Caroline Webb.
Caroline Webb.

The science of improving your work life

Caroline Webb, author of 'How to Have a Good Day' and chief executive of Sevenshift, on what you can do to have a more fulfilling work life.

Whether you’re working at your dream job or you’ve been plotting your escape for months, chances are that you’ve experienced your fair share of days that simply can’t end soon enough. Caroline Webb, chief executive of Sevenshift, an advisory firm focused on performance in the workplace, and a senior adviser to McKinsey & Co., has put together a guide for improving our work life with her new book How to Have a Good Day.

Drawing upon extensive research in the fields of neuroscience, behavioural economics and psychology, Webb draws out key lessons on how we can make our work smarter, productive and ultimately more satisfying. Edited excerpts from an interview:

In the book there is an emphasis on priorities and focus. How does the science indicate that those things are so important?

Well, the importance of being deliberate, let’s say, about our priorities and our goals comes from the way that our brain processes information. Our conscious brain can only process a portion of reality around us at any one time, which is kind of hard to accept, because subconsciously we’re filtering out most of what’s going on around us, and we don’t really like to think of ourselves as not being objective observers of the world.

But what the brain decides to consciously prioritize and make sure we notice are things that resonate with what is already top of mind for us. It means that if you’ve decided that something is a priority, you are way more likely to notice it than if it isn’t.

There’s a classic study which is done with a bunch of radiologists who are looking through a pile of lung scans and there was a gorilla printed on the last one. The vast majority of them, 83%, didn’t see the gorilla even though eye-tracking devices showed they’d looked directly at it. The reason is it wasn’t their priority. If we go into a meeting looking for a fight, we’ll probably get it. If we go in looking for collaboration, we’ll probably get that. It’s really remarkable how the facts can appear to change once we’ve decided what our priorities are.

You talk about the interaction between the mind and the body when it comes to us having a good day.

There are reasons you want to look after your body for health reasons, but we know that. The bit we’re much less aware of is the fact that the way you treat your body has an immediate effect on the quality of the thinking that you do and the way that you feel emotionally. You immediately boost your focus and your mood by, say, doing 10-20 minutes of moderate activity. If people understood that there’s an immediate payoff to breaks, exercise, downtime, they’d see it much less as time out and much more as time invested.

How can we best manage our workflow so we have a bit of downtime?

I don’t say there’s only one time of day that you should do any particular type of task—it’s about self-awareness and starting to notice when you’re at your best and giving that time to your most important task. Beyond that, there is some general advice that everybody can take.

First of all, single tasking. If you do one thing at a time you’ll get things done much more quickly and much more brilliantly than if you multitask. The conscious brain can only do one thing at a time, so if you’re checking your email while you’re trying to write something or trying to talk to someone then you are essentially asking your brain to keep switching back and forth and of course that’s inefficient. So going offline while you’re doing your most important task for the day and just really focusing on that one thing means that you get it done more quickly.

The other general thing is the importance of strategic downtime.

All the research suggests that the quality of your decisions and choices declines the longer it is since you’ve had a break. That’s pretty stark. So the idea of taking breaks being for wimps, it’s just not true if you care about the quality of your work. So be tactical about ‘when can I get a five-minute break between meetings, can I end meetings slightly early, can I plan more breathing room that allows me to reflect on.

You talk about the discover-defence axis (how we are subconsciously on the lookout for threats and rewards) and how even small slights can put us into this place where we’re less productive. In a modern-day office environment, feedback, evaluation and criticism are so important. How should these things be handled?

Critical feedback is almost perfectly designed to put a brain on the defensive and (then) they’re not able to think as clearly because the brain is devoting some effort to that defensive response. And obviously then what happens is the change that you’re hoping for doesn’t manifest itself. So, how can you give feedback in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive? There are three brain-friendly feedback techniques that I talk about, and one of them is to be really, really explicit and clear and fulsome and specific about the things that you like about what they’re doing so that the framing is: “What I really like about this is… specific thing, specific thing, specific thing, what would make me like it even more is…."

There are two things going on here. One is that people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’ and the fact that it’s a good idea to say something positive before you say something negative, but the problem with that classic approach is that it only solves a fraction of the problem. We’re all geared to be more sensitive to threats than to rewards. So you have to be aware that one piece of negative feedback will drown out positive feedback unless you make sure that the positive feedback is believable and credible.

And the way to do that, and this is the second thing to note, is that the brain much prefers concrete examples to generalities. So if you hear someone say, “You’re great, you’re great, now here are five things that I think you could do differently…." It’s obvious when I say it like that, but the truth is that is often the way that feedback is delivered. You think, “Well, I’m generally saying you’re amazing, so surely that should be enough", but no, what you remember are the specifics, the stories, the examples. And so that’s why the format of what I really like about ‘specific, specific, specific, and then what would make me like it even more’ is it’s just a really good way of keeping people off the defensive, while telling them exactly what they need to hear, so it’s not a soft option.

If we’re having a bad day, how can we react to that?

I actually split (the part of the book on resilience) into three. The first one is staying cool in the moment. You’re in the meeting and it’s going badly, how do you stay calm? But then there’s also after the fact, how do you move on? Because they’re almost like two different skills.

Then there is sort of an even longer-term skill, which is just recognizing all the things we were touching on before, which is that the way you treat your body helps your emotional resilience over time. So there are a few different dimensions of resilience and handling a bad day.

One thing that I find super helpful when you’re in the middle of a situation that isn’t feeling great is to use the distancing technique, and that’s where you put yourself in a different perspective. I personally like the distance of saying, “What am I going to think about this looking back in a year’s time?" There’s a CEO I was coaching who likes saying, “If someone else was CEO of this company, what would I advise them?" All of these distancing techniques have been shown to reduce the level of defensiveness.

There’s another killer technique, which is called reappraisal. If it’s a recurring thing or is just something you’re finding hard to move on from, it’s really helpful to use this technique. It is essentially telling yourself a different story about what could be going on. You first home in on what the facts are and strip it of interpretation. Instead of saying, for example, “My boss never pays me any attention"—that’s a generalization, it’s also a tiny bit emotional—what you do know for sure is perhaps something more like “My boss didn’t invite me to speak at this week’s team meeting". In fact, what you actually know given the brain’s filtering and the fact that reality is subjective is “I don’t remember my boss asking me to speak at the team meeting". So the first step is getting clear on the facts, and then you say, “Okay, what could be an explanation of that?"

And it almost doesn’t matter if you believe the stories that you make up, but the very fact of starting to contemplate other explanations than “I’m being ignored" has been shown to not only improve your resilience to specific situations going on wrong now, but actually boost your resilience longer term to something that goes wrong later.

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