“This book is dedicated to translating the most valuable research into the context of today’s working world—the tough assignments, the packed schedules, the complex relationships—to show you how to make every day reliably more enjoyable and productive.”
Caroline Webb’s How to Have a Good Day is possibly the most actionable book I’ve read. It is packed with practical suggestions—all of them grounded in research in psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience. What’s especially impressive is how many of the suggestions can be quickly implemented and easily sustained (I know this because I’ve adopted a few of them since starting to read the book). Webb also helps us understand why some of the things we already do work—increasing our motivation to continue to do them.
This book is not only about being productive, it is also about creating days (and by extension, lives) that are meaningful. Days where we get stuff done, and in which we feel good about what we do, how we do it, and how we interact with the people around us.
Webb shares the results (and often the fascinating details) of dozens of studies—helping us to understand the why of the suggested behaviors and practices she offers up.
The Big Idea
Activate the Deliberate System
"Less of the day seems driven by chance once we understand some of the forces that shape our choices and our emotions, and once we recognize how our thought patterns can affect everything from our perception of reality to the moods of those around us."
Just about everything that Webb shares in How to Have a Good Day is grounded in three essential scientific themes. These are: the two-system brain, the discover-defend axis and the mind-body loop.
The two-system brain refers to our automatic and deliberate systems (Kahnemann’s System One and System Two for those who are familiar with Thinking Fast and Slow). The automatic system “streamlines our decision making by nudging us toward whichever choice requires the smallest amount of conscious effort.” It guides us towards the (often erroneous) conclusion that the most obvious option is the best option. Engaging the deliberate system is critical—and underpins many of the suggestions outlined in this book.
The discover-defend axis refers to the reality that even mild stress can push us into “defend” mode—and reduce the activity in our pre-frontal cortex, where the deliberate system’s work gets done. While we need the “defend” response to protect us from real harm, when it prevents us from thinking and behaving expansively—it isn’t serving us. Webb shares strategies for both tamping down the defend axis and activating the discover axis which loves (even small) rewards.
Finally, Webb makes the case for remembering and using our bodies, not only our brains, to create good days. By paying attention to and caring for our bodies (exercise and sleep) and our minds (mindfulness, reflection) we can think better, live better and ultimately be happier.
What follows are just a couple of gems from the book—specifically ones that I’ve adopted since starting the book which are helping me have even better days.
Getting Our Priorities Straight
"We can’t switch off our automatic system’s filtering function—by definition, it’s automatic. But we can adjust the settings, by being more proactive in defining what our brain sees as “important” each day."
I coach people on the importance of setting intentions and getting clear on priorities, yet often find myself feeling unclear about my own priorities. The suggestions Webb provides (a couple of which I include here) and the research she shares are helping me by making the process easier and by highlighting just how critical the activity of intention and priority setting is.
Here are the four “As” that are outlined in the book, and that I’m now using, diligently, as I start my day (or if I get stuck in the middle of a day):
Aim: What matters most and what does that mean my real priorities should be?
Attitude: What concerns are dominating my thoughts? If they don’t help me with my priorities, can I choose to set them aside?
Assumptions: What negative expectations do I have going into this? How might I challenge those expectations?
Attention: Where do I most want to direct my attention? What do I want to be sure I notice?
I’ll also sneak in an incredibly useful tip that I learned from Webb about managing to-do lists: Those long lists (that I am so very fond of) are not actually that helpful, within a given day. Instead, I review my big list the night before, identify what I am going to focus on the next day, and put that into a separate, much shorter, list. Throughout the day, I only work with that shorter list. I am less overwhelmed and getting much more—and what really matters—done.
Pose a Question
"How can we apply this to tricky tasks at work? It can be as simple as framing the task as an open question—simply pausing and asking, “What’s the right way to solve this, ideally?” When I feel frustrated by a lack of progress, I often find that’s enough to put me in a more exploratory mindset."
Here’s a simple way to engage our “discover” axis and be more creative and expansive in our thinking—reframe your thinking into questions. Doing so results in a signal to your brain that you want it to explore and think new thoughts.
We learn from a study of people working on anagrams that the group that wrote down the question “Will I solve these anagrams?” solved nearly twice as many puzzles as those who wrote down “I will solve these anagrams.” An easy, powerful shift.
Remember Sheryl Sandberg’s question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s one of those questions I come back to again and again, because it helps kick me out of defensive mode and into expansive thinking. Research shows that we benefit from “rhetorical questions that invite us to set aside barriers that might be narrowing our thinking.” Other examples of questions like this include: “If you knew the answer, what would it be?” Or “If you had no constraints, what would you do?” Try this kind of question when you feel stuck and see if they can help you unstick.
Also on the subject of questions: When we are asked a question rather than being told to do something, we feel more in control, less defensive and more open. So, notice when you are asking others vs. telling them and how you can shift to questions—of others and of yourself.
If you’re looking for good, research-based, ideas about how to be more focused, more organized, prioritize better, manage your emotional state and work better with others, How to Have a Good Day is a resource you’ll want to have on your shelf—and refer to often.
And, one more suggestion: take the appendices seriously. They pull together many of the individual pieces and help you organize the many ideas here into a usable “plan.” As I was finishing the book and was feeling overwhelmed by the scope, I truly appreciated these guides.
Happy reading—and to great days ahead!