How to Have a Good Workday

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We know when we’re having a good day at work, but many higher education professionals don’t know how to have a good workday. We get sidetracked by other people’s priorities, our minds wander, and we fall victim to circumstance.

But here’s advice from experts in productivity, high performance, and management that can easily apply to higher education professionals to help us have a good workday.

First things first: ditch the to-do list. The oft-quoted Peter Drucker, considered the founder of modern management, wrote that effective executives do first things first and one thing at a time. You may interpret this as making a to-do list of your priorities and start crossing off tasks as you complete them.

While breaking up our responsibilities into easily manageable parts, rather than multitasking, is a wise practice, that approach lacks structure and not going a step further can lead to waywardness. You will likely put too many “priorities” on the list (if everything is important, nothing is), do the easiest tasks first, or leave yourself open to distractions, like office visitors or email notifications.

If you say, “I don’t have enough time” to do something, you actually mean “It’s not a priority to me.” Everyone has the same amount of time in a day; it’s the length of our to-do lists that vary. Instead of to-do lists, you should plan your day by the hour or half-hour increments on your calendar.

“If it doesn’t have an assigned time, it can’t happen,” said author Laura Vanderkam, a guest on a recent episode of the podcast “The Science of Success.” “(It’s) better to think about the assigned time for these tasks that you’re deciding to do, as opposed to just listing them and hoping that they will happen at some point.”

Don’t overlook when you should be doing something. Daniel Pink wrote a book, “When: The Scientific Secret of Perfect Timing,” highlighting research that people’s performance fluctuates during a day and that certain tasks should be conducted at different times of the day to increase effectiveness. “Our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day,” Pink wrote. “Time of day can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings.”

According to Pink, we don’t all experience a day the same way and each of us has a “chronotype,” a personal pattern based on sleep rhythms that determines our alertness and cognitive activity during the day. Most people are what Pink calls “third birds,” meaning our midpoint of sleep is between 3:30-6 am, but people on the extremes are either “larks” or “night owls.”

Third birds and larks experience the day in the order of three stages: peak, trough, and rebound. Nearly a quarter of us are night owls and experience a day in the order of recovery, trough, and peak.

Peaks typically occur in the morning when your mind is vigilant and you’re better equipped to handle analytical problems and avoid distractions, while the rebound stage is better for insight and creativity. The trough, in the afternoon when you could use a nap, is better for automated brain responses, like answering emails.

“If you’re an educator, know that all times are not created equal,” Pink wrote. “Think hard about which classes and types of work you schedule in the morning and which you schedule later in the day.”

Protecting your peak might be difficult for higher education professionals. You may not have the autonomy to schedule meetings or classes at optimal times or your boss may want a report that requires you to do analytical work long after your peak. The chronotypes of college-age students might not even sync with yours. Recent research from University of Nevada, Reno and The Open University in the United Kingdom shows that college students learn more effectively after 11 am

There is no perfect equation to plan a day, but being aware, maybe even keeping a log to identify patterns, will help you leverage or brace for the peaks, troughs, and rebounds in yourself and others.

Reset a bad day by serving others. Your supervisor might blow up the day you had scheduled or you might find yourself dragged into your students’ troughs.

High-performance coach and author Brendon Burchard recommends several ways to restart a bad day. Listen to music or take a walk for 20 minutes, journal about things that you are grateful for, or incentivize the end of a workday by planning dinner or buying tickets to an upcoming event.

Burchard’s best advice, however, for rebooting your day is to stop obsessing about yourself and getting into the service of others by asking yourself what you could do to give surprise attention, gratitude, or appreciation to someone around you, such as a thank-you. email or a phone call to a colleague. Higher education professionals are part of learning communities; contribute to them.

At the end of the day, identify what went well. The last word on “How to Have a Good Workday” should come from an author who literally wrote the book on it, “How to Have a Good Day.” Author Caroline Webb was also interviewed on “Science of Success” And while she acknowledges that people don’t have complete control of their workday, the parts we do control can have a significant impact on our attitude and behavior. She shares several science-based insights to help transform everyday work life, but her advice on how to end a day is particularly valuable.

Endings are important as peaks. In the peak-end rule, a psychological heuristic, peaks are the most intense point of the day. People judge their experience based on how they feel at its peak and at the end. Webb stresses that people should be more deliberate about what they notice and remember about a day.

“Look back and say, ‘OK, maybe it was a good day, maybe it was a bad day,’ but what are three good things that happened today?” Webb said. “Knowing that the way our memory works, we tend to remember only a small number of the things that actually happen to us. Directing your attention to the things that you really want to make sure you remember, perhaps even the especially important on a bad day, you often forget a few good things that might have happened.”

Not only do we forget the good things, but we often don’t realize just how much taking all the steps listed above — as tiny as they may seem — go toward having a good workday.

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