Are there any common elements that result in having a really good day at work, school or university?
Whether you get to the end of the day and say “What an awesomely productive day!” or “What a waste of a day” often comes down to a few factors that are within our personal control.
Based on empirical research, my own experience and some informal qualitative research conducted on Facebook, I have compiled a list of the core elements of an “awesome day”.
1. Have a good breakfast
A good breakfast sets you up for the day. Dietician and performance specialist Julie Meek discusses the importance of filling your body or tank full of the right petrol to get you through the day. She states –
“If you look at your day as a football game and divide it into quarters, you will be able to fuel your body with the right foods at the right time”.
So what constitutes a good breakfast? Julie Meek recommends high fibre cereals with low fat milk, fresh fruit, wholegrain toast with baked beans, spaghetti, tomato or egg, and yoghurt.
2. Have creative, focused work time
Reserve the hours when you are most alert and energised for the projects that require substantial energy and are most important to you.
I have the most energy first thing in the morning. By getting solid work done between 8:30am and 10:30am creates a positive tone for the rest of my day.
On the other hand, if I spend the first few hours of the day checking my email and on Facebook, I usually end up experiencing some low level frustration and annoyance for the rest of the day.
3. Shower first thing in the morning and suit up
Have you ever had the experience where you worked from home in your pyjamas or tracksuit pants for most of the day? Initially, it may have felt good, but by around 11am you may have felt a little uncomfortable and stressed. Your productivity may have also started to suffer.
When you don’t look and feel your best very rarely do you produce good quality work. Feeling clean and being in fresh neat clothes signals to your brain – it’s business time.
4. Exercise for 1 hour each day
Most of us don’t move as much as we need to during the day at work. Sadly, because we live such sedentary lives we may not know just how good post-exercise endorphin boosts can be.
Research shows that movement helps us to be more creative, learn more effectively and decreases our stress levels.
In the book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen states –
“30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least 3 times a week can contribute to enhanced mood, increased brain mass, better circulation, more brain cells and improved cognition”.
5. Focus on one thing at a time
People who multitask can be up to 40% slower to finish a task. As Leo Babauta states –
“When we switch between creating and communicating through email, say, we lose a little bit of our creative time, a little bit of our creative attention, each time we switch. Our mind must switch between modes, and that takes time. As a result, our creative processes are slowed and hurt, just a little, each time we switch”.
It takes time to develop the art of ninja style focus. Initially, you may need the help of a few extra tools such as internet blocker programs (e.g. Self Control and Freedom) but with time and practice, you will become less reliant on them.
6. Create a compelling, clutter free workspace
If your work environment overwhelms you and doesn’t draw you to it, then you have a problem – you’re not going to want to work there. Chances are you’re not going to want to work at all.
So clean up your act. De-junk your life. In other words, get organised. As the authors of “Paper Flow” state–
“Having a well organised office provides you with a solid foundation and gives you the confidence to pursue your dreams…As each opportunity comes along, you can decide with a clear head what you want to do. You are free to take on new opportunities and you know when you’ve got enough on your plate”.
7. Do a variety of activities – writing, reading, de-cluttering
We’re all familiar with the saying “Variety is the spice of life”. Well, there is now scientific evidence to back this statement up. According to research, variety in our thoughts and behaviours appears to be very rewarding and stimulating and humans tend to “habituate more slowly to pleasurable stimuli that vary” (Chancellor & Lyubomirsky, 2010).
Even if you need to focus your energies on a particular piece of work, you can break it up by taking 10 to 20 minutes de-cluttering, skimming an article or making phone calls throughout the day. By mixing up your activities, it may also help you to go back to the project with a new perspective.
8. Take regular breaks
You are not a machine. Your body is not designed to work non stop being fuelled by sugar and caffeine. Taking regular breaks is essential.
Often when I work with students I show them a picture of Cathy Freeman and ask them “What does a sprinter do?” They respond with “They run…really fast”. “Then what do they do?” I ask, to which they usually say “They rest”. The students understand the idea that athletes use work-rest ratios to perform at their peak. Without that rest, they wouldn’t run as fast as they do.
Studying and working is no different. If you want to learn and/or work effectively you need to treat yourself like a word class athlete training for the Olympics – work intensely for a period of time (e.g. 30-45 minutes) and then rest and recover. Tony Schwartz from the energy project states –
Give yourself 100% to the race. There will be an end point where you can stop and recover”.
9. Stock up on healthy snacks
To avoid feeling low in energy, make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks available. Fresh fruit, nuts, chopped vegetables, rice crackers with cheese, fruit bread and a tub of low fat yoghurt require very little (if any) preparation and will give you the energy you need to keep going throughout the day.
Avoid highly processed junk foods because they will slow you down, make you feel sluggish and maybe even depressed in the long run. Research by Dr Felice Jacka suggests that people who eat junk food are more likely to be depressed. Whilst it is early days for this research and we cannot say whether depressed people are more likely to eat junk food or if junk food makes people depressed, it is worth considering that what we put in our mouths effects the way we feel as well as our ability to think and work effectively.
10. Focus your mind
In our fast paced, busy lives very rarely do we take time to stop and reflect or simply sit still. Taking 5-10 minutes first thing in the day to sit quietly and focus on your breath or the sounds around you can help you to quieten and focus your mind for the day. As Dr Ian Gawler says –
“The more we learn to give our full attention to whatever or whoever we are engaged with, the better everything flows”.
Of course, the above list isn’t comprehensive. Other elements may include laughter (as a friend said “At least one opportunity a day to laugh about something – even if it’s just a chuckle to myself”), a good sleep the night before or power nap and a decent cup of coffee.
To begin, perhaps choose one or two of these awesome day elements to test out and see what kind of difference they make. You’ll be surprised that even minor changes such as eating more healthy snacks throughout the day can have a significant positive impact on your day.