Book Summary

How to have a good day By CAROLINE WEBB

Caroline starts off the book with a great quote, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” We’ve all had bad days and good days but have we really analyzed and looked at what makes a good day?

Well Caroline has and she’s done so by extracting some of the latest behavioral science research on how to be most effective throughout the day. The core message that I gathered from her book is that we are always either in a defensive mode or in a discovery mode. We go between this discovery mode where we have clarity and we are seeking opportunity to advance our goals to a defensive mode where we are living in reaction to other people’s demands.

We feel overwhelmed each day we have a choice. We can let events in circumstances dictate our day or we can become more proactive and intentional. Caroline says that as soon as a situation feels outside of our control our brain and adrenal glands push much higher levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline into our system and this flood of chemicals turns our state of readiness into something edgier. This edgy state can feel exciting at first but it quickly erodes our thinking and our decisions and ultimately our day.

So what can we do to reduce our time in the defensive mode and spend most of our time in the discovery mode? Well, let’s look at our day and break it up into three components; that’s our waking time, our daytime and night time.

When we wake up in the morning, we want to be intentional. Caroline says “we miss a big opportunity if we simply let the day happen to us.” This is because the brain is always filtering through large amounts of information and giving us a very subjective reality. Think of your mind as having a huge spam filter like your email does. The majority of the information that comes our way gets put in the spam filter where we are left with a very limited amount of information in our inbox that makes up our reality.

Caroline says that the things that get through the filters are strongly influenced by the priorities and the assumptions we take into the day. That gives us a huge opportunity. It means that with a few minutes of mental preparation involving a quick check and reset of those priorities and assumptions, we can shift the way we experience the day, making it more productive and more enjoyable.

For you to do this, the author recommends a three-part system for setting intentions: aim, attitude and attention. First we aim to discover the most important activities of the day. Make a list of the actions you wish to take, of the people you expect to meet and the work you want to do. After you have enough items on that list step back and ask yourself, “what really matters most to making this day successful?”  Find one or two clear outcomes that those activities lead to. Take these one or two outcomes and schedule an uninterrupted block of time during the day.

A group of researchers at Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of over 9000 people working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking was actually higher when people were able to focus on one task for a period of uninterrupted time. People, who had fragmented days, severely limited their creative thinking.

A study from Microsoft found that when their employees were interrupted by an email it took them an average 15 minutes to fully regain their train of thought. Almost all your big outcomes will require a bit of creativity to get to an innovative solution or to find a way to get things done faster. So schedule a time of the day to turn off all your notifications, to activate auto responders and to put signs up to let people know that “hey this is my time to focus and to make meaningful progress”

Next you need to adjust your attitude. Most people approach their day with rose-colored glasses. Caroline suggests that we use a tool called mental contrasting to adjust our attitude and increase the odds of having a successful day.

She relays  a story from the book ‘Good to great’ about a U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale who spent eight years in a Vietnamese P.O.W. (Prisoners Of War) camp. Upon reflecting on the prisoners who made it to through the prison of our camp and who cracked under the pressure. He said, “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end which you can never afford to lose with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever they may be.”

There’s over 20 years of research to prove that “people are far more likely to achieve their goals if they think hard about both the outcome they want and the obstacles they’re facing and plan for both.” A great way to leverage mental contrasting is to come up with a when- then plan.

When working on an important task and you get interrupted by someone who has an urgent request of you and that request is less important than what you’re currently working on then you’re going to respond with a positive no. Which includes acknowledging and appreciating the person’s request. You’re going to highlight whatever positive priority you’re on right now and then explain to them what that means and politely decline. If possible offer to help them in a way that doesn’t distract from your real priorities such as introducing them to other people that might be able to help.

Now that we’ve set our attitude for the day, we need to prime our attention. When our brains are primed with images or words, we can easily make associations to similar images or words and some pretty obscure associations too. Like when you see a red fire truck outside while going to the grocery store, you may suddenly have the urge to buy some cherries because they’re red.

If we prime words or images of our goals and our intentions throughout the day, we’re more likely to make associations to that goal that will help us find opportunities to advance the goal and to discover creative solutions to problems that our subconscious mind is able to associate due to this priming effect.

We’ve now had an intentional morning, we’ve aimed, we’ve adjusted our attitude and we set our attention through priming.

The second part of having a good day is having a resilient day time. We need to practice resilience to ensure that our intentions remain intact. Throughout the day we will inevitably be distracted and pulled away from those intentions from external circumstances. But if we learn to notice these things as they happen, we can stay in the driver’s seat and we can stay in the discovery zone.

The first step in being resilient is being aware of your breathing. When your breathing is very shallow and quick, it’s the first signs that you’re going into a defensive mode. Caroline states that countless studies suggest that when we make our breathing more relaxed, deeper and slower, taking in plenty of air each time, our body seems to take that as a signal that the threat has passed. Stress hormone levels drop restoring our ability to think more constructively.

If you’re aware of your breathing, you can quickly adjust it and start doing deep diaphragm breaths. Caroline recommends 90 seconds of deeper slower breathing to get out of the defensive mode once out of a defensive mode. You’re going to come across tasks that seem to be obligations. When this happens we tend to revert back into defensive mode. This is because “requests from other people activate brain areas strongly associated with self-control and self-discipline. By contrast the goals that we set for ourselves engage areas associated with desire and needs.”

Therefore it is our duty throughout the day to be able to reframe and reinterpret the requests and the things that come our way in terms of our intrinsic goals; in terms of serving us. That we have the choice. The best way to do it involves us asking two questions. She suggests that we ask “what bigger aspiration or value of mine does this task speak to? How does this request support something that matters to me?

A third way that we can get into defensive mode is by interpreting people’s actions as their intent: as ill character. It sounds like a nasty thing to do but we naturally do it all the time. We have a tendency to think that when we do something wrong it’s the circumstances, it’s not us. However, when we see other people do something wrong we think there’s something wrong with them as a person.

So we need to really notice this and fight this urge. Always give them the benefit of the doubt when they are acting stubborn or they’re sharp with you or they’re unresponsive. Think that they just might be tired or hungry or think it’s just a they had with their spouse or a co-worker.

This reminds me of a TED talk I watched recently by Andrew Stanton. He says “frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” So if we notice our breathing, interpreting must-do requests as being in alignment with one of our greater goals or purpose and then learning to give people the benefit of the doubt, we are less prone to go into a defensive mode.

Now we need to end our day on the right note. Caroline suggests that we take advantage of what psychologists called a peak-end rule. It means that for any given experience we typically only remember the peak of an experience and how we ended the experience. So if you look at our day as an experience that we’ve had, we can end it on a high note by thinking about the things we’re grateful for.

We can end it visualizing the things that went right. We can encapsulate that whole day as being an overall positive experience even if it was filled with struggle. That will give us confidence the following day to then continue to build momentum on our goals and to continue to have good days because you know you’re going to end on a positive note.

So at the end of each day practice gratitude and relive the  positive experiences of the day to stay resilient and motivated for tomorrow

This book is a great read and I highly recommend it.

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