Caroline Webb is an expert at having a good day. Webb, who was a management consultant for 15 years and an economist before that, has used the latest research on behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience to develop an expertise on how every person can be their best self at work. Her new book, How To Have A Good Day, lays out the techniques that Webb has found work for her clients worldwide.
Webb sat down with The Huffington Post to discuss how to get the most out of the workday.
In a minute or less, tell me: How do I have a good day?
In a nutshell, what the book is doing is it’s showing you that you have far more control over things that seem fixed in your life than you actually realize. And that’s where the behavioral science comes in. The science really lays out the evidence on how you can shift the way you experience reality: shift the number of hours it feels like you’ve got in the day, shift the level of intelligence you’re able to bring to the table, shift the moods and behaviors of other people. All of these things we think we have to just accept, and that are outside of our control, but actually we have a huge amount of influence over. So that’s the message of the book. Hopefully it’s an optimistic message -- to say that we have more control that we think.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I found that even smart, aspirational people were often having daily experiences that were not that much fun. I thought that there was a bit of a mismatch between the fact that there were so many people who were so smart and generally happy in their lives, but day to day not having the best experience. There are so many books out there on career, and what you should do to pursue your passion, and not so much out there on how do you handle meetings, emails and how do you plan your day.
One of the first things that you talk about in the book, where I felt like I really learned something new, was about working memory and how little of it we actually have. Can you talk a little bit about what working memory is and how it affects us?
There are two systems in the brain. One is large, automatic, mostly invisible to us, and takes care of most of what we do from day to day. Then we’ve got the conscious part of our brain, what I call the deliberate system. Which is where our planning and our reasoning, and our-self control, comes in. The challenge is that the functions of the deliberate system -- while they make us sensible, insightful, a pleasure to be around -- all depend on something called working memory. It is very small and very limited in capacity, because it can only hold maybe three or four things in the space at once.
That means that if you have a phone that’s ringing or even just blinking or buzzing slightly while you’re having a conversation, that’s putting some competition on this tiny amount of working memory. You’re not able to give as much of your mental energy to the conversation, which obviously then suffers as a result.
We can really make ourselves more effective in all sorts of different ways -- more creative, more thoughtful, nicer to be around -- if we figure out how to lessen the load on our working memory. That means cutting out distractions, and being kind to your brain and not overloading it, doing one thing at a time. Single-tasking.
That brings us to productivity. Which is something that I struggle with, that I feel like a lot of people that I know struggle with. There’s something always happening, and depending on where you work, your employer can see everything you are doing and really measure your productivity. How do you avoid feeling like you need to be 100 percent productive 100 percent of the time?
I do not define productivity as always working and being always on. To me, and all the evidence backs this up, productivity is about marshaling your mental resources in the best way possible over a period of time. All the evidence suggests that means you need to take smart breaks. The deliberate system, the sophisticated part of our brain, needs to take breaks in order for it to function at its best. There are studies that suggest that the quality of decision-making deteriorates over time the longer you go without having had a break. You see these examples in judges making decisions in parole courts. You see this in people working in hospitals deciding whether they are going to wash their hands or not. All of these decisions become worse the longer it is since you’ve taken a break. There’s lots of evidence that when you think you’re “resting,” your brain is actually doing plenty of processing of what you’ve previously been doing.
In terms of the evidence on single-tasking, it’s really, really compelling that you work faster, you make fewer errors and you are less stressed if you do one thing at a time. And that means taking yourself offline from time to time. I’m not saying all day, because I mean to be realistic, but taking yourself offline from time to time. Perhaps starting with the most important task of the day and saying, “OK, what if I were to close all of the tabs I’m not using?”
Obviously the extent to which you can do it depends on what task you are doing. But the more you can take distractions out of your field of attention, the less strain there will be on your working memory, the faster you will be able to work. So, I think that it’s really powerful to try to start with one task a day and then see how you get on, and then notice the productivity boost that you get, and then experiment with how you can do that more throughout the day.
But it does require communication with your colleagues. It does help to say I’m going offline or to take yourself to a different place to do some offline work. Personally, I like to wear an enormous pair of noise-canceling headphones. So, I think communication is important if you are going to take yourself offline. But it shouldn’t be the barrier to doing so, because it is eminently possible. You can always cite the science as a way of explaining why you have decided to stop multitasking and start single-tasking.
What physically should you be doing to have a good day at work?
The evidence is extraordinary. I’ve talked about the evidence on single-tasking versus multitasking being extraordinarily robust. The evidence is just as robust in terms of looking at the effects of sleep, exercise and mindfulness. In the book I look at two different things, first on your cognitive performance: how smart and sharp you are, but also on your mood and your resilience to what is going on around you. It’s really interesting, and certainly there is a general phenomenon that lies behind them which is that all of those -- sleep, exercise and mindfulness -- seem to enhance the performance of the brain’s deliberate system.
What are the ways that you can control them during the workday? Sleep less so, but exercise and mindfulness.
On sleep, obviously mostly it’s about the overnight gig, and some of that does relate to the workday, in that if you are sitting and doing email in bed before you go to bed, all the evidence suggests that the blue light on your phone will keep you awake. Research has shown it delays your sleep cycle by about 90 minutes. The evidence on napping is really encouraging. Not always easy to build in, but naps are not a bad way of topping off the tank.
I think the evidence on exercise is just fantastic. We went from an assumption that you had to exercise for quite a while to get the kind of benefits that you see in the literature. And it may be that if you are trying to lose weight, you have to do a reasonable amount. But to get the brain benefits, the cognitive and emotional benefits, some of the research is suggesting that you can get benefits from doing as little as 20 minutes a day of moderate activity, split into different chunks, five to 10 minutes here and there.
And then mindfulness is the same thing. I think most of what people associate with mindfulness is eight-week courses and mindfulness training and so on. My clients have really found benefits from giving themselves what I call “mindfulness moments.” In the middle of a stressful meeting or a stressful conversation, just taking a moment and focusing on one thing. Taking a breath, and then bringing yourself back. It’s the kind of single point of focus to quiet your mind that seems to really enhance our cognitive functions.
What topic in the book do you feel closest or most attached to? What are your personal weaknesses?
I take all of the advice in the book. I had a rule that I wouldn't put anything in the book unless it was something I had lived by and that had worked for me. That said, of course there is some advice that comes more easily to me than others. For me, the part on resilience is the one where I am very conscious of working on it a lot. For example, not taking things personally, and being able to ride the ups and downs of a difficult situation. I don’t do well with conflict, which is sort of ironic given that I’m someone who has worked with senior teams and boards to help them manage conflict. For me, the techniques around distancing, where you put yourself in a different place and look at the situation either from a year’s time or you imagine yourself your best self or you imagine your wisest friend.
“Good person, bad circumstances” is a technique in the book where if someone is behaving dysfunctionally, assume they are good person and that something has put their brain on the defensive. When someone’s brain is on the defensive, it means their deliberate system, their sophisticated functions, are getting much less action in the brain. So of course that means they are less good at self-control, less good at being thoughtful and reasonable.
Another part of the book that struck me was when you talked about having confidence in the workplace. There have been a few articles recently by young but very promising journalists about impostor syndrome. Can you talk a little bit about having confidence at work, and impostor syndrome in particular?
Impostor syndrome is something that a lot of us suffer from. It’s this feeling that you’re constantly out of your comfort zone. I think it goes along with an aspirational approach to your career. If you are interested in personal growth and development, by definition you are always going to be pushing yourself into something which is new. And when things are new, of course we don’t feel as comfortable in our skin as when we are doing something which is deeply familiar to us, and which we’ve been doing for five or 10 years.
In a way it’s surprising that more people don’t talk about it. Because if we’re all doing something new, it naturally is going to feel uncomfortable in many ways. One of the things I talk about in the book is [think] about new challenges, but think about what in your existing strengths equips you to approach this new task. It’s a great way of taking yourself out of your comfort zone but not into your terror zone.
I give an example in the book: Perhaps you have to give a presentation to the board for the first time. Or maybe you’ve done this lots of times with other boards, but this is the first time you’ve talked to this particular board. There are lots of ways of going about that. If you are incredibly great at big data and data analytics, you might find the most incredible nugget of analytical insight and open with that. So even while you’re stepping into a very new situation that makes you feel quite uncomfortable, you’re doing something you know you feel grounded in and that you know you can do well. But maybe you’re the sort of person who is just really excellent of understanding where people are coming from, and you are then excellent at then tuning your message to [that]. Well, then you might do a bit of research on the board members beforehand, and make sure that you’re giving examples and addressing them in a way that really speaks to their concerns. Totally different way of knocking them out and doing a great job. So I think that can really help most of us... recognize that it’s OK for it to feel a bit uncomfortable, but also then have this base foundation of working with your strengths, so that you don’t feel quite as much of an impostor.
Related, do you feel that there is advice that applies to one gender over the other more often?
My career has been, it’s so polarized in a way, because I’ve worked myself in a male-dominated environment pretty much all of my career, both as an economist and then as a management consultant. But because I was interested in leadership, I was very acutely aware that there was a point in an organization where women tended to leave. So I set up a program called the Remarkable Women program at McKinsey, which is a course for senior female executives. So I’ve also worked intensely with women.
To me, honestly, the thing that is different when I think about a very male group of clients and a very female group of clients is less the advice, because the advice and the exercises that I did with both groups were more or less the same, which people are sometimes surprised by. But the style and the quality of the discussion was just different. So the groups would feel different. But the work I was doing was kind of the same. So the book is very carefully calibrated to cover material that I have used very successfully with both men and women.
That’s a long answer to a short question, but it’s interesting because I think there is such an assumption that perhaps women need to think about confidence and men need to think about empathy. It’s not really my experience. Both men and women can benefit from the advice in both areas.
I’ve tried to be quite flexible and agnostic in exactly how people choose to implement the advice. There are some people in my industry who will say, "You must do your creative work before you do anything else in the day." That might work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everybody. Your chronotype determines when your best cognitive peak in the day is going to be. And it’s just different for different people.
How would you categorize this book? Is this a management/leadership book, or for everyone across the board? I see a little bit of both.
This is a book for everybody who is aspirational in thinking about the possibility of making every day more like their best day, and is curious about the evidence that sits behind the advice. I’ve done this work with people in their 20s and I’ve done this work with people in their 60s. I’m very clear that this is not about people who are in management or leadership roles. Although people who are in management or leadership roles will obviously find a use for it beyond themselves.
What is work? Work is anything that you’re trying to get done. I don’t necessarily say it’s about their professional life, I don’t say it’s necessarily about leadership or management, any time you’re trying to get things done, I hope this will be applicable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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