the advice they’d give you right now. Or imagine it’s a friend of yours dealing with the situation at hand, rather than you, and that you’re giving your friend advice on how to handle it well. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but this sort of technique has been shown to reduce our level of anxiety or annoyance enough to be useful. (There are several other practical calming techniques like this in Chapter 17 of How To Have A Good Day: Keeping a Cool Head.)
It can be hard to let go of past annoyances or disappointments – especially when they’re not our fault. But continuing to brood on something that’s gone wrong can get in the way of us seeing opportunities to move on and enjoy other aspects of life that are more satisfying. Journaling – writing about what’s happened and how we feel about it – has been found to help us process negative events and clear more headspace for more positive thoughts. It’s even more powerful if we can explore a range of different explanations for what went wrong, including more benign possible explanations for what happened (maybe the person who’s wronged us isn’t trying to sabotage us, but is merely incompetent, for example). Research has found that even if we don’t believe those more benign theories, it reduces our stress level and helps us move forward. You’ll find more on this topic in Chapter 18 of How To Have A Good Day: Moving On.
Sleep, exercise and taking time to breathe – these are all strangely powerful in boosting our resilience to the ups and downs of life. But they’re often exactly the things we skimp on when we’re under pressure. The good news is that studies show that even small steps can make a difference on all these fronts. Short of sleep because of shift work or a small child? A short nap really does help, even though they’re not the same as a full night of sleep. Can’t find time to go to the gym? Even a few minutes of cardiovascular activity – a few jumping jacks, a 2 minute walk – will boost your mood and your focus. Heard about mindfulness but can’t imagine meditating for 20 minutes a day? Just take a moment to feel your feet on the floor and take a deep breath that fills your belly. For more encouragement of this sort, read Chapter 19 of How To Have A Good Day: Staying Strong.
If work and life feels like a grind right now, there are several quick tactics that research has found to be provide a reliable boost to your emotional and mental energy. For example, doing something nice for someone else might seem like the last thing that’s going to help when you’re already exhausted. And yet generosity is one of the most predictable ways to give ourselves a boost. Random acts of kindness don’t have to take a lot of energy or time – it could involve just giving someone a smile or a compliment that you wouldn’t normally bother with. Another tip is to aim to end each day on a high note, by taking a moment to remember the best bits of the day before you go to bed (however small those good things are). Not only does it make sure you don’t forget the positive stuff, but research has found that the way an experience ends has a disproportionate effect on the way we remember that experience. So this is a good way of rewriting the way you remember your day in future. For more tips like this,
raid Chapter 20 in How To Have A Good Day: Topping Up The Tank.
Most of us have at least one thing on our to-do list that we don’t entirely relish, or a meeting that we’re not looking forward to. To boost your motivation and performance, research has found that it helps tremendously to find a way to apply your natural strengths to the task in question. What are you particularly good at, and how might you be able to use that skill in this situation? What talents or interests do you have that might just be relevant here? For example, perhaps music is a big thing your life, but your day job is anything but musical. It’s not inconceivable that you could play music at the beginning of meetings or working sessions to set the mood (for yourself, if nobody else). Or perhaps you’ve been told that you’re brilliant at intuiting people’s state of mind. Maybe you could be more deliberately attentive to people in meetings, drawing people out and asking their views, whether or not you’re chairing. Do this more often and you’ll find you have much more energy for even the less appealing parts of your role. For more on this, take a look at Chapter 21, Playing to Your Strengths.
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