Caroline Webb is an author, economist, executive coach and the CEO of How To Have a Good Day, a firm that shows people how to leverage behavioral science to improve their working life. Caroline is also the author of the book How To Have A Good Day, which has been published in 16 different languages, in more than 60 countries.
With me today is Caroline Webb, who is an economist and a former partner at McKinsey. Welcome to the show Caroline.
Thank you, delighted to be here.
So you are author of a great book which was described by Susan Cain the author of Quiet, as extraordinary. It’s also described by the BBC, Business Correspondent Peter Day today as a brilliantly useful book, and the title is How to Have a Good Day. The subtitle is Think Bigger, Feel Better, and Transform Your Working Life. So my question is, why do you only call it How to Have a Good Day? I mean surely it should be how to have an awesome day, or how to have an amazing day. Is this the nice English way of just being sort of discreet and humble? What was the reason behind the title?
Well, I wanted it to be something that speaks to our everyday lives. If you think about the phrase that people say to you and they’re shocked, or you’re coming home and you have a loved one ask how things were. People say, “Have a good day! How was your day? Was it a good one?” They don’t tend to say, “I had an awesome day!” Then perhaps a good reason for that which is that sometimes we have awesome days, but most of the time, most of us are simply trying to feel like a day was productive, that they feel full of energy by the end of the day, that they feel that there was more energy in the tank at the end of the day, that allows them to carry on to the next day. There’s a sense that we’re looking for something which is sustainable, that makes us feel like we’re making good use of our lives. How to have a good day feels like what most of us are actually aiming for each day. Partly, that’s informed by the fact that there are these surveys out there which you’ve probably seen Mark, which suggest that huge proportions of the working population don’t feel truly engaged in their work, and by huge proportions I mean, that that Gallup survey which suggested that only 13% of people around the world, of employees around the world really felt excited and engaged in work that they’re doing. We all know that people perform better when they’re feeling good about all work. So that’s a huge call to action when you think about the fact that as adults, we spend so much of our time at work, what does it take to have a better day at work and beyond?
I’m sure a lot of our audience can relate to that. So just a bit of background here before we get into, there are a couple of things that really struck me. Firstly, it’s science-based, so you draw on psychology, economics, and neuroscience. The other thing which just touches on, which I think is really profound is that you put the individual in control of the quality of their day, which is hugely empowering, but as you say, it’s slightly at odds with the– only 13% of people actually feel engaged and excited. What’s your assessment having been asking these questions, how to have a good day, for many years in the corporate world, in your previous life, and also today? I mean why is it that people are so disengaged in the workforce at the moment?
I think perhaps every generation has said this, but if you think about the uncertainties that people face with the changes that technology has wrought in the last 20 years, and probably will go even further in the next few decades as artificial intelligence and machine learning become more and more part of our working lives. There is this enormous sense of uncertainty, recession coming after recession, but there’s also complexity. I think that when you think about the number of minutes a day that people are spending, connected to others through technology, through messaging, through of emails, it’s dramatically different to that of 20 years ago and that adds up to a workload which is sort of alongside the existing workload that sort of is properly in your job description. So we’re kind of almost running these two days in parallel, the day where we kind of doing our work, and the day where we’re trying to stay connected and on top of all the relationships and demands of it that are facing us, in a way that there’s much more always on than it used to be. I think that that’s part of it, and I think also a lot of people don’t feel all that connected to the overall purpose of what their organization might be trying to do, and typically not that much a part of the day-to-day conversations that we have at work, what’s really the purpose and the meaning of the work that we’re doing, and psychology is quite clear on this, that actually we all feel more motivated and engage that we feel like what we’re doing mean something, it’s worth something. It doesn’t have to be changing the world, but just having a sense that what you do is not pointless, and to feel that you have some mastery and that you have some good quality relationships around you, these are the things that we know are deeply, deeply motivating to human beings. A lot of them are little under pressure right now.
Yeah, and the good news is, I mean the book is all about helping people get control of their day–
And putting them into the driver’s seat. Your point around the level of complexity, I mean I was struck by the section on overload or dealing with overload, that was your longest summary list of the whole book, which I thought was really interesting because we are all facing, as you say, I mean I haven’t heard it put this way but two days rolled into one. We got the parallel day of these things coming at as plus the day job. But wait, we can get into that in a minute. So for people who are beginning to feel already overwhelmed by the subject matter, let’s try to empower people a little bit. The way I look at– I mean just to summarize the book, I think there are three segments and then we can dive into it. If that’s okay Caroline? There’s three sections, you got the foundational stuff which is the priorities and the proactivity, then you’ve got for each task you map– you go through a series of approaches or strategies for dealing with relationships, for thinking, for creativity, for influencing, and then you’ve got throughout the day, how do you handle your resilience and your energy levels, and at the end you throw in some wonderful sort of bonus sessions on email and meetings which are the bane of many of our lives. But if we can get start with priorities, and maybe we can with this idea of the filters because there’s a wonderful example of the gorilla in the lung experiment which hopefully, I’m sure you– there’s so many great scientific examples in the book, can you just explain the thinking behind the filters and this wonderful experiment of all these people who failed to notice a gorilla in a lung.
Well, you’ve done a great job of picking out the many important theme of the book, which is that everybody has more slightly more, and sometimes quite a lot more control than they think of the things that’s already fixed. The science or the behavioral science, neuroscience, psychology behavior-like moments is really quite a rich source of optimism on that front. This is a great example. So it turns out that our conscious brain can actually only process a part of the reality that’s going around us at any typical environment. So what that means is that you are hearing some of what’s happening, and you’re missing a great deal. What happens is that your subconscious brain, what I call the automatic system is automatically filtering out a ton of stuff so that your conscious brain, what I call the deliberate system, is not overloaded. So it’s a great system really, to have this ability to kind of filter out a bunch of stuff so that your brain doesn’t get overloaded, but the thing is, there is actually a predictable rule about what gets filtered out and what gets filtered in. It turns out that whatever is top of mind for you will drive what your brain decides is relevant enough for you to notice in the next minute, and the next minute, the next minute. This leads to a really fascinating setup where actually your mood, your assumptions, your aims as you walk into a meeting, if you walk into any conversation, are going to strongly determine what you perceive, and that the gorilla study that I mentioned in the book is one of my favorite ones because it’s set in a professional context, it’s very believable.
You’ve got a bunch of radiologists at Harvard who have a stack of lung scans to go through, and they’re looking for nodules obviously, shadows, and so forth. On the last of the lung scans, there’s a gorilla printed, and the gorilla is not small, it’s 48 times the size of the average long nodule, but 83% of the radiologists do not see the gorilla, even their eye tracking devices show them looking directly at it, and despite the fact they’re trained to spot abnormalities. The question is why don’t they see the gorilla, and the answer is because it wasn’t top of the mind to them. They weren’t expecting to see a gorilla, they’re certainly weren’t planning or anything to see a gorilla, and that’s how powerful the filtering mechanism is. If we can be a bit more aware of this, this is useful not only to say– oh isnt it funny that when you buy a new car, you suddenly see all the cars on the road that are the same make. That’s an example of this top of mind effect. But the same can be true if getting into a conversation with someone you’re expecting to be a jerk, what are you going to see if you think that they are already going to be a jerk? You’re going to see every piece of evidence that confirms that you were right to expect him to be a jerk. This is what’s known as confirmation bias. If you go in thinking, “You know what? They have been a jerk in the past possibly,” but let me actually say what is really important to me right now, what do I actually want to have top of mind as I go into this, knowing it’s going to shape what I perceive? Maybe the answer is, “Well, I really want to look out at any possible sign that they could be scope for collaboration with this person.” You go in and magically you will see more opportunities for collaboration. This is a way of almost hacking reality because this is a beautiful example of a fact that reality is something we think of as fixed, as just happening to us, actually our perception of it is quite a lot more under our control than you realize.
Fascinating. In the same section you talk about goals. Another really powerful tool I think, which certainly came out in reading as being one you use quite a lot. Is this the when-then tool around how do you set goals and intentions? Can you just say a little bit about that? Because I think we’ve got it a running example here, I think, which is quite relevant for many of us I suspect?
Well, as well as, say your deliberate system, this conscious part of your brain is the bit that’s really smart, it’s the bit that makes a conscious reasoning decisions, it’s the bit that is responsible for all the thinking and planning, and self-control, but as well as only being able to process a certain amount of information at any given time, it also gets tired easily. What that means is that if you have a really vague abstract goal like I should exercise more, that really is quite a lot of work for your brain, to have to think, well, what does that actually mean, what does that mean I need to do, when do I need to do it? You’re actually living a lot of work, lot of processing work for you brain to do. The more specific your goal is, the more likely it is that you’re actually going to be able to have it be at the front of your consciousness. So it’s much more likely that you will do some exercise if you say, “I am going to take the stairs today,” rather than, “I’m going to do some more exercise today.” You can sharpen that even more finely by defining as you say, this thing called when/then’s. The scientific literature calls them implementation intentions. The way it works is really lightening the load on your brain by saying, “When I’m in front of the elevators and I see the auction of taking the stairs and the elevators, then I will take the stairs rather than the elevators.” It sounds really kind of highly specific and yet, it is exactly what your brain needs in order to pursue goals more reliably. In fact it boosts your chances of success, research has found by about 300%.
So if you’re thinking should I go for a run, you’re way more likely to do it if you say, “When it hits 2pm, and I have my hour-long break in the middle of the day magically which I have protected, then I am going to put on my sneakers and I’m going to blah, blah, blah.” The more specific you can be, the more you can even visualize the steps you’re going to go through, you are radically more likely to actually see it through. And actually you get an even bigger boost if you think ahead about the things that are going to get in the way, of you actually being able to do. So I just said, well, that magical hour that you’ve just protected, well, we all know, we might put a block of time in our calendar and then it gets eaten away by all these things that have come in. So if you can also apply this when/then techniques, of the things that are going to get in the way, you’ve really got a recipe for personal success by saying, “When I get an email at 5 minutes to 2, which is going to derail me, then I’m going to remind myself that going for a run is going to boost my analytical capabilities and my mood, and that will much better, able to respond to their email in a brilliant fashion once I’ve had my run.”
That reminds me, David Allen we had on the show earlier on a few months ago and is referenced in the book. He obviously talks about downtime and he talks about the basic rules around email management. I think what you’ve done is you’ve actually broadened this application into the standard working day versus just dealing with stuff as it comes in which is, as you say, I think the potential of a transformation is significant.
One thing I’m interested in, as a former partner of McKinsey, working in boardrooms, is this kind of language bringing in neuroscience and some things that might have been seen as being somewhat sort of quirky several years ago, but which are becoming more mainstream. How are these resonating in your client base of Fortune 100 executive suites for instance? Are people ready to embrace this kind of language and really put some of these things into place?
I think so. I had a first career as an economist, and before I went to McKinsey I spent 12 years there. During my time at McKinsey, my focus was organizational change, cultural change, leadership development, and it became so essential to my approach to refer to the scientific underpinnings because most people are pretty skeptical of woo-woo, and many people have run into very well meaning and often quite effective coaches who don’t refer to these underpinnings. They run into situations where they come to say, “Well that sounds like a good idea but I mean, come on, who’s got time for that?” So I find that using the neuroscience, the psychology, and the economics as a sort of– I don’t know, as a base to start from. It’s just really helps to open people’s minds to the possibility that changing their behavior is A, possible, and B, beneficial.
So you’re kind of talking to someone who’s got a balanced perspective on this, because of course, this is very much Mark my style and has always been central to my approach. But for me, I think it really opens the door to working with people who would otherwise have never gone near any of these behavioral change stuff.
That prompts a question, is there anything that would have made it into the book if you’d managed to find the scientific underpinnings, something that you felt has worked for you, and you’ve seen it working, but nonetheless it didn’t make the cut because you couldn’t point to Harvard research program or something? Is there any areas at the margins that you can share with us?
That’s an interesting question. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I mean there were lots of choices I had to make about what’s in the book because I did set myself several rules. One rule was that nothing could go in if it was not just supported by one study but multiple studies. That actually led to some quite difficult choices on– so for example the power posing example. There was just really one study that was done by Amy Cuddy at Harvard, and I couldn’t really put it in, just looking at one study. But then there was an enormous large scale replication effort that went on in Switzerland, but they found that the hormonal link between standing proud and tall and boosting your confidence, they didn’t find that but they did find that the association between being confident and standing tall and proud and so forth, that they did find that that was there, and so I was able to put that in the book while not talking about the chemical, the neurochemical link that Cuddy proposed. Because of a multiple replication efforts, looking at the broader connection between stunts and confidence, I was able to use that, so there was some choices there.
Another big choice was I didn’t put anything in the book unless I used it myself.
It was more of saying, “You know what? This sounds good, but have I done it myself?”
So that begs the question, just stepping back a little bit, the Innovation Ecosystem, it’s all about getting access to resources that really make a difference, so I’m looking for kind of like foundational knowledge or insight. So from your point of view Caroline, given that you’ve– there’s nothing in here that you haven’t used and you can’t swear by if you like. What’s the thing, what’s the tool, or what’s the approach, or let’s say, the mindset that’s made the biggest difference for you in your daily life?
That’s a great question. As I say, I do use all of these, all of the tips in the book, and probably about a hundred science-based tips. You can turn to whatever you need to turn to, whenever you’re in need. So if you got to a tough meeting later today, you can turn to chapter 9 on managing tensions. So I do dart about myself depending on what’s most needed. I do think that for me, it has been transformational to understand that most people’s behavior is not caused by them being an evil being. That actually– statistically unlikely that they’re actually a psychopath, and that most bad behavior is caused by someone’s brain being on the defensive, and then getting a lot smarter and thinking not only what could be causing that but simply actually just asking the question, “Huh! They’re behaving badly. I wonder what’s put them on as offensive?” is often enough to stop the focus being personally very offended by this, to okay, how do we move the situation forward?
I’ve been working on a lot of this stuff for so many years myself but a lot of this has become very routine, very internalized to me, and that was probably the biggest thing for me, it was to stop taking bad behavior as a kind of the dire commentary on the state of human nature, and possibly on myself, and to realize that actually we’re all juggling a ton of stuff and many of us are not at our best when we’re under pressure. There are good neuroscientific reasons for that and actually there are ways to unravel that when you’re in a conversation where you see that in someone else.
Interesting. Yeah. So if we can switch then Caroline, the audience, is they’re interested in innovation, leadership and change. So there’s a section, and part of that is creating the space which we’ve touched on earlier on a little bit, particularly this area of dealing with overload. What about the section on thinking and creativity? Maybe we can just dig into– there’s two things that struck me which I’ve got quite a lot of energy around, one is the power of questions and the other is the importance of analogy. Can you just sort of share your views on that and maybe a couple of examples of what they look like in day-to-day life, in some of your clients? What kind of breakthroughs have they got or creative juices have flowed as a result of looking at it, through their questions and their analogies?
Well, so if you think about what insight is, and I obviously don’t need to tell your audience, that’s given– this is the innovation hub of the podcast world. I think that a good way of describing it is that you need to have your brains thought patterns run along different lines. You’ve got really well-established strong neuronal connections which reflects your existing world view about past solutions and current ideas. When we’re dealing with something which is a bit tricky, the chances are, as Marshall Goldsmith said, what got us here is not going to get us there. So you actually have to think differently and you have to come up with a new idea, but the brain likes has to repeat things that is done before. So you’ve actually got a sort of wiring issue which
is that you need to encourage your brain to make different types of connections. That’s why analogy is so helpful because you essentially encourage your brain to see the same topic from a very different perspective. One time, I did it one time that I used this with some clients, going to the National Gallery in London and sitting in front of the painting and saying, “Okay, what does it say about the challenges, the leadership challenges that you’re facing?” And of course, basically a few eyebrows, but the truth is that it then starts a different type of conversation. You put yourself in a different place physically, sometimes that can be even enough to have you started to think differently. You put yourself in front of a different type of stimulus and you say, “How is this like my problem?” It doesn’t have to be anything that’s far from everyday life, as going to sit in an art gallery, it can be simply going and sitting in a– I use the example, go and sit in a busy cafe in Westfield and saying, “Okay, what’s working well here and what does that say about the challenges that I’m facing in business?” Initially it feels very creepy because your brain says, “What the hell? It’s a silly question, what are you talking about?” But actually if you stay with the question for a little while, it’s quite interesting to have the insights come. The broader question about questions is that there’s interesting quirky research to suggest that maybe you’re asking yourself a question rather than saying, “I must solve this. I must solve this. I have to fix this.” Instead of saying, “Okay. How would I fix this?” What it does is it reduces the sense of threats to your brain that makes it slightly easier to think more clearly. We know that when people are feeling under threats by– have something that feels unsolvable, it can be enough to dampen activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s the last thing you want when you try to think intelligently and creatively. So asking yourself a question, I use that all the time when I’m feeling really bogged down in something, I take a step back from them and say, “Okay. If I knew the answer what would it be?”
Yep, yep. You’re tricking, you’re hacking the brain again aren’t you? You’re hacking your reality again aren’t you?
Well the whole book is really about understanding how your brain works, understanding what it takes for it to work at its best, both cognitively and emotionally. Then eventually, being more deliberate about building a few of those conditions into your everyday lives. So absolutely, the whole thing is really a big brain hack.
Again, in the creativity section, or in that section around thinking, you talked about decision making, and the filters you referred earlier on, to the sort of cognitive biases, one of the things that I’m always interested in is the idea of a pre-mortem because this is the way of getting around an organization’s unwillingness to confront failure, or to talk about failure. Can you just talk a little bit about some examples, maybe there’s an example of performing the pre-mortem, perhaps you can just explain what a pre-mortem is to the audience? Why does this work?
So pre-mortem is a term that was coined by Gary Klein, and it’s a very powerful technique. The reason why you would want to use it is that as you say Mark, your brain is always taking shortcuts because it’s got limited processing power. So quite often, the automatic part of your brain is leaping in with quick shortcuts that we think, or we call biases, some scientists call heuristics. It’s what happens when you’re sitting in a room and everybody seems to say that this is a good idea, and so this weird groupthink comes in, your brain thinks, “Oh, I can take a little shortcut here. If everybody else says it’s a good idea then I will also say it as a good idea.” Now, this is happening below the level of consciousness.
So how can you possibly overcome these biases, these thinking biases where we’re taking these sort of subconscious shortcuts, and the answer is it helps to develop a few routines that you always go through when you’re making a big decision, and pre-mortem is one of them. It essentially works by saying, “Okay, project forward to point in the future, everything is going horribly wrong, in other words, the project is dead. What was it that killed it?“ And it’s the contrast with a postmortem way, it has gone horribly wrong. You say, “Oh my goodness. What went wrong?” Thinking ahead, forcing yourself to actually do that is quite liberating. I used it, I tell a story in the book where I used this with a company that was going through an acquisition, and they were– as a pharmaceutical company, they’re acquiring a smaller biotech, and of course, they will follow their Gantt charts and their plans, and the integration manual and so forth, but I was doing this exercise with them and what transpired very very quickly, I mean they giggled initially. I have to say, and I said, “Okay. By this time, as of headline in the FT about how terrible this acquisition was, but what was it that killed it? And very quickly, we moved from laughing to– oh actually, it was because we didn’t even think about how to protect their sub-culture which is much more innovative and fast moving than our own. We just decided that we’re going to impose one of our systems and processes on them. It’s the sort of thing the moment you thought of it sounds absolutely blindingly obvious, but your brain would skip around it because it’s hard if you don’t actually take a moment to think about it.
So it’s a really great thing to do with a team. When you’re sitting and then you’re at the point where you think, “Yes. We’ve nailed it. We’ve so nailed it,” and then you stop and say, “Okay, let’s have some fun with this.” You have to, perhaps put a positive wrapper around it. Let’s say, “Okay. In five years time, imagine that this is one of the worst things we’ve ever been involved with.”
Well, it’s lovely way of smuggling in the risk of failure or the prospect of failure, and then reverse engineering it so you avoid it right?
This acquisition? But it doesn’t have to be just a big self like that. It can be just I’ve done this with the team before going into a big meeting with a client, just saying okay. Imagine this is going horribly wrong, what’s probably causing that, and then being able to head that off, and be thoughtful about it ahead of time.
So beginning to sort of wrap up, because there’s so much in here, but we talked about filters earlier on Caroline, that now– hacking your own filters, then there’s also a section around influencing and getting through other people’s filters. There was something in here which really interested me. I guess, I’d love to unpack this and understand how you do it, but I think one of your, sort of– one of the questions you ask when you’re talking to someone is will someone feel like taking the message that you’re giving them or you’re sharing with them and taking it and sharing it with others. Can you just explain a little bit about how that works and if this is the discipline that you use, then just explain how you– maybe give an example because I have a feeling this is very powerful.
First things first, I really do hope that this is a book that people will use and share with other people. There is a kind of secret manifesto buried in it which is that I do believe the working life can be both kinder and more enjoyable, and more productive and high performing. I do believe that if we understood more about human nature and the basic tricks of how our brains work, that actually all of us have within reach this opportunity to make working life better. So I do, I’m glad to say that I do get a lot of comments from people who have used this for their teams, and also with their organizations. One of the things that I have tried to do in the book is to take my own advice and to say– actually we know that people really need personal– we need a human face on something in order to take it seriously. That sounds a bit funny because so many of our presentations are sort of we think we’ve got to have the data really locked down, the case where it has to be very clear. That’s true, and people really, really respond to human stories in a way that it’s quite basic. I think it’s more– is increasingly well-known, but I still don’t see that understanding, translating into the way that most presentations are given. So I’m not saying don’t have the data, but I am saying put a human face on it.
Like what we’re saying, for example, imagine that your mother is walking through the store and she is experiencing this different layout, blah blah blah. We’ve got a very different level of engagement immediately in how you’re conveying the idea of a store revamp to your colleagues, than if you were simply looking at– well, here are the number of products that we’re going to shift in a– here is this incredible chart. So it’s an and, you need a data to be in the human stories and so I was very conscious of it the whole way through. I didn’t want it to be just a narrative book that has all these stories and there’s loads of books like that. I really wanted the science to be there and the practical advice to be there, but I really looked for a great personal story to illustrate everything in the book. I do that in my talks and my speeches too, even when I’m like being inclined to geek out about about, “Oh here’s another study, let me tell you about another study, and another study,” to actually just give– An example is you’re very good in drawing out in your podcasts, to actually draw a practical example, that’s the advice that I need to take every single day and then trying to get the word out about the secret manifesto.
So I found the quote now while you’re talking, the Innovation Ecosystem to be fair, that’s why I’m so keen to have you on the show because this is what we’re doing across the whole range of areas. This book that you’ve written, I think summarizes so much of the landscape and the waterfront in such a compelling way, that’s why I’m so keen to have you on the show. But here’s the quote Caroline, you ask yourself, “Are people going to feel like telling someone else what I told them?” If I read this correctly, this is the question you ask yourself before you make a pitch to someone right?
It’s quite a hard question to answer I suspect isn’t it?
So I was on a panel at a conference last week and I was thinking about this as I went on stage. People are more interested in having an example to share than having me deliver the most polished set of sentences in a row. So I think about that every time I’m in a position to convey an example. This conference was in Chicago, it was The Economist’s future of work conference and we were on panel talking about how to think about different HR practices to engage staff more fully. I was I think, much bolder in sharing my own examples of things that have happened to me in my own career, than I would have been 10 years ago before I knew this research. It really is part of being an engaging communicator to I think about how can I– it might not be that you want to share your own example, or may not be, you want to talk about your mother, but you can. At the very least talk about, a customer, and personalize that customer or you talk about an employee or a colleague and give that person a name and talk about how what you’re proposing is going to really make a difference with this person. It just engages people’s brain from a really different way.
So final question before I come to my three questions I sent out earlier on Caroline, so what do you really struggle with on that note of disclosure? Where’s your edge, if you like, of these tools and of these approaches?
It’s interesting. So I am– I, not even I would say a night owl, I’m a vampire, I am so far from being an early chronotype, but I’m very interested in the fact that most research has been done doesn’t really distinguish between people’s chronotypes. You just starting to see a few more studies coming through about whether you’re an early person or a late person, and it has a huge impact on the advice that you really want to take in shaping your day because I read these studies that say, “Oh, the best time to make a decision is 9am.” That might be true on average but it’s not true in my life. So for me, the big challenge, I’ve always had throughout my life is how to get a morning routine that is realistic, sustainable, and that works for me. Sometimes people expect me to have this sort of incredibly elaborate routine in the morning, and really it’s very simple. It is setting intentions, it is that point about being clear about what I want to have on top of mind as I go into the day. It is really important I think to know yourself and know what’s going to work best for you.
I’ve manage to make my way through my life despite this desire to really go to sleep at 3am and wake up at –
But it’s only by really knowing myself and being willing to be kind to myself, and thinking about how to apply it by– sometimes it’s seems quite standard out there for people on how to perform at your best.
I guess one of the points there is that there’s a lot in here– not all of these approaches will work for everyone but there’s enough in here for everyone to find something that makes a difference.
I’ve said I have loads of filters about what I put in the book. One of the things I didn’t mentioned is that I only put something in the book that have worked for multiple people in different contexts and cultures and industries and so forth. So that was really important to me. I was trying to create something which was this, as universal as possible. So I’m a bit different to some people in this space. You say, “You must go back to the example, you must take your decisions at 9am,” I don’t say that. I say, “Develop some self-awareness, here’s the principle?” which is that decision making is tiring for your brain. Think about your cognitive peak. Now, think about how you can get some good single-tasking focus time around that time for you. So I try and give people the principles so that they can then think about how to apply it in their own lives, knowing their own constraints, perhaps family constraints not just to do with your personality or your chronotype, and thinking about how is it practically possible for me to incorporate this into my life. I try to leave people some space and assume that they are grown ups and can actually think about what will work best for them.
Final question. In the book I think you referred to yourself as a lifelong learner, very very curious, somewhere I made notes around this new research into how the resting brain and how it process information. Where are you focusing your energy now? Is in that area or other areas where the new frontier of pushing your knowledge in this whole space, or have you got a completely different project on the go? I’m just wondering where– it is such a remarkable book and it’s so broad and it’s so deep, and I’m just wondering where your energy is now?
My energy, the book– sometimes people say, “What’s the next book?” and I say, “This is kind of a bit of a life’s work.” This is what my work is, of taking behavioral science make me at useful for people and helping them apply it. So I am still staying broad and I keep on reading around all of the controversial new issues about replication efforts. I think that the work on the default mode network, which is another term for the resting brain that’s absolutely fascinating. I think that for me, I just try to kind of stay on top of where all of it is going, and it is a bit ridiculous sometimes, I do feel like gosh you know– it does involve a lot of reading, but it’s what I find fascinating. I’m always interested in looking out for new science that might say something to how we can have better lives. It’s sort of a non answer in a way because it’s just more of the same, but it is what I enjoy. So I’m continuing out there across all fronts.
Okay, brilliant. So finally the three questions. What have you changed your mind about recently Caroline?
Well, linking to what I’ve just said, there is this big upheaval in psychology in particular, looking at old studies that have become somewhat iconic but perhaps weren’t constructed in a way that allow them to be as rigorous as current scientific methods allow. I think that either this whole area of feedback loops between the body and the mind, so the fact of– I used to say, “When we smile, it’s usually a sign that we’re happy, but if we smile, it can also make us feel happy.” Same with power posing, when we are confident, we stand tall, it turns out when we stand tall, we’re also confident. The same with breathing, when we’re relaxed, we breathe deeply, when we breathe deeply we’d become relaxed. So we know that these loops exist but there’s been a huge upheaval in the descriptions of how that link occurs, and I was a little bit agnostic about in the book because I could see this debate coming from early discussions. I really now come down on the side of thinking that it’s really about the associative nature of our brains that we have so many stored associations. When we hear a happy song that we associate with an amazing night out, it boosts our mood, and I think that’s really the center of what’s going on with these physical feedback loops. I would be harder edged in saying that that’s what I think is going on now. So that’s a rather technical answer but it’s a good example for the fact that you have to stay open, and if you’re kind of interested in science, the whole idea of science is that you..
In the book, there’s a theme which we didn’t touch on, the idea of rewarding yourself for actually doing the right thing. That comes out in a number of areas. I think to your point around, it’s the emotional content with which you make a decision or whether which you think about something, that often sort of sustains the energy behind the decisions you made. I dont know about the science but certainly there’s lots of evidence that does suggest, in my life anyway, that if you attach strong levels of positive emotions to activities that reinforces them far more strongly I suspect.
Yeah, it’s very simple actually. I mean the brain likes to repeat things that feel rewarding. So if you set yourself a goal that is unrealistic, and then fail at it, and then you feel a bit crappy about it, then it’s not a great recipe for having another go. It’s much better to pick– you might have a lofty overall intention to kind of, I don’t know, let’s say become more attentive in your conversations so that– maybe you’ve been that told that you’ve really taken a lot of air time, that it will be great if you might develop a better capacity to listen and to coach your colleagues rather than just tell them what to do. Okay. So then just declare that in every conversation you’re going to be the best possible coach and then to kind of fail at that in the first hurdle because it’s really overturning habits. Yeah, it doesn’t feel great, it’s much better to say, in the next conversation, I’m just going to notice when I’m speaking and when I’m not. Pick a tinier goal, much tinier goal, and you’re much more likely to succeed and then feel good about that, and then move on to the next thing. So, and the same thing goes with, I’m a big fan of trying to get people to do more single-tasking rather than multitasking because that’s actually what your conscious brain is capable of. You can’t do two things at once, and you slow yourself down massively if you try to multitask, many more times, more areas. People often say, “Right. I’ve read about the single-tasking thing so I’m going to try 30 minutes,” and then they can’t do it and it feels awful, instead of doing it again. I say start with 5 minutes, build up from there. So I really do feel that the more you can pick something small and make you feel good then more likely you are to build that into your life.
Second question, what do you do to remain creative and innovative? You talked about taking clients to the National Portrait gallery, what other things do you do personally to keep the creative juices flowing?
Just try and keep a broad set of interest that knowing that stepping away from– back to your comment about the resting brain, stepping away from work is a really good way of encouraging greater insights, as when you come back to it with fresh eyes. So I sing, and I prioritize my choir rehearsal every week, I read fiction to try and take myself out of the onslaught of the nonfiction science writing that I’m getting through every week, and I just try to make sure that there’s a balance in my life, that I’m really prioritizing friends and family, that I’m seeing that all is part of a whole, as part of the balanced life. I think that that’s really the answer for me in how to stay fresh, stay innovative.
And finally, to what do you attribute your success in life? I mean are there specific skills, habits, and mindsets that you’ve mastered. Some of them I guess we’ve touched on already, but anything you’d like to pull out?
Well that’s a big question isn’t it? Well, you mentioned curiosity, I do think that that is kind of central– I remember the first time I did want to do some strength tests, where you try to identify your distinctive strengths and love of learning is definitely, at the top of that. So yeah, I think– I have a specific curiosity about how ideas link to each other. I would sort of hone in on that because I think a lot of people might describe themselves as curious that they become quite associated with one particular set of ideas. For me it’s more about looking across ideas and seeing how they connect. I suppose you’d probably see that in the book. I suppose also persistence. Sometimes people asked me how I’m into that, to write a book, and I say who he is, and their jaw drops, and I think God’s will, and actually the answer is 15 really. I think practicality. I love ideas but what I really care about is making them practical and actually applying them. I don’t mean just in terms of the book, I think I’ve always been like that. As an economist, I was reading a lot about these theories about the economy and saying, “Yeah, the models don’t really work, do they?” So I really really– I think it’s sort of persistence and practicality, as well as curiosity.
And that does come out of the book. I mean there are lots of great tools and checklists in the book, so clearly, we’ll put all these in the show notes and a link to the book. Where can people get in touch with you Caroline?
I have a website which is carolinewebb.co. I will say it’s not .com. There were tons and tons of Caroline Webb’s in the world it turns out. So no, it’s carolinewebb.co and there are few different resources that people might like. There’s a quiz which is a great way to engage your colleagues in thinking about some of these topics. There’s a free, first chapter of the book you can download, and you can signup for my newsletter because I’m always putting out new thoughts on how to turn science into practical applications. So if you’re interested in anything that you’ve heard today then you can get more of that by subscribing to the newsletter.
Wonderful. I think you’re also on Twitter and LinkedIn and we can put those things in the show notes as well.
Yes. Definitely. I’m very active on Twitter and on the– I have a professional Facebook page where there’s a little bit more discussion that happens and if possible on Twitter.
Super. We’ll put that in the show notes. It has been a great pleasure to have you on the show. As I say Caroline, I was very keen to get you on. I know you’ve been very busy and we’ve got some friends in common who helped get us together, but I’m sure our audience enjoyed it as much as I did, and thanks very much for your time today.
Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Okay. Have a good day.
Thank you, you too.