Many of us feel we have little control over the lives we live. Some days are good but many are splattered with difficulties. Managing work, bills, family, hobbies and rest is sometimes a juggling act and quite a struggle. Can we alter our reality? Can we make bad days better? Meet Caroline Webb, an economist and ex McKinsey partner, who is looking into these questions by digging into data from behavioural sciences (economics, neuroscience and psychology). In her book How To Have A Good Day Caroline shares how to apply science to practice. Here she tells us the story behind the book and why we truly can impact our day more than we thought was possible.
Talk me a little about what led you to where you are and to the book you wrote.
I was always interested in science. When I was a little girl I wanted to be an astrophysicist. But I was interested in people, too. And when I went to Atlantic College, as part of my International Baccalaureate I had a chance to study economics for the first time. I loved the fact that it was a rigorous system of thought applied to human issues – the best of both worlds, it seemed to me – and decided that economics was what I wanted to pursue.
So during my early professional career I was a professional economist. I really enjoyed working as a policy maker at the Bank of England. Of all the jobs I did there, perhaps the first was the most interesting of all, when I was working to support the transition of Eastern and Central Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. There was a tremendous sense of possibility, lots of young people who were making change happen. I liked the fact that the work was about psychology as well as economics. Those countries were going through enormous and profound psychological change.
As time went on my job became more and more technical but I felt something was missing. I wanted to get back to the human part of the equation, so I made the leap to go into consulting to learn about organisational effectiveness and leadership. I expected to be at McKinsey only for a couple of years and return to the public sector. But I found my niche in working on organisational change, leadership development and coaching. In dealing with often very hard-nosed clients, I often found it helpful to use evidence from behavioural science when helping them think about how to shift their own behaviour. For instance, asking leaders to become more collaborative is easier when you can talk to them about the way our brain works, and refer to the evidence on how people build rapport with others. Suddenly it became clearer to them why conversations they dismissed as “small talk” were actually critical to relationships.
Over the years, my clients would often ask me to recommend a book that would mirror the work I was doing with them – translating science into practical advice for living and working more effectively. And I didn’t know what to suggest. That’s what made me realise that there was a gap that I could fill by writing my book, How To Have A Good Day.
How do the behavioural sciences complement each other?
Behavioural scientists are people who research the reasons why we think, feel and behave as we do. There are behavioural aspects to economics, psychology and neuroscience, and each discipline takes a slightly different perspective . Neuroscience arguably looks at behaviour from a biological or physical perspective. Psychology provides structured observational evidence of behaviour. Meanwhile, economics is focused on predicting the choices we make. But those are crude distinctions. In reality the boundaries between the three disciplines are very blurred, in a good way.
You spend a lot of time looking at brain systems. Tell me about that and about the data you look at to understand how we feel and behave.
Our brains are truly remarkable in the range of things they are able to do. But the reason our brains are able to get so much done is that they have two systems that “divide and conquer” the work.
What I call the deliberate system takes care of everything we do deliberately, such as conscious reasoning, planning and self-control. It is a rich and complex system, but it has some limited capacity and can only do one thing at a time.
This is where the automatic system comes in. This is a very powerful system which takes care of most of what happens to us every day, in a way that we are not conscious of. As a result, this subconscious system is often an unsung hero. This system can do lots of things in parallel but it achieves its speed by taking shortcuts, what behavioural scientists call “heuristics.”
We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems to function at our best. We need to be kind to the deliberate system so that it does not get overloaded or overtired, which stops it working well. And we need to recognise the automatic system’s speed is useful, but that it can be biased and rather “kneejerk.”
How does the automatic system colour our reality? Is reality as we perceive it?
The truth is, our reality is highly subjective because our deliberate system cannot take in all our surroundings. It would crash if we tried to process all the data around us. To lighten the load, the automatic system very helpfully filters out much of what is happening. We are not aware of it, but as a result we always experience a subjective, edited, partial and incomplete version of reality.
Most of the time that’s fine. It’s good not to get distracted by trivial things. But sometimes we miss things we really want to see. Our brain tends to devote conscious attention to anything that resonates with whatever is already top of mind for us. So if we are in a bad mood, we tend to see things that confirm that the world is terrible. If we are in a good mood and have decided to look for signs of collaboration or delightfulness we will see more of those things. If you are talking to someone you believe to be a jerk, you will see things that confirm that he is a jerk and may miss all sorts of more conciliatory behaviours from this person.
Understanding this presents an opportunity for us. Since we know reality is subjective, why not be more deliberate about it? We can start by deciding where we want to put top of mind, so that it shapes where our brain directs our attention. Even deciding to spot three delightful things in the next 5 minutes puts good things top of mind, so that we then perceive even more good things that we might otherwise have missed.
How we can become more creative to lead more fulfilling lives?
This is a very simple definition, but creativity is essentially about seeing something new by making new connections between different pieces of information.
The automatic system likes to save us energy, so it will always have a bias to have us go on autopilot and see things the same way. If we are trying to be creative we need to find ways of changing our routine, changing the way we are experiencing the world so that we can see things differently. Simply sitting somewhere different may be enough to change your filters and spark a different set of connections as you look at the world.
So would this explain why disruption usually comes from outside an industry, in the way that for instance AirBnB is changing the hospitality industry more than say Marriott?
Yes exactly. Inside an industry, people tend to have the same way of looking at a problem and can be hard to be truly innovative.
But there are lots of techniques you can use to shake things up, which can be used at the individual or company level. For example, studies show that just asking yourself a question can be enough to pull yourself out of a fixed way of thinking. Instead of saying: “I need to fix the fact that I have so much email,” you’re slightly more likely to see new opportunities if you pose the question: “How could I fix the fact that I have so much email?”
Yes I can see how for example we condition ourselves in our industries. The pharmaceutical industry can assume medical tests by default have to have certain lab conditions, so that may explain why it is a high school student instead who designs a test for Ebola that does not need refrigeration.
Absolutely! Even the experience of expressing a problem a different way can help us find new solutions. One of my favourite techniques for problem-solving is to look at the problem physically, such as by building it out of Lego or mapping it out with sticky notes. When you look at problems physically you can start finding clusters of issues you were not aware of and this helps us question our assumptions. You may also know of the “rubber-ducking” approach, which is about explaining your problem to someone who doesn’t come from your field in simple language, often using analogies. All of these things help us see the problem differently and make new connections.
We have corporate cultures that are counter productive to the way the brain works. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about working culture today?
There are quite a few things we might change! But the single biggest one would be to recognise that pushing our brains harder does not make us perform better.
For optimal performance, cognitively and emotionally, we need to think about downtime as being as important as our uptime, because studies show that our brain needs breaks to consolidate and encode information – that is, to digest and learn from our experiences. Our brain’s deliberate system also gets tired easily, so other studies have found we tend to make poorer decisions the longer it is since we’ve had a break.
We also have this illusion our brains can do a lot of things simultaneously, but as I mentioned before our deliberate system can’t. It processes things sequentially. We may think we are multitasking but in effect we are switching our attention from one thing to the next. Those switches cost time and effort, which is why research finds that when we multitask we make 2 to 4 times more errors, we slow ourselves down and make poorer decisions. So if instead we do more “singletasking” – my word for “doing one thing at a time” – we get things done more quickly and efficiently.
People talk a lot about managing time, less about managing energy. What are great ways to make more time and be more energetic?
The single biggest thing to manage time is “singletasking”, as I just described. But another one is recognising that stepping away to go for a walk or jumping on an exercise machine not only boosts your physical energy, but also your mental energy. It increases your ability to solve what you were trying to solve before hand.
There are many other great techniques to boost energy that I discuss in chapter 20. One that I love is writing down things that are going well. Research tells us generosity to others is also one of the quickest ways to give ourselves a boost. It may be counter intuitive but there is lots of research evidence on this.
Social contacts are also an important energy source. No matter how introverted we are, we are all social creatures, and research suggests we all get a boost from human contact. When I am out and about running errands I really try to turn every transaction with people in stores –things that can normally be quite soulless– into a tiny interaction, to find the humanity in the small moments. Even those momentary connections are very rewarding for our brain.
You have a chapter about playing to our strengths. I often find in corporate culture people try to balance their weaknesses out too much rather than leaning on their strengths.
There has been a bit of a backlash to the “positive thinking” movement. Critics say that negative thoughts are important too – and of course they are. That’s why my book talks about the power of something researchers call “mental contrasting”, where contrasting the ideal with the barriers to the ideal helps us achieve our goals.
Likewise, there has been a backlash against the idea of “playing to your strengths.” Some people say if you play excessively to your strengths you will be lopsided. Of course that’s true. Doing anything excessively is not good. And if there are things we are terrible out which get in our ability to function, of course we need to address them.
But most of us are not narcissists, and most of us have room to play to our strengths more than we currently do. In particular, it’s helpful to think of ways to use our strengths as a springboard for learning something new or dealing with a challenge. That helps us approach the new scary challenge with less fear, and less defensiveness, which tends to boost our performance.
How do we distinguish the urgent from the important?
Like everyone else I have a long To Do list. To check whether something important is actually more urgent than I realize, one thing that helps me is projecting forward and asking a few good questions like: “In a month’s time, if this is not done, how am I going to feel about that? What will happen in six months if it’s not done?” To test whether something that seems urgent is really that pressing, I also ask myself: “What is the worst that could happen if I don’t do this one thing?
This exercise is helpful in identifying what is really important from what is not. A lot of things that seem urgent drop off with that last question.
What motivates people?
Research is very clear on this. We are more motivated by things we care about rather than by those others think we should care about. “Intrinsic motivation” is more powerful than “extrinsic motivation,” and personal purpose, competence and autonomy are profoundly important sources of intrinsic motivation. In other words, we feel motivated when we do what we care about, and feel as if we have the skills and the space to do it. If any of these are taken away, we feel undermined in our ability to do the work we do and in how we feel about ourselves.
How can we make others comfortable and be their best?
We are all motivated by the things I just talked about. But social rewards, such as a sense of belonging, being respected and being treated fairly are also very important. As soon as any of those is threatened we go on the defensive – and the truth is, most dysfunctional behaviour you see in others results because someone is on the defensive because something important to them is feeling threatened. It helps to know what the classic constellation of threats is, so that you can do more to get people off the defensive – something I explain how to do in chapter 9 on resolving tensions. For example, it’s helpful to know that there is something of a “silver bullet” which makes everyone feel less threatened, and it is showing them some kind of appreciation.
How can we best prepare for a good day?
There are some things that are universal. Setting your intentions and deciding to focus on what is important is always a good foundation for the day, because of the point we discussed earlier about our subjective reality. Looking ahead to the day’s tasks and batching similar stuff together so we are singletasking as much as possible – that’s another good piece of advice we already talked about.
But everyone is different and we need to take that into account. A lot of the advice out there for how to start the day is driven by people who are early chronotypes: they are at their best in the morning. I am not like that. My most creative time in the day is the afternoon, and I’m often at my best at around 5 or 6 pm. Taking that into account, I plan my day the night before so that I’m doing my more creative things later on in the day.
How can we get an extra brain boost when we need it?
There are lots of tricks to help us be as smart as we can be. For example, the positive framing technique is really helpful when we are overwhelmed by a difficult task. It goes like this: instead of asking “How do I fix this problem?” we ask “What would the ideal look like? And what would be the first step I can take in that direction?” This framing helps us because it makes us feel less defensive about the difficult problem we’re facing – while still working on the issue, it makes us feel more upbeat about our chances of moving forward, and research has found that we think more clearly and creatively when we’re not stressed. Asking this kind of question with teams and in meetings can unleash a lot of mental energy.
Another favorite of mine is to recognize that exercise is a good way of improving your chances of solving a problem. Rather than seeing it as an indulgence or a chore, evidence suggests even a short burst of exercise immediately sharpens our analytical capability. I also talk about the importance of prioritising sleep in the book. We are smarter when we are rested. And so on.
Let’s talk about group behaviour and the fact that emotions are contagious.
Contagion is interesting. Scientists don’t agree on how it works but they agree that it happens. When one person is in a particular mood it spreads, interestingly within 5 minutes even when people are not communicating and doing different tasks. It´s important everyone knows this but especially important leaders understand it.
What is happiness to you?
I feel happy on days when I feel I have spent my time on the right stuff, feel good about my efforts, and know that I am not just pouring emotional energy into the day but also getting emotional energy out of it. I do genuinely believe in the 7 building blocks I write in the book. And outside work, it is almost always about relationships – when I spend time with my husband, my family and friends. But singing and dancing also give me great joy.
What do you think is the most underrated value?
I would have said empathy but I think that these days there is much more understanding of the fact that empathy really matters for the quality of everyone’s life. So I will say that I think being intentional is important – by which I mean taking responsibility for the aspects of our lives that we control. A lot of what we think is outside our control is not. We can do a lot by changing our attitudes.
What is the most overrated value?
It´s a difficult question. Every value can be useful. I would say ambition, but some ambition is valuable. The challenge is when too much effort is put on climbing the pole we are on and maybe not enough into thinking whether the pole we are on is the right one. A lot of what we do that makes us miserable comes from a desire for advancement in the eyes of others.
Do you have a life motto?
Yes I do! I strive for “realistic optimism.” I wrote a version of that phrase in my high school yearbook at 17 and it’s still what guides me. I am not into the idea that we need to think everything is perfect. But if we understand a little more about why we feel about the way that we do, we have some wiggle room. We can make choices and the choices we make can make life better!
Want to get a perspective on how well you are managing your day? Caroline offers a quiz and tips for free here.
Photograph by Jordan Matter