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How to raise the odds that it’s going to be a fantastic day

How to raise the odds that it’s going to be a fantastic day

Got that Monday (and every other work-day) morning feeling? Here’s how to begin each new day as if you can’t wait to get started.

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This is my 100th article for Lifehack.org. That set my mind thinking about beginnings and endings. Last week, I wrote about how to leave work gracefully, so it seems natural to follow that by considering how to start your working day on a truly positive note.

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The way that you start the day nearly always sets the tone for the rest of it. If you begin in a rush, feeling frazzled and harassed, it’s very likely that the rest of the day will go the same way—or worse. It’s well worth a little planning and care to start each day well. It may still go downhill, but at least you won’t have begun in a foul mood.

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Too many people catapult themselves into each new work-day, fractious and ill-prepared for whatever lies ahead. Since they begin the day feeling miserable and stressed, just about any problems, however minor, have the power to knock them so far off their best that they have almost no chance of reaching the end of the day in anything except the blackest of black moods.

Here are some ideas to help you slide smoothly into the day instead, feeling relaxed and ready to take on whatever comes along:

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  • Get up early. I know that sounds like punishment, and bed always feels especially comfortable first thing in the morning, but you should allow yourself plenty of time to get ready—and then some. Rushing to get ready causes stress and sends you out of the door tense and high on adrenaline. Believe me, beginning on an adrenaline high is going to lead to some pretty awful cold turkey as the day goes on. Work out how much time you need to get ready without hurrying, then add 30 minutes. You still need your sleep, so go to go to bed a little earlier than you do currently. That’s an additional benefit of avoiding a period of manic frenzy every morning.
  • Establish a morning ritual to help you do what you need to do easily and avoid forgetting things. The great benefit of rituals is that you can run through them on automatic pilot. So if you’re not much of a morning person, you don’t have to force your brain into a thinking state quite so early to ensure that, when you leave the house, you’re properly dressed and have everything you need to take with you.
  • Always eat some breakfast. It’s essential to start the day with your blood sugar in a good state. Sit down and eat something; don’t grab some sugary, high-cholesterol snack as you run down the street. All that will do is give you a quick blood-sugar high, followed by a crash shortly afterwards. You need a breakfast that will provide a steady delivery of sugars to your blood throughout the morning. That way, you’ll avoid the ten o’clock depression—and be much less likely to crave more sugary snacks. A constant see-sawing of blood sugar levels is exhausting in itself and is bound to make you tense and irritable.
  • Give yourself plenty of time for your morning commute. Many things can hold you up. If you’re running behind and meet a problem—like a traffic jam or an accident—it’s going to freak you out and send your adrenaline levels into the stratosphere. Hey, you know that the very worst delays always happen on the days when you’re running most behind. Go easy on yourself.
  • Vary your route to work as much as you can. Make it as interesting and varied as possible. Look around you. Enjoy the ride. Be present. What you don’t want to do is tune out and spend the time anticipating the problems you’re going to find when you get to work. A problem anticipated and worried over is a problem suffered at least twice.
  • When you arrive, have a simple ritual to ease you gently into the work environment. Get a cup of tea or coffee. Greet some friends. Organize your desk. Nothing stressful—just some simple activities to switch your mind easily back into work-day mode. Athletes warm up before an event to avoid needless strains and injuries to cold muscles. You should imitate them.
  • Take 10 minutes to set the day’s priorities. Nothing is more stressful than being busy all day and reaching the end of it tired—then realizing you’ve accomplished precisely nothing on the very items that you know are most important. How many times have you done this? Well, don’t do it again. Decide what you need to do, write it down, then stick to your game plan, If emergencies push you off track, get back on it as soon as you can. Always do what is most important, not what either seems most urgent or happens to be jumping up and down in front of you. Calm application to genuine priorities is most likely to allow you to end the day feeling satisfied with what you have done.
  • Never, never start your day with distractions, like checking e-mail. It eats up time and leaves you feeling pressured and stressed when you snap out of it and discover most of the morning has been spent on useless trivia.
  • If you aren’t sure what needs to be done first, follow this simple rule of thumb: look to see whatever needs to be done next and do it. Repeat until the end of the day. the result will be faster, more secure progress than you ever believed possible.
  • Above all, make a gentle start on the day allows you to preserve your energy for whatever’s still to come. Don’t treat each day like a sprint and hurl yourself into it headlong. Don’t dither and procrastinate and try to avoid starting at all. A steady, middle way is pretty much always the best. Most days are middle-distance races. Some are marathons. It’s amazing how far you can get through either kind without strain or hassle, if you keep plodding steadily along.

Give yourself two weeks to work out the best rituals and patterns for starting your day. Try out several to find what works best for you. Once you have picked the most useful, stick to them despite all the temptations to go back to morning chaos. You’ll be really glad that you did.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life, and its new companion site Slower Living. His recent articles on similar topics to this include What’s your Flyway Resort? and Stop tormenting yourself with anticipated hurt. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is available at all good bookstores.

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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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