Even in jobs we like, we all know that there can be moments of drama, stress and disappointment. On top of that, many of us face increasing uncertainty in our working environments, as waves of technological and political change break around us.
But there’s some good news. Advances in behavioural science are showing us that we have more control over our day-to-day experience of working life than we might think. Here are some science-backed tactics to lift your spirits, sharpen your mind and put some energy back in the tank whenever you most need it.
1. Become intentional about your “filters”. Let’s start with the most profound tip first. Your brain can only consciously process a portion of the information around you at any given time – so to lighten the load, your brain filters out a great deal without you even being aware of it. And there’s a pattern to what gets filtered in and out. You tend to notice things that resonate with whatever’s already top of mind for you. So: walk into a meeting in a bad mood, and your brain will make sure you see and hear things that confirm that people are jerks. Meanwhile, you’ll likely miss some of the more positive stuff entirely. It doesn’t take much to reset your filters, though. Take 10 seconds before your next conversation to ask yourself what really matters most, and where you therefore want to focus your attention. Decide to look for signs that your colleagues are great – and oddly, you’ll see more of them.
2. Be kind to others, be kind to yourself. When you’re feeling worn down, it can seem counterintuitive to decide to give someone else a boost. Yet research is clear that being generous and kind to others instantly boosts our own feelings of well-being (as well as being rather nice for the other person, too). So if you’re feeling drained, do something unexpectedly nice for someone else. It doesn’t matter who, and it doesn’t have to be a lot. Give an unexpected compliment, or help someone who’s struggling with a heavy bag. Then notice how good you feel about yourself and the world in general.
3. Adopt a learner’s mindset. Your brain gets a kick from learning new things – and it turns out that the “new thing” doesn’t have to be very exciting to give your brain a feeling of reward. So, faced with a less-than-perfect situation, it’s strangely helpful to decide to look for something interesting to take from it. For example, perhaps you’re going to spend time today with a difficult client. Ask yourself: “What fascinating thing can I learn from this?” Maybe you’ll try to figure out what’s really going on with them, or decide to learn how to stay calm in the face of provocation. Get curious, and you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.
4. Stay cool through distancing. When we’re feeling uncomfortably stressed, research has found that there’s less activity in our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for sophisticated reasoning. That’s why we’re more likely to say silly things under pressure. But studies have found that we can instantly reduce our stress levels in the heat of the moment by doing something called “distancing” – that is, looking at the situation as if from a distance. For example, we can ask ourselves: “When I look back on this in a year’s time, what will I think?” Or we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes: “What would I advise a friend in my situation?” By reducing the state of alert in our brains, distancing makes it easier to make smart choices (and wittier comments).
5. Manage uncertainty by amplifying the certainties. Negative experiences have been found to hit us harder when they’re coupled with uncertainty about what’s going on. However, research has shown that a powerful antidote to unpleasant unpredictability is to refocus on the things that you do know and do control – however small they are. For example, perhaps 10% of the situation is murky, but you have a good handle on 90% of it. Perhaps you know when you’ll find out what’s going on. In the meantime, maybe there are some “no regrets” moves you can make. This technique has been found to help people even in dramatically uncertain circumstances – for example in combat or facing natural disasters – so it’s a safe bet that it can help you navigate unexpected potholes in a work environment.
6. Remind yourself of the personal “why”. A sense of personal purpose – knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – has been found to boost people’s emotional resilience. But sometimes we can get disconnected from the point of it all, especially if a piece of work has been created by someone else and then imposed on us. So take a look at that annoying task that’s on your plate and ask yourself a few questions. “What’s ultimately possible as a result of me getting this done? And what’s the bigger benefit of that? And why do I care about that, at least a little?” Sometimes you have to push through some snark in your own head at first (“nothing is possible, this is pointless”), but a few moments of reflection can usually make even dull to-dos feel vaguely meaningful.
7. Work the peak-end effect. When we assess the quality of an experience, research has found that we don’t evaluate every single moment. We tend to use an average of the most intense moment – good or bad – and the end point. This peak-end effect means that it’s oddly powerful to end each evening on a high, by quickly reviewing the good things that have happened during the day. However tiny the triumphs, this moment of reflection creates a permanent boost to the way we rate the day in our mind. And that’s a pretty powerful trick. After all, our memories ultimately become the way we view our lives.
Caroline Webb is the author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. She is also CEO of coaching firm Sevenshift, and a Senior Adviser to McKinsey & Company. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_webb_, Facebook, or Google +.
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