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12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day

12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day
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What would an ideal workday look like? While there might not be a single answer across the board, all of us can relate to the fact that many of our workdays are not designed for optimal productivity. We complain about too many meetings, not enough pay, travel that saps your energy and did I mention the hours? Why not take some time today to consider what an ideal day at work might look like?

Start the afternoon before. A clean space makes for smooth work. To the degree that you can, neaten up your desk and put things in order for the next day. Do a quick “what do I need to work on tomorrow?” and write it down. This little step plants seeds of productivity that will spill over into the following day. Get home at a reasonable hour- your loved ones will thank you for it. I’ve found that my family likes my work more as a result of working less when I can. The competition between family and work shrinks when both are in balance.

Start the night before. This might seem obvious but so many people burn the candle at both ends. It makes sense to get to sleep at a reasonable hour in order to get in 6-8 quality hours of sleep. Some need more, few of us need less. Become a sleep expert and routine your bed time for optimal waking the next day. Another secret is to do a ‘media audit’ of your free hours prior to bed. If you find yourself zoning out via TV for no good reason, turn the tube off and read, work out or talk with friends.

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Practice early morning rituals. A strong start to the day is key for designing your ideal work experience. When you get up early, it’s as if you’ve already accomplished something. Throw in a coffee ritual (but not too much!) and you have another reason to get up. I’ll admit, I enjoy a good 7 minute snooze button as much as the next guy, but only to a degree. Put mind over mattress and get moving in the AM.

Crank when you can. When you’re at work, work. In the time-windows when you know you can really crank, get things done. This may involve closing your office door or telling your secretary that you need 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. My guess is that you can accomplish more in a half hour of dedicated work time than you could in 3-4 blocks of stop-and-go work.

Remember, interruptions happen, now what? Sure, we need to crank out our work but interruptions do happen. The key is to absorb them instead of bristle when they come up. You may have to coach those around you as to how you would like correspondence and when you are most free. Some people use door signs as subtle reminders of their work: green means come on in while red implies that work is going on. Find what works for you. I once heard of someone who hung a sign on his cubicle that said, “Power hour in progress. Enter at risk.”

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Take your breaks. A good stretch and walk around the block is good for the body and the mind. Step away from the computer, leave the Blackberry at your desk and just walk. Take five minutes and read a chapter from that book that you put in your briefcase. Breathe some fresh air. Get some water. It’s that simple.

Create real human interaction. While digital correspondence is at an all time high, our moments of genuine human interchange may be at risk. A simple rule? Whenever you can, interact. As long as you’re getting your work done, keep it human and stay on task. I think that they can go hand in hand- human interaction and getting things done.

Speed matters. As you’re going through your day, remember that speed matters. Move with purpose and swiftly act on things that are in front of you. Walk briskly and others will sense that you are a person of action. Their step will pick up too!

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Food is your friend. A few months back, I looked at the scale and realized that I had lost about 10 pounds without even trying. I saw that my eating habits had been spotty and my body wasn’t getting enough of what it needed in order to keep going. Take the time to prepare a decent set of 4-5 smaller meals instead of binging at the end of the day. Now I try to keep a supply of energy bars in my desk just in case.

Take note of the final hour. The final hour is key to an optimal work day. This is a good time to process any excess in your in-box, prepare things for the next day and clear your mind.

Remember what’s really important. Getting out the door at a reasonable time (and it probably differs for each of us) is good for you and for those you care about. When you arrive home from work, take 10 seconds to remind yourself that you’re now at home and need to be fully present for your spouse, kids, and whatever else requires your attention. It’s not easy making this transition but vital nonetheless.

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Begin again. The good and bad news of an ideal workday is that it requires mastery and repetition. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things only went 75% well today because tomorrow is coming. You’ll get another shot at success.

An ideal workday is something towards which we can work. In my field of education, I tell young teachers to aim for the “3 Day Rule”: strive to be on your game for 3 out of 5 days and you’ll start to turn the tide of how you work. Eventually your 3 days will turn into 4 and every once in a while, you’ll see a solid 5 days of productivity.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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