Upon arriving home after work, I’m usually confronted with an assessment of my day with the simple question, “How was your day?” Many of us give a short content free answer. “Good.” “Bad.” “Okay.” “Fine.” “Boring.” “Nothing but meetings all day.” “Frustrating.” “Difficult.” “Don’t ask.”
Sound familiar? We don’t give this question much thought, but we should. What’s interesting is that we generally provide an emotional response describing how we feel by the end of the day versus actually assessing our day. (It’s easier to vent.) Facts rarely enter into this response, but if they did, the answer would be quite different. A day of work has many aspects and rarely is it all bad or all good. We emphasize the negative and deemphasize the positive, making ourselves feel worse as a result.
We don’t know the facts of our day, because our minds are not geared toward keeping an accurate accounting of what really happened.
Cognitive psychologists have provided mountains of evidence over the last twenty years that memory is unreliable. And to make matters worse, we show staggering overconfidence in many recollections that are false. It’s not just that we remember things wrongly (which would be bad enough), but we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly, doggedly insisting that the inaccuracies are in fact true. [i]
As a result of not remembering the facts, we fall back on our feelings, and since bad events take up too much of our mindshare, we exaggerate our bad feelings way out of context of the actual event(s), and respond to the question “How was your day?” with “Crappy.”
Do you want to feel better and be happier with your day? Then my recommendation is to end every day by answering this question for yourself. How was your day? In order to make this question effective, you’ll need to reframe the way you answer the question (more on that shortly). Doing so will change your opinion about your work and your accomplishments. It also has a remarkable effect on your attitude. If nothing else, you will realize how many things you did today. I guarantee you’ll feel much better at the end of the day, and start the next day with a much better attitude.
When you answer this question honestly each day, you are, to paraphrase, creating a “progress loop” a self-reinforcing process in which progress and inner work life fuel each other. The more progress you can see and feel, the better your inner work life feels which then fuels more progress the next day. Teresa Amabile, the Director of Research at Harvard Business School discovered what she calls “the progress principle” where you can ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work.[ii] Those are not words usually associated with most work places! It’s worth creating your own progress loops.
The good news is you already possess all the skills necessary to create these progress loops and start feeling better about your work! The first approach is to simply keep notes of activities as they happen throughout the day. Keep the notes brief and remember, nobody else will see these so they only have to be meaningful to you. Don’t try to keep verbatim notes of all events because it will be too hard. Reviewing these notes at the end of the day will take just a few minutes and you can then reflect on what you did, and really assess the good and the bad. The time and effort to do this is very small. Try it for a day or two, or for a whole week, and see how you really feel about your day!
A second approach is to write yourself an email at the end of the day listing what you did regardless of whether it was good or bad. Just list it, don’t make judgments. Send it and forget about it. At the end of the week, open up those emails and you’ll be surprised at just how much you accomplished!
What these techniques do is preserve those ephemeral details that are lost when your mind produces a summary – the summary you’re left with if you don’t capture the specifics in a concrete way. The end result of this small investment is that you have made your work visible so you can actually see and assess what you did and determine whether you made progress. If you made progress, you’ll be the happier for it, and when asked the question “How was your day?”, you will actually know!
[i] Levitin, Daniel J. PhD, The Organized Mind, New York: Dutton, 2014. Print
[ii] Amabile, Teresa, The Progress Principle, Boston: Harvard Business Review Press 2011