Wall Street Journal: Nine Ways to Make Your Work Day Better

By Bruce Daisley, originally published on the Wall Street Journal

Is it reasonable to expect to enjoy your job? That’s a question many of us have wrestled with, often as we lie awake with anxious thoughts about our careers. A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 61% of respondents chose work as their top source of anxiety.

Steve Jobs famously once argued, “You’ve got to love what you do.” It’s one of those casual exhortations (most easily made by a billionaire) that can leave anyone feeling inadequate.

But work doesn’t have to be awful. We could bring back satisfaction to our work by alleviating some of the excess stresses of our professions. Here are nine interventions from the book, based on workplace research.

1 | Have a ‘Monk Mode’ Morning
Modern work is beset with interruptions—and experts argue that it can take up to eight minutes to get back into a concentrated state again after any distraction.

One study suggested that among software engineers working on five projects concurrently, 75% of their time was lost to switching mentally between them—leaving only 5% work attention per project amid the fog of “attention residue.”

When we can avoid distraction we can surprise ourselves with the brain power we can unlock. Writer Cal Newport calls this mental flow “Deep Work,” and says he is seeing more entrepreneurs—especially CEOs of small startups—use an hour or two at the start of the day for depth work. To safeguard the time, they might say, “I’m reachable starting at 11 a.m.” Even setting aside 90 minutes of focus once or twice a week can be astonishingly productive.

2 | Celebrate Headphones
The issue of headphones really divides offices, doesn’t it?

It has become popular to blame younger workers for some of the things bosses don’t like, such as the use of headphones. Some critics argue they are detrimental to interactions with colleagues and a sense of collective purpose. In reality, offices that allow headphones can be considerably more productive—and workers feel happier when they’re able to tune out and get work done. So maybe rather than banning headphones, teams could be allowed to set times when they want to be more focused.

Ben Waber, founder of workplace-analytics company Humanyze, office conversations tend to be already clustered around certain times of day, around lunch and before people leave at the end of the day. Those times could be designated as headphone-free zones.

3 | Go for a Walking Meeting
Sitting at a desk—or in meetings—can contribute to us feeling drained. By contrast, for many people, going for a walk re-energizes our weary bodies and gets our creative synapses pinging.

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz from Stanford University, who studied the effect of walking on creativity, found that 81% of participants saw their scores for giving creative suggestions go up when they were walking rather than sitting.

Suggesting a “walking meeting” to a colleague can be awkward at first, and some may be more receptive than others. But stick with it and try different time lengths.

Where we walk also matters. Another study, in 2012, suggested that a 50-minute walk out in the open could aid subsequent concentration and work as a sort of palate cleanser for the mind.

4 | Launch ‘Meeting-Free’ Days
Through the scientific investigation of Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we’ve been able to learn what actions in offices genuinely lead to breakthroughs in creativity—or even lead to increases in output.

One of Mr. Pentland’s discoveries was that while meetings contributed about 2% of what got done at work, face-to-face conversation contributed almost 20 times as much.

So allowing the data to point the way, finding a way to identify meetings that are unlikely to be productive and cancel them could propel you to better results. “Meeting-Free Tuesday” starts here.

5 | Replace Presenting With Reading
Take it from Jeff Bezos : Big presentations are all about bombast and bold fonts. At Amazon, meetings start in silence as each attendee reads a document prepared for subsequent discussion. “We don’t do PowerPoint…presentations at Amazon,” Mr. Bezos proclaimed in a letter to shareholders. “Instead we write narratively structured six-page memos.”

At one level, this sounds horrific. Suddenly, we’re back at school, unnerved by the kid next to us requesting more paper as we nervously turn the first page. But the science backs Mr. Bezos’ instincts—the driving force of decision-making and problem-solving at meetings is engaged discussion, not someone bossing it at PowerPoint.

A team from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Union College that split nearly 700 people into small groups and gave them a series of different puzzles to solve found that the unsuccessful teams tended to be dominated by one or two powerful members, while in the successful groups each person spoke in roughly equal measure.

Replacing presenting with thoughtful reflection and discussion can be one way to improve meetings.

6 | Operate a No-Fly Zone for Weekend Email
More than they realize, bosses shape the lives of the people they work with. Researchers from Microsoft found that for every hour managers put in doing visible work outside normal hours (say, emailing on a Sunday or weekday evening), their direct reports would clock 20 minutes each.

The evidence for benefits of being constantly connected isn’t good: Half of all workers who check their email outside work hours show signs of being highly stressed.

Interestingly, the relationship between time spent working and output isn’t linear. Stanford Professor John Pencavel found that workers produced more in a 48-hour week than they did in a 56-hour week. By taking more breaks, workers were more productive.

Agreeing that everyone stays off weekend email can go a long way against burnout.

7 | Ban Phones from Meetings
We all know that our phones demand our attention, and it seems that even their very presence is a terrible distraction.

One recent experiment involved getting respondents about to do a test to either place their phones facedown in front of them, keep it in their bag, or leave it in a different room. Those who left their devices in another room performed substantially better on the test.

As the lead researcher explained, “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but the process of requiring yourself to not think about something uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

The cognitive drain is even more marked when we’re switching between our screens and the real people in the room. Banning phones can help turn meetings into genuine face-to-face interactions.

8 | Grab a Coffee with a Colleague
We normally associate accountability with strict, directive cultures in which a sense of fear drives us to work to the highest standards. But Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade has championed the notion that we should talk more about friendship, belonging—and (gulp) love—at work. Our standards are at their highest, she suggests, when we feel a sense of close affiliation with our group.

An empathetic connection with colleagues helps us feel more connected to our jobs. And most of us, if asked about our favorite times in our careers, would recall times of collective rapport and affection.

Workplace analytics firm Humanyze found that when colleagues took 15-minute coffee breaks together, team cohesion went up by 18% and collective productivity of the team rose by almost a quarter.

9 | Laugh, Socialize
Mark de Rond, an ethnographer who spent six weeks embedded in a field hospital in Afghanistan, said that despite an onslaught of casualties, there was a morbid humor to the surgery-team dynamic. Survival expert Laurence Gonzales suggests that laughing cements a sense of positivity, of resilience even in the bleakest situation. While most of our workplaces don’t feel like warzones, it’s clear that humor helps us cope and stay sane.

Professor Robert Provine, perhaps the world’s leading expert on laughter, says that just like birds sing to each other or wolves howl together, humans laugh to connect with one another, to achieve synchronization. “Laughter is the quintessential human social signal,” he says.

Laughter allows us to be a bit freer with our ideas, because we’re not simultaneously worrying about how we come across to others. Allowing the postweekend chatter to play itself out for another moment or two on Monday and celebrating the benefits of coffee breaks creates a safer space at work.

Last Updated 01 February 2022