Even in jobs we like, we all know that there can be moments of drama, stress and disappointment. On top of that, many of us face increasing uncertainty in our working environments, as waves of technological and political change break around us.
But there’s some good news. Advances in behavioural science are showing us that we have more control over our day-to-day experience of working life than we might think. Here are some science-backed tactics to lift your spirits, sharpen your mind and put some energy back in the tank whenever you most need it.
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- Become intentional with your Brain “filters”
Let’s start with the most profound tip first. Your brain can only consciously process a portion of the information around you at any given time. So to perform more effectively, your brain filters out a great deal without you even being aware of it. And there’s a pattern to what gets filtered in and out. You tend to notice things that resonate with whatever’s already top of mind for you. So: walk into a meeting in a bad mood, and your brain will make sure you see and hear things that confirm that people are mischievous. Meanwhile, you’ll likely miss some of the more positive stuff entirely. Well it is interesting to know that it doesn’t take much to reset your filters. Take 10 seconds before your next conversation to ask yourself what really matters most, and where you want to focus your attention. Decide to look for signs that your colleagues are great – and oddly, you’ll see more of their great qualities.
- Be kind to others, and to yourself
When you’re feeling worn down, it can seem counterintuitive to decide to give someone else a boost. You rather choose to be left alone. Yet research has shown that being generous and kind to others instantly boosts our own feelings of well-being. So if you’re feeling drained, do something unexpectedly nice for someone else. It doesn’t matter who, and it doesn’t have to be a lot. Give an unexpected compliment, or help someone who’s struggling with a heavy bag. Then notice how good you feel about yourself and the world in general.
- Adopt a learner’s mindset.
Your brain gets a boost from learning new things – and it turns out that the “new thing” doesn’t have to be very exciting to give your brain a feeling of reward. So, when you are faced with a less-than-perfect situation, it’s strangely helpful to decide to look for something interesting to take from it. For example, perhaps you’re going to for a job interview. Ask yourself: “What fascinating thing can I learn from this?” Maybe you’ll try to figure out how well you have improved your communication skill, or decide to learn how to stay calm in the face of provocation. Get curious, and you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.
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- Stay cool through distancing.
When we’re feeling uncomfortably stressed, research has found that there’s less activity in our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for sophisticated reasoning. That’s why we’re more likely to say silly things under pressure. But studies have found that we can instantly reduce our stress levels in the heat of the moment by doing something called “distancing” – that is, looking at the situation as if from a distance. For example, we can ask ourselves: “When I look back on this in a year’s time, what will I think?” Or we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes: “What would I advise a friend in my situation?” By reducing the state of alert in our brains, distancing makes it easier to make smart choices (and wittier comments). Another advantage to this is that being able to look at events from an outsider perspective help develop your emotion intelligence.
- Manage uncertainty by amplifying the certainties.
Negative experiences have been found to hit us harder when they’re coupled with uncertainty about what’s going on. However, research has shown that a powerful antidote to unpleasant unpredictability is to refocus on the things that you do know and do control – no matter how small they are. For example, if you going to meet a client in another state you haven’t been to, there may be unpleasant uncertainties on how it’s going to turn out. But you can amplify the fact that you’ll get to visit this new city for the first time. This technique has been found to help people even in dramatically uncertain circumstances – for example in combat or facing natural disasters – so it’s a safe bet that it can help you navigate unexpected potholes in a work environment.
- Remind yourself of the personal “why”.
A sense of personal purpose – knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – has been found to boost people’s emotional resilience. But sometimes we can get disconnected from the point of it all, especially if a piece of work has been created by someone else and then imposed on us. So take a look at that annoying task that’s on your plate and ask yourself a few questions. “What’s ultimately possible as a result of me getting this done? And what’s the bigger benefit of that? And why do I care about that, at least a little?” Sometimes you have to push through some snark in your own head at first but a few moments of reflection can usually make even dull to-dos feel vaguely meaningful.
- Work the peak-end effect
When we assess the quality of an experience, that we don’t evaluate every single moment. We tend to identify with an average of the most intense moment – good or bad – and the end point. The Peak-End rule is based on the fact that our perceptions about an experience are determined by how it feels at its most intense, and how it feels at the end. For instance, when someone ask how your day went, you are not likely to remember the details of the activities of the day. Instead you are drawn to more characteristic moments – that is the peak and the finish.
This peak-end effect means that it’s oddly powerful to end each evening on a high, by quickly reviewing the good things that have happened during the day. However tiny the triumphs, this moment of reflection creates a permanent boost to the way we rate the day in our mind. And that’s a pretty powerful trick. After all, our memories ultimately become the way we view our lives.
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