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Speed Review: How to Have a Good Day

Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life

Speed Review: How to Have a Good Day
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Science Can Improve Your Day

When someone would tell comedian George Carlin to “have a nice day,” Carlin would react angrily: “What if I don’t want to have a nice day?” Unlike Carlin, most of us would prefer to have nice days, but in our overworked, overstressed and overbooked lives, it is not always easy.

A new book by former McKinsey consultant Caroline Webb promises to come to our rescue. Entitled How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, it uses the advances in behavioral science, psychology and neuroscience to help us overcome or mitigate all of the stresses, setbacks and mishaps that create the many bad days or bad moments we endure.

The Essential Sciences

Webb begins her book with a quick look at three scientific advances that are key to understanding how we will be able to create a good day:

  • The two-system brain. Our brains run two opposing systems in parallel, she explains. The deliberate system is our conscious thinking, slow and rational. The automatic system is subconscious, fast and instinctive. The deliberate system calculates a 15 percent tip; the automatic system makes us jump back before we are hit by a car.
  • The mind-body loop. The mind and body are interconnected in ways we never realized. We knew happiness leads to a smile, but we did not know smiling (no matter how we feel) will make us happier.
  • The discover-defend axis. We are constantly moving along an axis, anchored on one end by a defensive outlook, expecting attack at any moment, while anchored on the other end by a discovery mood, seeking out rewarding experiences.

Having laid the scientific groundwork, Webb then covers her seven building blocks of a good day:

Priorities: setting the intentional direction of the day.

Productivity: making the most of the hours of the day.

Relationships: having positive, productive interactions.

Thinking: making wise choices, being creative and smart.

Influence: maximizing the impact of what we say and do.

Resilience: overcoming setbacks and annoyances.

Energy: boosting enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Webb offers clear guidelines for each of the building blocks. Thus, for example, the section of the book on productivity includes chapters on single-tasking, planning deliberate down time, overcoming overload and beating procrastination. The chapters related to influence cover getting through their filters, making things happen and conveying confidence.

Throughout the book, Webb carefully links the science introduced at the beginning to her directives. Down time increases productivity, for example, not only because a brain needs to rest but also because neuroscientists have discovered that the subconscious brain keeps working even when the conscious brain is at rest.

In the relationships section, Webb discusses the concept of fundamental attribution error, which causes us to attribute dysfunctional behavior to character (he’s a jerk) rather than circumstance (he feels he is being treated poorly). Webb offers an exhaustive list of defense-mode triggers related to social needs (e.g., respect) or individual needs (e.g., competence) that might explain a person’s dysfunctional behavior.

The mind-body loop also leads to effective actions that help to ensure a good day. For example, pausing or stepping back and taking deep breaths can help clear one’s head to be more productive, avoid the escalation of an argument that can damage a relationship, and even build up resilience.

There are always going to be bad days and circumstances beyond our control. Nevertheless, How to Have a Good Day is a comprehensive manual for how to control our minds and bodies, thus ensuring that we have the best day we can possibly have.

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