7 ways to have a better day at the office
These tips will get you through Blue Monday, or any other Monday, or Tuesday, or....
Published 18/01/2016 | 11:43
Congratulations: you’ve survived the first couple of weeks of the year back at work. You may not feel much like celebrating, however: Blue Monday — the third Monday of January, and supposedly the most depressing day of the year — falls today, and is followed by another 50 weeks of 2016, a fair proportion of which will be full of ‘bad days’.
You know the ones: the commute from hell, run-ins with irritating colleagues, and yet more unrealistic deadlines from your boss.
But before you collapse, sobbing on your desk, there is good news. According to Caroline Webb, a former partner at management consultancy McKinsey, those awful days could be a thing of the past. Using a combination of psychology and neuroscience, she has written a book designed to help you have a good day at work, every single day.
“So many people are having days of dissatisfaction,” says Webb, whose book How to Have a Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life is out this week.
“It’s sort of accepted. We talk about having a bad day at work as if it is something we have to put up with. But I found that with small tweaks, I could make a big difference to how people felt.”
Her tips include practical actions such as ‘single tasking’ and no email ‘grazing’.
“Research is very clear that when we are stressed, we aren’t able to think at our best,” says Webb. “Our brain diverts mental energy to mounting a stress response, which means activity in our brain’s prefrontal cortex — where most of our sophisticated thinking happens — actually drops when we’re stressed. The knock-on effects are enormous, both professionally and in your family life. You’re simply not at your best.”
Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, agrees.
“Having bad days at work can affect every part of your life,” she says. “Daily hassles, such as awful commutes and difficult work emails, are worse for your health than major life events like divorce and bereavement.
“Those major events are one-offs and very intense, but you tend to have a lot of support for them. That doesn’t happen for daily hassles. Instead, they build up and lead to a negative mindset and stress.”
So what is a good day?
For most people, it’s one of two things: feeling you’ve done your work well and/or meeting targets. But it could also be something as simple as getting a seat on the train or being served your morning coffee in record time. All of which, according to Webb, sets your brain up for wanting to see the good things in your day.
Here are her top tips for surviving, and even enjoying, work every day:
Sing your favourite song
A big meeting or presentation can make for an awful day in the office, but there is a way to bypass that stress: sing a song to yourself beforehand.
“Our brains are very associative and we only have to experience one good thing to trigger thoughts related to that,” says Webb. “So if we hear a song we like, it will trigger a cascade of memories and could put us in a good mood as we’re reminded of a
night out with friends or a lovely holiday.”
Glamorise your to-do list
Your to-do list is a vital part of boosting your mood at work.
“It’s all about making your brain happy,” says Webb.
Her tips include making it satisfying to tick things off, only looking at what you have to do that day, and including items such as “go for a walk”.
“If your list is online, give yourself a box to tick. The more rewarding it feels, the more your brain will tend
to spur you towards getting things done.”
Take smart breaks
Taking regular short breaks can help you make sense of a task, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
“We’ve got a tendency to think breaks are a nice thing to have, but they are as much a part of the working day as when we are working,” says Caroline. “It’s not just because your brain’s deliberate system [the part of our brain that focuses on analysis, self-control and forward planning] needs a break, but it’s actually doing work while you are offline, processing and consolidating what you’re doing.”
Don’t email graze
A study published last week of 2,000 people by Richard MacKinnon, from the Future Work Centre, found 62pc left their email on all day.
“There are times when it’s tempting to graze emails,” says Webb. “I recommend people blitz emails twice a day, rather than looking at them throughout the day. I’m not saying go offline all day. Home in on the most important piece of work and go offline while you’re doing that.”
Strike a pose
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found the key to success at work is not talent but confidence. But what happens if you don’t have any?
Webb advises a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach.
“We know when we’re happy, we smile, and when we’re calm, we breathe deeply and slowly. So when we mimic the physical actions of an alpha male or female — squaring our shoulders and standing taller — we boost our confidence.
This is one of the quickest hacks available to us. It works best if you strike the pose just before a meeting and then carry on doing it subtly throughout.”
Survive your commute
While you can’t do anything about your train being delayed, you can make the journey more positive.
“If someone is walking slowly in front of you or they bump you with an elbow... it’s helpful to think they are a good person in bad circumstances. In other words, let’s assume they are a good person having a bad day.
“Carrying this mentality can make for a less stressful commute and de-escalates situations. It can also help at work if your colleague is being irritating — think about what might be going wrong in their day.”
Webb advises coming up with a few possible reasons for their behaviour. You don’t have to believe them, but the idea that there could be a reason behind their snappiness can help you look at the situation differently and even feel empathy towards them.
Take the three-a-day approach
A big part of what makes our day good or bad is our mindset.
“Notice three good things on the way to work,” says Webb. “Someone who holds the door open, the fact you managed to catch the train. You won’t see them if you’re in a bad mood on the way to work, as your brain will sift and scan for things that match your mood.”
That positivity will keep your brain happy and set you up for a more positive day at work.