We’ve all had those days where everything seems to go just right. We set goals for ourselves and we accomplish them. Instead of frittering away our time on YouTube, we’re focused and get work done. Even when we experience setbacks, we’re able to deal with them graciously and effectively. It’s easy to attribute these sorts of days to luck, but my guest today argues that research from behavioral economics and psychology can show us how we can consistently have more of these good days.
Her name is Caroline Webb and she’s the author of How to Have a Good Day. In her book, she highlights this research and provides brass tacks advice on how to apply it so you can start having more good days. Today on the show, we discuss how to set goals in the morning and put them into action, how to reduce cognitive overload so you can make better decisions, and how to deal with irksome people and setbacks so they don’t ruin your day.
- Why so few people feel engaged in their work [03:30]
- What a “good day” looks like and why it doesn’t necessarily mean everything will go perfectly [04:30]
- What you can do in the morning to set yourself up for a good day [07:00]
- How your brain filters reality [09:00]
- How to translate your good intentions at the start of a day into action [12:00]
- How changing your environment can prime your brain to have a good day [14:00]
- How superstitions can actually make you more productive [16:30]
- How to reduce cognitive overload so that you make better decisions [21:00]
- Caroline’s formula to graciously say “no” [24:30]
- How to deal with irksome people by setting collaborative intentions [29:00]
- Why “the compliment sandwich” isn’t the best way to provide constructive feedback [35:00]
- How to bounce back from setbacks [38:00]
- How to stay motivated when you’re not feeling motivated [40:00]
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- How to plan your week
- Implementation intentions
- What Every Man Should Know About Attention and Focus
- Psychological priming
- Our series on willpower
- How to Say “No” Without Coming Off Like a Jerk
- The fundamental attribution error
- Our series on resilience
- My podcast with Charles Duhigg on the science of motivation
How to Have a Good Day is one the most comprehensive and in-depth books I’ve read on the science of personal management. Every chapter is filled with some sort of actionable nugget that you can implement and see results right away from.
Connect With Caroline
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We’ve probably all had those days where everything seems just to go smoothly. We make our plans, we can follow through on them. Even when setbacks come, we handle them with grace and ease. Well, what if I were to tell you that there are actually research backed tactics that you can use to make sure that you have these good days on regular basis?
Well, my guest today has written a book with these research backed tactics. Her name’s Caroline Webb. She’s the author of the book “How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science To Transform Your Working Life”. In it, she puts together … All this research from psychology, behavior economics, and neuroscience to provide tactics for you on how to have a good day from planning your day, establishing goals, staying focused throughout the day, how to handle difficult conversations, difficult people, how to bounce back from setbacks … You name it, she covers it.
It starts from the beginning of the day and goes all the way through to the end. We have a great conversation. We talk a lot about these things that you can do, a lot of actionable things that you can apply right away into your life, so make sure you take notes. After you’re done listening to the show, check out our show notes at aom.is/goodday where you can find links to resources that we mention throughout the show, so you can delve deeper into this topic as well as find more information about Caroline’s book. Caroline Webb, welcome to the show.
Caroline Webb: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: You’ve got a book out called “How to Have a Good Day” where you use behavioral science, psychology, research from neuroscience on how we can improve our days from our work life to our personal life. Before we get there, I’m curious about the background. What led up to writing this book? Why did you feel like you needed it? Was it through your consulting business and you saw problems pop up with your clients or maybe in your own life? Were you just like, “Man, how can I get more out of my day”?
Caroline Webb: Kind of all of the above, actually. I was working for about fifteen years with people and how to improve their everyday working lives. That was partly through my consulting and organizational change and my leadership development work. What I saw time and again was that while a lot of people were in good jobs and a lot of people were focused on big worthwhile goals, often the everyday experience of going from one day to the next was actually not that much fun.
It’s really born out in the surveys that are out there about the fact that half of people don’t feel engaged in their work. It’s sort of terrible numbers when you think about it, even like our work as I say, might not have the most glorious of experiences every single moment of the week. I became very interested in the small changes you can make to everyday life, to think about how you can build a foundation for a more enjoyable and more successful experience every day.
I always turn to behavioral science for that because my first career was in economics. I found that the people I worked with were very curious about how the brain works. They were just much more open to any advice I could give if I could actually explain why, why we think and feel and behave the way we do and why the science pointed towards perhaps trying something new. Over time, what happened was that they would say, “Well, is this stuff written down where you translate the science into really practical advice?”
There are great popular science books out there that’s actually not so much talking about how this means you might approach a meeting differently or handle your to-do list differently. That’s where I come in. It’s that translation from the science into practice. It seemed as if there was a need and I was delighted to have a chance to fill it.
Brett McKay: Before we get into the brass tacks of the things you’ve mined from behavioral science about how to have a good day, let’s talk about what do mean by a good day? I’m imagining it’s not you’re never going to have problems pop up, your toddler isn’t going to wet themselves before they get to the toilet … That happened to me last night. You’re not going to have clients who are frustrating. I mean, what is a good day?
Caroline Webb: Yeah. You’re not going to have a dog barking constantly in the apartment next door. I mean, just say by chance. Yeah, I think that the reality is there’s a lot of luck in it, right? I mean, there is a lot of luck that determines whether a day is good or not. What’s interesting and what emerges from the science is we have a lot more control than we think over the quality of our days.
When I was working for all those years with companies and individuals to help them create more positive cultures in their organizations and indeed their families, I used to ask them, “What is a good day for you? What is a bad day? What would it take to get more good days?” I’ve got a lot of data on what people think is a good day. It really boils down to three things.
It’s, “Do you feel like you’ve spent your time and directed your attention to the things that matter? Do you feel like you did a good job and did you enjoy yourself? Did you feel like you have the energy at the end of the day to wake up the next day and go through it all again?” These are really the three big ideas that fit behind the book.
I think that the trouble is that if any of those aren’t true, then it really sort of leads you to feel like it’s not a great day. I’m all about trying to get the small pieces in place that will mean that you definitely are focusing on the right things, feeling good about what you’re doing, and feeling that it’s all worthwhile and fun.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s get into those brass tacks on how we can do that. One of the things I love about your book is that not only is it comprehensive, you take us through an entire day and you cover all the different facets you’re going to hit during your day, whether it’s setting your goals, planning, being productive, dealing with frustrating individuals, being resilient in the face of setbacks, everything.
You also get very in depth which each section. Like you said, you translate all this research that’s coming out from behavioral economics and psychology and provide brass tacks advice. Let’s start from the very beginning. What could we do at the beginning of our day to set us up for a good day?
Caroline Webb:Well, this is one of the most profound bits of science that’s in the book. It relates to the fact that our brains can only process part of reality at any given time. Whatever’s around you right now, wherever you are, you look around you. There’s lots and lots of objects around you, there’s lots of sensations in your body, there’s lots of noises that you could hear if you actually paid attention to it.
You could look at every tiny carpet fiber in front of you, you could look at every hair on your head. If we did actually try and consciously pay attention to everything around us, our brains would kind of crash like an overloaded computer with all of its keys pressed at once. Our brains have quite an elegant solution which is that subconsciously, we’re filtering out most of what’s going on around us and we’re not aware of it by definition.
The trick here is that it’s actually predictable what … Gets filtered out and what gets filtered in. In effect, there are certain rules that govern the reality that we perceive. We’re all experiencing a really subjective incomplete version of reality and once you know what the rules are, you can shift the way that you perceive whatever happens.
Now the way the rules work is that your brain consciously knows this is anything which resonates with what’s already top of mind for you. In other words, if you’re in a bad mood, you spilled coffee on yourself in the morning or you have a terrible commute, you’re in a bad mood and your brain will say, “Okay, you’re in a bad mood, so I’ll make sure you see everything that confirms the world is a terrible place.”
The same goes the other way around. If you decide to put yourself in a more positive mood, then you suddenly see the world is a more positive place. The research behind this is really robust … Some people know the term “confirmation bias”, others may have heard the term “selective attention”. The upshot for us is incredibly positive because it means that we just have to be a bit more deliberate about how we go into, I don’t know, everything that matters in a day.
You can do this every morning. You can say, “What really matters to me today? What’s my real aim? What attitude do I want to have? What assumptions do I want to have as I go into the day?” knowing that that will shape what you see. If you’ve got a difficult conversation coming up with someone that you think is kind of a jerk, confirmation bias means that your brain will look for evidence that you’re right. You’ll see everything that will be slightly annoying and you might actually miss anything that suggests that the person is trying to be more supportive or conciliatory.
If you go in checking your assumptions and saying, “Okay, my aim here is actually to strengthen the relationship and I want to look out for signs that that’s possible”, you will actually experience it differently. It’s a process I’ll call setting intentions. It can take five seconds as you’re going into anything in your day. A lot of the most successful I know do this every morning to look across the day and think, “What filters do I want my brain to apply?”
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s really interesting, the research that’s coming about attention. Basically, yeah, you’re right. What we attend to is reality for us in a weird way … If you’re not intentional about that, you’re going to be caught up by anything that comes your way.
Caroline Webb: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re all experiencing this sort of partial view of reality all the time. You only get a glimpse of it sometimes. I mean, I bought some Nike sneakers for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I came out the store and half of New York is apparently now wearing Nike sneakers. I’ve not noticed this before. It’s really highly unlikely that they just bought them. They were there before; I just didn’t see them. Now that I am excited about my new pair of Nike sneakers, I’m seeing them all over the place.
If you buy a new car, you certainly see all the cars on the road that are the same color or the same model … The only times that we really get a real sense of the fact that … Or maybe you come out of movie and you’re with your other half and you have a completely different view of what happened. We sometimes get these glimpses of how subjective our experience of reality is, but most of the time, we need to actually look at the research to really believe it.
Brett McKay: You talk about how a lot of the successful people out there who have good days consistently are very intentional about setting their intentions at the beginning of the day. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I mean, I think a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I’m going to get my journal out, write down my three big things … Look over my mission statement, blah blah blah blah.” How do you ensure that you put those good intentions into action?
Caroline Webb: Yeah. It’s a really good point. I mean, so many people have tried to make positive personal change in their lives and it just is hard to make it stick when you’re busy and you’ve got habits that are well ingrained and lots of demands on you. I’m always about the smallest possible change you can make to have an impact. I’m always encouraging people to shoot really small rather than big in thinking about the changes to make.
I encourage people to just, say, pick a time of day that you know you’re going to have a tiny little bit of time to think. It might be when you’re commuting in, but it could also be the night before. I’m a nighttime person, so I tend to be a little bit more able to think clearly in the evenings than I am first thing in the morning.
For me, you pick the time that works best and for me that’s the evening, actually the night before. I mean, just, say, ten seconds. Really make it a small thing and link it to something that you do every single day and then you’re far more likely to remember to do it, you’re far more likely to actually manage to do it.
If you don’t remember and you go halfway through the day and you hit a really important conversation, you think, “Oh, this is one of those moments I should have set intentions”, great, you remembered. Pat yourself on the back. You want to set up … The neurochemistry of reward rather than the neurochemistry of failure. You want to celebrate anything that you manage or remember rather than beating yourself up.
The brain likes to repeat things that are rewarding. It really matters to pick a really small goal and then have a go at it. For me honestly, the time that I most remember to set my intentions apart from the night before is as I’m walking to a meeting or a conversation is just to take that ten seconds as I’m walking towards the door. It’s just a good prompt for me to say, “Okay, what really matters to me? Where do I want to put my attention? Okay. Good to go.” That’s all it takes.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One of the cool pieces of advice that you provided on putting your intentions into action or reminding yourself this comes from behavioral economics is, I guess, rejiggering your environment in a way to remind you throughout the day that what … I guess it’s like refocusing, right?
Caroline Webb: Yeah. It’s a really interesting area of the research and also highly, highly controversial and disputed. There’s lots of debate about it because … There have been lots of issues in replicating the results. This is the research on priming and the idea is that your brain is really associative.
Past experiences and thoughts are stored in our minds in a way that links one thought with another just as you know … You know when you’re daydreaming, you suddenly find yourself thinking about something and you realize there’s been a kind of series of stepping stones that has taken you to that thought that feels quite distant. That’s a real thing that’s happening in your mind that there are these stepping stones. You might have a particular outfit that you want for where you absolutely knock the ball out of the park on a presentation or an interview.
You put it on again. Does it remind you of that day that you absolutely aced? Yeah, absolutely. It’s a real thing. The priming research suggests that it creates enough of the same state of mind that it can trigger some of the same behaviors just to sort of have an object or a piece of clothing or whatever nearby that actually reminds you of a particular state of mind. Where things get controversial is the idea that you can somehow prime other people because I mean, you don’t really know what their associations might be, you know?
Brett McKay: Right.
Caroline Webb: You might put a picture of a professor on your wall thinking it’s going to make you more intelligent and everybody else around you because it will remind of being intelligent. Maybe one of your colleagues had a traumatic experience at college and this is the last thing that they want to see.
You’ve got to be very careful about assuming you can do it to other people, but if you can be really self-aware about the associations you have with high performance states of mind, a particular place that you always seem to think clearly, maybe it’s a particular window seat or a nice café, those effects are real in your mind. If you’ve got the association there, then you can hack it and use it.
Brett McKay: There’s something to superstitions. The baseball player who puts his socks on a certain way or doesn’t step on the foul line.
Caroline Webb: Yeah. If they believe it, yes.
Brett McKay: Right.
Caroline Webb: Yeah, it’s funny … Of course we laugh at it when it’s someone else’s and yet when it’s our own, it just feels like the right thing to do.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s like Dumbo’s feather, right? He had his feather, he could fly with it, but he could always fly. He just thought it worked …
Caroline Webb: Yeah, absolutely. I really encourage people to just … It’s about self-awareness. It’s about knowing what’s going to create a certain state of mind in you. The more that you spent on that association, then the more reliable it is. I mean … There’s an example I give in my book, which is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. I kind of regret having put it in the book because now everybody kind of quotes it back at me, but I have a particular … The very first time I went to a Blue Man Group show years and years ago.
There was this finale and they played the song and it was incredibly uplifting and energizing. It always reminds me of that. Whenever I’m about to go on stage and give a huge talk or do any kind of performance, I hum it to myself or I kind of even listen to it if I can, and yeah. It puts me right back there. I mean, I think we all have that with music. We know it happens with music, but the trick is to know that there are lots of other things you can use as well to create the same effect.
Brett McKay: Another thing you talked about as far as implementing your intentions are these things called “implementation intentions”. Is that what it’s called?
Caroline Webb: Yeah.
Brett McKay: This is … Again, from behavioral economics.
Caroline Webb: Well, behavioral economics … The boundaries between behavioral economics and psychology-
Brett McKay: They’re blurry.
Caroline Webb: Are insanely blurry. I mean, it’s really sort of economists getting back to the roots of what the discipline … Economics used to be called moral philosophy. It was about thinking about human behavior. For quite a long time, it sort of drifted away from that as a central focus. Behavioral economics is really just sort of reengaging with the human condition, the idea that human beings are fallible.
As a result, economists are looking at topics that psychologists have been looking at for decades. The boundaries between the two disciplines are pretty blurry. Implementation intentions … Yeah, this is great. Oh, my gosh, this makes so much difference to your ability to get stuff done. Basically what you’re doing is you’re lightening the load on your brain. I mentioned before that your brain has limited capacity to process and we need to be aware of the limitations.
You can save your brain effort if you’re trying to remember to do something by deciding on a particular cue. Instead of saying, “Oh, I must exercise today. I really, really must exercise today”, you say, “When I come out from lunch, I will put on my sneakers, whether they’re Nike sneakers or not, and I will go exercise at that point.” By defining a really specific time and a really specific cue, you’re way more likely to allow your brain to remember that this is actually something you want to do.
“When I am faced with a bank of elevators, then I will take the stairs. When I’m walking to a meeting, then I will remember to set my intentions. When I’ve got my hand on the door of a meeting that I’m walking into, then I will definitely set my intentions if I haven’t done it by then.” These when/then’s as I call them or implementation intentions as they’re called by the behavioral scientists just have been shown to increase your chances of achieving your goals by something, like, three hundred percent.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Caroline Webb: That’s quite a big uptick in getting things done.
Brett McKay: That’s amazing. Yeah, this solves a problem of cognitive overload. This is a problem that’s facing a lot of knowledge workers these day or information, whatever you want … They’re calling them something different every time. Besides the implementation intentions, what can we do to reduce cognitive overload so that we can make better decisions? Yeah, the research shows that once we’re overloaded cognitively, we make poor decisions.
Caroline Webb: That’s right.
Brett McKay: What can we do to offload some of that cognitive overload?
Caroline Webb: Well, there’s a theme coming back here again, which is just understanding how your brain works. You’ve got working memory, which is what we use to complete all of our conscious tasks. It’s like working memory on a computer. It’s what you’re using to listen to me and what I’m using to speak to you and to hold ideas in mind. [We 00:21:41] used to be … Thought that we could hold about seven things in mind at once and it turns out actually research is really homing in a number more like three or four.
Of course when you think about how much you’re trying to juggle … We’ve got so much more on our minds than that a lot of the time. It really is true if you feel that your mind is full. It may be a sort of poetic way of describing it, but that’s pretty much what’s going on. There are a few things you can do.
I mean, first of all … You need to know that strategic downtime is as necessary to your performance as the hard graft. In other words, we make better decisions when it’s not been long since we took a break because our brain isn’t as tired and isn’t as full. This has been shown with all sorts of research including people buying suits. They interviewed people in malls and found that the longer it was since people had taken a break, the more kneejerk their shopping decisions were.
It’s true in more serious situations, too. There was some classic work done in looking at parole decisions and how parole decisions made by judges become much more black and white. Basically prisoners are much less likely to get parole the longer it is since the judges have taken a break when they come up in front of the panel of judges.
We’re more sophisticated and nuanced in our decision making, wiser in our decision making if we’re more diligent about taking breaks. That’s kind of counterintuitive for most of us. That’s one very big thing. Another big thing is just being aware that your brain gets full and noticing that when you are overloaded, that it’s possible to actually strip out some of the noise.
There are loads of techniques for this, but one of the things that I usually do when I’m feeling overloaded is just to say, “Okay …” I know it sounds sort of obvious, but, “What is truly the most important thing and what is the very first small step towards that?” It’s just so clarifying, especially the second bit. What’s the very first small step towards that? It just really strips back a lot of the noise so that you’re focusing on the thing that’s really most important. I could go on. There’s lots of techniques.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s lots of them. Another aspect you hit on I think it causes overload in a lot of people’s life not just in business, but their personal life is the inability to say no. It frightens people, they feel bad, they feel guilty, it fills them with anxiety … Anything from behavioral science or psychology that help people say no if they don’t feel like it?
Caroline Webb: Yeah. Absolutely. The thing to know from the science here is that one of the challenges with saying no is that we feel that we are … We’re obviously saying something which is unpleasant for the other person to hear. Maybe there’s a commitment we’ve already made and we have to back out or maybe we’re just saying, “No, sorry. You can’t have my time and I can’t do this” or whatever.
We don’t like that sort of slight sense of conflict that we’re creating. We’re kind of right to not want to aggravate the other person because what happens when someone else feels challenged by something that you’re telling them is that their brains go on the defensive. When people’s brains are on the defensive, they don’t think as clearly.
It’s a whole set of research around that, the fact that there’s actually less activity in people’s prefrontal cortex, whether more sophisticated thinking happens when they’re feeling even mildly stressed. You say no to someone, they go on the defensive, they’re not able to think as clearly. They’re not going to be as kind of supportive and expansive in their thinking in how they respond to you saying no.
The trick then is actually to say no without putting them on the defensive. It’s not hard to do; it’s just quite different to how we normally do it. The trick is to start with the thing that you’re saying yes to. If you start with the thing that you’re saying yes to … First of all, start with something warm and appreciative and “Thank you for your invitation, blah blah blah”. We often forget to do that when we’re stressed about saying no.
Then say, “I’m really excited to tell you about this book that I’ve been working on for the last four years and … I think things are going absolutely fantastically. It’s very intense, blah blah blah blah blah. As a result, I’m having to make” – and this is where the no comes in – “As a result, I’m having to make some quite tough choices about what I do and don’t do with deadlines looming. Regrettably, that means I’m simply going to have to say no to your very kind request.”
Then you end with whatever it is that you can say that also feels warm and supportive without committing too much of your time or resources, perhaps there’s someone else that you can point them towards. At the very least, you can wish them well. The formula of start with warmth, then explain what your yes is, then say no, end with warmth is really, really reliable in creating a different response in the other person … They can’t help but get a little bit interested or excited by your yes, even if they know where it’s going. You get a different response as a result.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Particularly the way I’ve done it is I’ll say no first and then I’ll explain why I’m saying no, right? I’m busy working on my book or this … You say start off with that first.
Caroline Webb: Yeah, exactly. I mean … The way that we’re all programmed to say no is “I’m so sorry, but …”
Brett McKay: Right.
Caroline Webb: The other person’s sort of heart sinks immediately and then they’re not really able to engage properly with what you go on to say. You’re really just saying the same thing, but you’re turning it around so that you’re saying “Great to hear from you. Things are going great with blah blah blah. That means, unfortunately, blah blah blah.”
I find myself even at this point, I’ll write “I’m so sorry” and then I have to kind of go back and edit my email and put a space at the top and then write the other stuff … If we care about other people … It’s quite hard to let go of starting with the sorry. Believe me, it just creates such a different dynamic in a conversation. You still get to say sorry, it’s just that you wrap it up in a way that is so much more engaging for the other person and also helps them understand the choices that you’re making.
Brett McKay: Yeah. A large of our days are spent dealing with other people and that can be the source of most of our frustration. People are their own agents, they’ve got their own agendas … They have their own needs and wants and oftentimes, they don’t line up with yours, needs and wants. Sometimes people are just irksome.
Caroline Webb: That’s a good word.
Brett McKay: I mean, what can we do? What does the research say on what we can do to manage relationships so that we can have a good day even if someone is giving us trouble or giving us grief?
Caroline Webb: Yeah. Well, you can do for starters what I call setting collaborative intentions. It goes back to what I said right at the beginning which is just knowing that the intentions you have going into a conversation will shape the way that it plays out. It certainly will shape that you perceive it … Suppose you’re going into a conversation with someone you know is going to be irksome. I love that word.
You know that you will perceive the conversation differently if your expectation of irksomeness is absolutely top of mind than if your desire for finding a collaborative solution is top of mind, right? There’s some basics there about knowing that your perceptions of an interaction are shaped by your intentions. More broadly, I think one of the things that’s really helpful to know is that it’s statistically unlikely that this irksome person is actually a psychopath.
The chances are that something has put their brains on the defensive. That’s because I mentioned before that when people’s brain perceives some kind of threat, it can be really small, it doesn’t really matter almost what it is, if they’re perceiving anything which might be a threat to their competence or autonomy or sense of purpose or fairness or inclusion or being respected, that can be enough to put their brains on the defensive.
On the defensive, as I mentioned before, there’s less sophisticated thinking going on. They’re just basically not their best selves. That’s when you get people being a bit snappish or sulky or avoidant. I mean, they’re all versions of “fright, flight, freeze” which are the sort of basic defensive responses that your brain launches in the face of any kind of threat.
Just knowing that most dysfunctional behavior that you encounter is actually the result of some really subconscious thing that has put them on the defensive, I find incredibly helpful just to start off with. It changes your demeanor towards them. Even better, if you can actually ask yourself, “What could possibly have created this sense of reaction?” Then it gives you a chance to have a bit of fun in thinking about “I wonder what might have created this. Maybe I remind them of a teacher who threw a stapler at their head.”
That’s a terrible thing to say. You can put a smile on your face by thinking about the different things that might genuinely … Be creating this behavior in them. By changing your demeanor towards them, that’s usually enough to change the quality of the interaction. That’s because our emotions are strangely contagious. Our emotions have been shown to sync up within five minutes, even if we’re not working on the same thing or even talking to the other person.
The way that you carry yourself is going to have a big impact. Of course … There are other sort of more involved techniques you can use, but this is stuff you can use even without really having an in depth conversation with the other person. This is just about managing your own entry into the interaction with the irksome person.
Brett McKay: Right. I think something you say in the book is “Assume good person, bad circumstance.”
Caroline Webb: Exactly, yeah. Good person, bad circumstances. There’s a thing in psychology called the fundamental attribution error. Basically it’s that if I show up to work and I’m feeling cranky and slow, I know it’s because I didn’t sleep well last night. If someone else shows up and they’re cranky and slow, you think that they’re an unpleasant person and they’re highly inefficient.
In other words, when we see bad behavior in other people, we ascribe it to bad character rather than bad circumstances. When it’s in ourselves, we know that most of our bad behavior is caused by circumstances. It’s a slightly clunky phrase, but just reminding yourself “Good person, bad circumstances” is a really good way of not getting so wound up by people’s bad behavior around you.
Brett McKay: I love that. It’s great for if you’re a parent especially when your kids get cranky. Usually they’re cranky for a reason, not because they’re …
Caroline Webb: Evil. No. It’s very unlikely that they’re actually … Exactly. People are just big toddlers. It’s just that we wrap it up in grown up clothes. I mean, so much of the same dynamics are going on. It’s just that we forget that we’re very sensitive to the things around us. We are affected by whether we feel good about ourselves, well so does everybody else. As soon as anyone feels anything that challenges their sense of social standing or their sense of self-respect, you’re going to get bad behavior.
Brett McKay: Another part of dealing with individuals whether it’s in your family or in business is providing feedback, right?
Caroline Webb: Yeah.
Brett McKay: The challenge is how do you deliver that feedback so, one, the person isn’t put in that defensive mode and they just reject it and, two, they actually listen and take it to heart and actually implement it.
Caroline Webb: I used this yesterday with a friend, actually. You’re right to keep on pointing out that everything I write about, I mean, it’s about work, but it’s about family, it’s about friends, it’s about human endeavor really in general. Yeah, giving feedback to people … I mean, as you say, the challenge is giving feedback is always perfectly designed to put people on the defensive.
Brett McKay: Right.
Caroline Webb: I mean, there’s nothing more perfectly designed to do it. How do you do it so they can actually think clearly as you’re sharing your very helpful observations? There are a few techniques that I like. I mean my favorite one that I use all the time is to actually start with saying “What I like about what you’ve done is blah blah blah. What would make me like it even more is blah blah blah.” You’re basically giving input without making the other person wrong. That’s a really good thing, a good technique to use if you genuinely have a range of things that you want to share with someone.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting because … I’ve heard the compliment sandwich, right, where you … Say you start with something good and then you go, “but …” What you’re saying, instead of doing the “but” … You do an “and”. “And this is what you could do. This is why I like it more.”
Caroline Webb: Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s sort of that positive no you were talking about. Stay positive.
Caroline Webb: Yeah. I mean, the prior sandwich, everyone’s heart just sinks, right, because you …
Brett McKay: Right. You know it’s coming.
Caroline Webb: One of the reasons is that our brains are much more attuned to threat than they are to reward. They’re always looking out for both. If I say to you, “Oh, great job. You did great. Now here are five things that you should change,” your brain is naturally attuned to listening out for threats. The fact that your praise is so vague and so general and the things that you’re supposed to work on so specific and so numerous means that that praise is almost meaningless.
The trick is to make the praise as specific and concrete and fullsome as possible so that you’re not just glossing it. You’re talking about “What I liked about what you did was this because … When you did this, then that happened and it really made a difference to XYZ.” It actually gets properly heard.
The framing of “What would make me like it even more” suggests that you’re making suggestions that are about personal growth rather than “You’re an idiot and you need to fix this.” It’s just a very different framing. There are a bunch of these sorts of techniques that are real just really tiny twists on things that seem quite familiar to us, but there are reasons why a small change in the way you do it will make it land better in the other person’s brain.
Brett McKay: Like we said at the beginning, having a good day doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be flawless. You’re not going to have setbacks, etc … The challenge then is developing this skill of maintaining a cool head when setbacks happen. You want that cool head because then you make better decisions and you can actually deal with the problem. Any insights from psychology and behavioral science on maintaining that cool head and bouncing back from setbacks so it doesn’t ruin your good day?
Caroline Webb: Yeah, there’s a ton. There’s a ton of great research on emotional resilience. It’s incredibly useful to have your favorite techniques in your back pocket. Not everybody’s the same. I teach them all and then find that sort of people gravitate towards one or two that they can use in heat of the moment. One that I like is a technique called distancing.
What that involves is putting yourself at a distance from the situation that’s happening or that has just happened that’s unpleasant. Imagine … I mean, just yesterday I found myself walking in absolutely the wrong direction to go to a meeting … It’s a sort of small thing that seems ridiculous when you say it out loud, but it can make a day go in the wrong direction because it meant that obviously I was going to be late and you know.
What do you do? There are a number of things you can do, but the very quick thing to do is to actually stop freaking out by saying to yourself, “What am I going to think about this in a week’s time?” or “What would my best friend advise me or what would an incredibly wise person advise me? What would I advise someone else?”
All of these techniques put you in a position where you’re able to remove yourself from the immediate panic or annoyance or anger of something that’s happening. It’s been shown that that reduces the level of defensiveness in your brain and therefore allows you to think more clearly.
My go to question is often, “What will I think about this when I look back in a year’s time?” if it’s a bigger topic than just simply walking the wrong way down the street. It’s a really quick technique and it then allows you to do some of the more involved resilience boosting techniques because your kind of more sophisticated brain is a little bit more back online.
Brett McKay: I love that. Another challenge of having a good day is keeping that motivation up throughout the day, right? You can have your perfect morning routine where you set your intentions, you’re doing all the right moves, but then you hit that lull where you’re just … You’re not motivated to keep it going. What can individuals do to maintain that energy, that pep, mojo … Whatever you want to call it throughout the day?
Caroline Webb: In one of the chapters … Towards the end of my book, I list actually seven killer techniques that research suggests will pretty instantly boost your energy, energy in different senses … Mental and emotional energy, not just physical energy. One that I really like which is a bit counterintuitive is generosity. Now this is weird because when you’re at a low ebb, the last thing that you think you want to do is actually find ways to be helpful and useful and incredibly delightful to other people.
Actually, research suggests that it is one of the quickest ways to give yourself a boost. It doesn’t have to be much; it can be just paying an unexpected and totally unnecessary compliment to someone on something. It could be going out of your way to do something that you didn’t need to do, allowing … Someone to go in front of you at the store in line … Giving up your seat.
There was a day sometime back … The sun is blazing today, but not long ago, the rain was pouring and I was carrying my groceries in double bags, paper bags. There was a woman in front of me and the rain was so heavy. She was actually also carrying a paper bag. She had shoes in the bag for some reason, I don’t know why. The rain was making her bag disintegrate.
I went over to her and offered her the outside bag of my groceries. Then obviously she was pleased. More to the point, I was absolutely full of energy and excitement at how amazingly helpful I had been. I mean, I shouldn’t really admit this perhaps in public, but the point is that it’s a win-win. You end up feeling great about yourself as well as of course being helpful to the other person.
I think it’s partly because it reminds you that you’ve got something to give even when you’re worn down. It also makes you feel a bit more connected to humanity. We know that feeling connected to other people is actually a very sweet reward for our very social brains. That’s one example of the seven techniques that are in that particular part of the book.
Brett McKay: That’s great. Well, Caroline, this has been a fascinating conversation. We’ve literally scratched the surface of your book. I mean, we could have gone into setting goals, overcoming procrastination, making a brain-friendly to-do list, lots of great stuff. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?
Caroline Webb: Thank you for asking. My website is probably the best place to start and that’s carolinewebb.co. That’s not dot com. It turns out there are lots of Caroline Webb’s in the world and I have dot co, not dot com, so carolinewebb.co. There are lots of things there that people might find interesting. They can download a free chapter of the book …
If they already have the book, they can download a free discussion guide to talk about it with friends, family, colleagues. There’s a quiz also that you can take that gives you an idea of which particular parts of the book might be most useful. I have a written the book so you can dive in anywhere that’s relevant to you.
If you pick up the book and the thing that’s on your mind is a difficult conversation that’s coming up this afternoon, then you can go straight to chapter nine. In fact, you can even go to the shaded box summary at the end of the chapter and just read that if you really, really are pushed for time. I’m hoping that the book will be eminently practical for even the most busy of your listeners.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Caroline Webb, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Caroline Webb: Likewise. Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Caroline Webb. She’s the author of the book “How to Have a Good Day” and that’s available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. Really go pick it up. One of the best books on productivity I’ve ever read. You can find out more information about Caroline and her work at carolinewebb.co. Also make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/goodday.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show and have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Help us spread the word about the show. As always, I appreciate your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.