We sat down with economist, leadership coach and global productivity expert Caroline Webb to get insights from her book, How To Have A Good Day, and some neuroscientific ‘brain hacks’ to help you flourish at work – both mentally and emotionally.
What is a good day really?
Over decades of working with people in all sorts of organisations – in the private, public and social sectors – I would ask them that question: ‘What is a good day to you? And what is a bad day? And what would give you more good days?’ Over time, I collected enough evidence to suggest that there is a pattern. First of all, there’s something about feeling that your time is spent on the things that matter, feeling that you’re doing things productively and effectively, and not looking back at the end of the day saying, ‘Well, that was a waste of time!’
Then there’s something about feeling like you’ve really knocked the ball out the park in whatever you’re doing – whether it’s the quality of the conversations you’re having, the quality of your thinking, the impact you’re having, or your ability to land an idea. You want to be able to look back on your day and say, ‘Yes, I may be a little tired, but I have the emotional and mental energy to go back and do it all again.’ If you can have all those things – you feel like you’re spending time on the right things, like you’re doing a brilliant job, and you’re happy to do it all again the next day – then you’re in pretty good shape. That’s the pattern that cuts across all ages, genders, industries and so on.
Economist and leadership coach Caroline Webb at the 2018 Discovery leadership summit
You’ve written about the brain’s natural spam filter. How does this work?
If you look around you, at any given time, there are trillions of pieces of data. We’re not even conscious of it – and the reason is that our brain can only consciously process about 50 bits of data at a time. So how do we not get overloaded? It turns out that our brain automatically filters out whatever doesn’t feel relevant at the time. So we think that we have this beautifully complete, objective grasp of what’s going on around us, but we actually only conceive a very small part of it. And thank goodness we do! Otherwise our brains would crash like an overloaded computer.
What if we filter out something important?
Yes, the tricky thing is that sometimes the brain filters out stuff that is not irrelevant. There’s a very basic rule of thumb that our brain follows: if something is already top of mind for us, our brain will make sure that we see things that resonate with that, whether it’s our aims, our attitude or our assumptions. We’re quite capable of missing things that don’t jibe with what’s already top of mind. A lot of the work that I do is to help people be more aware of the filters that they’re setting.
You recommend single-tasking for a busy day. How does this work?
It’s such a trope that when you go in for a job interview, you should tell the recruiter you’re ‘a great multi-tasker’. My heart always sinks when I see this advice because, as it turns out, our brains can only tackle one conscious task at a time. So when we think we’re multi-tasking, what we’re actually doing is asking our poor brain to do two things. We’re switching from one thing to the other, then back again, and back again. We think we’re doing those tasks in parallel, but we’re not. We’re just sequencing them very, very quickly. In each of those switches in attention between Task A and Task B, we lose a tiny bit of time and a tiny bit of mental energy.
That’s why the evidence shows that when we’re multitasking, we may feel very busy, but we’re actually making between two and four times as many mistakes. We’re typically slowing ourselves down by 20–30% or more, because of the cost of switching from one task to another. So, it is a terrible idea to multi-task if you have a lot to do. If you’ve got a lot on your plate, try as much as possible to do one thing at a time. In other words, try to single-task. The more single-tasking time you can create in your day, around the constraints of the work that you’re doing, the faster you’ll work, the more effective you’ll be and the smarter your thoughts will be. It’s quite a good package.
You’re an advocate for taking breaks in a busy day. Why?
We’ve talked about a couple of ways our brains have limitations. We’ve talked about the fact that it can’t process more than a small proportion of the information around us; we’ve talked about doing one thing at a time. As it turns out, our brain also gets tired really quickly! We know the feeling of our brains being full, and that’s not too far off what’s actually going on. What happens after a certain point is that our ability to think clearly declines. There is evidence to suggest that people make less effective decisions, the longer it’s been since they’ve taken a break. There was a study done in hospitals that showed the rates of hand-washing – the basic hand hygiene that everyone in hospitals is supposed to follow – declined the longer it was since the nurses and doctors had taken a break. We know that we make better choices when our brain is rested. What that means in practice is that we don’t have to go out for a half-hour walk every three hours. Really small, micro-breaks can be really effective in rebooting our ability to think clearly. Just thinking about how you might finish a meeting a little bit early, or how you might give yourself five minutes’ breathing room between one thing and the next, allows you to take the step back that we know really helps you be at your best.
Caroline Webb was one of the leading speakers at the 2018 Discovery Leadership Summit, held in Johannesburg, South Africa during November. The Discovery Leadership Summit is the pre-eminent global thought leadership event on the South African events calendar. The aim of the event is to provide a platform for some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers to share their leadership strategies and insights on issues relating to business, economics, government and science. The Discovery Leadership Summit stimulates and informs debate on globally relevant issues within a local context.
Business leaders, economists and world leaders gathered at the 2018 Discovery Leadership Summit and shared their views on the role of leadership in society. Economic growth, the subject of innovation and behavioural economics were high on the agenda.
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