Synopsis: People tell us all the time to “have a good day,” but what does that really mean? How do you work on having a really good day? Our guest has researched the topic and has come up with some very interesting and helpful information from neuroscience and psychology that anyone can use to make their day more productive, less anxiety-provoking and just more pleasant.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Caroline Webb, economist, management consultant, CEO of Sevenshift, author of the book, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the power of behavioral science to transform your working life.

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How to Really Have a Good Day

Marty Peterson: People are always telling your to “have a good day!” from the clerk at the dry cleaner’s to the teller at the bank. It’s almost become a cliché; one of those throwaway lines that nobody really means. Well, Caroline Webb means it. She means it so much that she wrote a whole book about it titled, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the power of behavioral science to transform your working life. Webb is an economist, management consultant and CEO of Sevenshift. She’s done extensive research in neuroscience and psychology to find out how we can change our outlook and behavior to have more good days on the job and off. But what constitutes a good day?

Caroline Webb: Over the years I asked a lot of clients exactly that question: “What is a good day for you? What is a bad day? And how do you get more of the good days?” And the things that kept on coming up were quite simple. They were, “I’m doing the right stuff; I’m doing a good job of doing that stuff, and feels sustainable. That I can do this again and again. I can wake up tomorrow morning and feel good about what lies ahead and I’ve got enough energy in the tank at the end of the day.” So that’s what I built the book around was the big themes on priorities and productivity, on relationships and thinking and influence – all of which help you do a good job – and then resilience and energy so you’re able to keep on going even when the hours are long.

Peterson: Webb says that her techniques aren’t just for people who go out to a job every day. They’re also great for people who are retired, who stay at home and take care of the family, students in school and for everyone in their off hours. Her definition of work is very broad: “Anything you want to get done.” She says that the reason we have bad days where we don’t get our work done is because of the way the brain works…

Webb: The part of the brain that you’re using to listen to me and the part of the brain I’m using to talk to you is the conscious part of our minds, of course, right? And it’s deliberate, it’s grown up, it helps us plan, it helps us with self-control, it helps us think things through, it’s responsible for reasoning, and that’s what I call the “deliberate system,” it has a lot of different names. And the automatic system, which is the other one, is much more obviously unknown to us because it’s automatic, we’re not even aware of it. But most of what we do is taken care of by the automatic system so we’re on auto-pilot, for most of what we do from day to day, much as we don’t like to think of it like that.

Peterson: Without that automatic side, we’d have to think carefully about how to get on and off an elevator, lock our front door and put on our seat belt every time we did it. Those things we need to do – from finishing the quarterly financial reports for our boss to picking up groceries for dinner – take a lot of deliberate brainpower and, unfortunately, the automatic side of the brain can interfere with getting those jobs done. It’s called the “discover-defend axis”…

Webb: If you’re feeling stressed out by something, your brain launches quite a helpful, in a way, protective response to keep you safe. It senses that there’s some kind of threat that might be in the environment. And the challenge with that, and you might know this phrase, the flight-fight-freeze response, the challenge with that protective flight-fight-freeze response is that it draws some action away from the sophisticated deliberate system. So in other words, when you’re feeling stressed and under pressure you’re in defensive mode. You’re not thinking as sharply and as sensitively because your deliberate system is slightly off line. So what I talk about a lot in the book is also how can you stay out of defensive mode and be in what I call “discovery” mode as much as possible, where you’re really helping both systems of your brain operate to their fullest capacity and potential?

Peterson: Setting our intentions for the day can help to focus on what’s important and what’s not. She talks about a man named Martin that she met at a meeting who explained how he prioritized his activities for the day as soon as he woke up…

Webb: Rather than just falling into the day, very easy to do that, he takes a moment to say, “Okay, what really matters most today and, therefore, where do I want to put my attention?” It sounds incredibly simple, but most of us fall out of bed and we start racing toward the first thing that we have to do without taking that step back. And the reason why that’s powerful is that it totally changes the way that we perceive the experience of the day. This is back to the capacity constraints of the deliberate system. It’s really limited on capacity so that one of the ways that we don’t end up with a brain that crashes and hangs like an overloaded computer is that we actually filter out most of what’s around us. So, we think we’ve got an objective picture of reality, but actually our brain’s automatically filtering out much of what’s going on around us. And what we do notice consciously, what we do direct our brain’s attention towards is determined by what’s already top of mind for us.

Peterson: What kind of mood we’re in is a big determiner of how much we can get done and how much extraneous stuff we can filter out…

Webb: If you’re in a bad mood you’ll see a hill is steeper than someone who’s in a good mood looking at the same hill. Our perceptions are terribly strongly influenced by our starting point. So that’s Martin’s intentions come in. Because the fact that he stops in the morning and says, “Okay, what’s most important to me and, therefore, what do I most want to notice today? Where do I want to put my attention?” means that he’s just being a bit more deliberate about that decision about what he filters in and what he filters out, and as a result he actually changes the way that he experiences the day. He notices more good stuff than he would have if he had not set those positive intentions at the beginning.

Peterson: Being productive is the key to having a good day, but often we feel like we’re not making as much headway on a big project as we’d like. Webb says that breaking it down into smaller goals and deciding how you are going to do it helps the brain get a handle on the project. She calls it “when-then”…

Webb: You’re not only breaking this down so you’ve got a really clear first step, but you’re really clear about when you’re going to do it. So, for example, there’s a call that you might have been putting off making or an email that you’re putting off writing and you’re so much more likely – 300% more likely, actually – to get it done if you say, “When I go for lunch at 12:00,” or whatever time you go for lunch, “then that’s when I’m going to send this email.” “When I come out of this meeting, then I’m going to make that call.” It’s just much more specific. And the reason that we get our goals more likely to be achieved if we set those “when-then’s“ is that it just places much less load on our brain, much less processing. “Oh yeah, okay now’s the time that I do this thing.”

Peterson: Sometimes the reason you have a bad day is because others keep piling work onto your desk.  How do you say “no” to someone when they want you to get your scheduled work done and start another project or attend a meeting? Webb has a suggestion to prevent overload…the “positive no”…

Webb: If you start by saying, “ I’m really sorry I can’t take this on because blah, blah, blah,” the other person’s very slightly on the defensive because they’re just hearing a negative message coming from you. The trick is to start with what you’re saying “yes” to. And I have to say this does require a bit of email editing sometimes where you start by saying, “I’m in the middle of this fabulous book launch, it’s just the most exciting time, there’s lots going on. As a result, I have to make tough choices about what I can and can’t commit to. And, therefore, I can’t say yes to this thing that you blah, blah, blah, want me to do. But if there’s anything else that I can do to help, perhaps I can refer you on to someone else.” It feels totally different from the, “I’m sorry I can’t do your thing,” because you started with the thing that is actually a little bit more exciting and upbeat. And the other person, even if they know that the “no” is coming, the fact that you start with something that you’re saying “yes” to, that you’re excited about is strangely seductive. It’s very hard to resist the fact of someone expressing what it is that they’re actually excited about.

Peterson: Even if you take her suggestions to heart, and practice them diligently, you’re going to have a bad day or a bad week sometimes. How do you get over it? She has a couple of techniques that can help…

Webb: One of them is using a distancing technique, which is to say you put yourself at some distance from the situation by asking yourself, “What will I think about this in a year’s time?” or “What would my best self think about this?” or “ If I were advising a friend, what would I say to them?” And, I’m not saying that you suddenly, you know, you burst out singing because everything is fine, but it takes the edge off it. It reduces the discomfort about the bad day. And there’s a series of techniques like this, which is strangely powerful. Asking yourself, “What can I learn from this” is useful because learning is received by the brain as quite a strong reward, so rewarding. We love learning new things; it’s why we like gossip.

Peterson: You can read more of her suggestions on how to overcome a bad day and even more on how to prevent them, in Caroline Webb’s book, How to Have a Good Day, available in stores and online. You can also visit her website at CarolineWebb-with two b’s- .co. There you can read more about her, her book and take the “Good Day” quiz. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher.

Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter.

Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence.

I’m Marty Peterson.