You know those days at work when nothing seems to go right? Your clients are dissatisfied, your coworkers aren’t holding up their end of the bargain and nothing you do works out the way you planned.
Don’t resign yourself to enduring until the clock hits 5 (or 6 or 7). There are things you can do to salvage a bad day — many of them only take a minute or two. Learn how to be happy at work even when times are tough.
1. Stop Spiraling
When things aren’t going your way, do you tend to focus on the negative? If so, you’re not alone. Human beings have a strong negativity bias — our brains are more likely to focus on negative news than positive. Unchecked, this can lead to catastrophizing, or predicting the worst possible outcome.
“The problem isn’t so much the catastrophic thoughts themselves, but the fact that we tend to buy into them,” writes Robin Galante at Headspace’s blog. “We believe our own stories, and we ruminate when there is no actual threat present. In other words, we create our own suffering.”
Take your bad day, for example. Let’s say it starts because you made a minor mistake — a typo on a report. If you catastrophize, you might jump from that minor error to the assumption that all of your input was invalid. And from that point, it’s easy to start thinking that you don’t know what you’re talking about, period, and fall into imposter syndrome.
At Psychology Today, Alice Boyes, Ph.D, says that the key to overcoming the tendency to catastrophize is to recognize the cognitive distortion, consider more positive outcomes, distinguish between unpleasant and catastrophic — and believe you can cope with negative events.
“If you believe you can cope with negative events, anxiety will be much less of a problem for you,” writes Boyes.
2. Do Something You’ve Been Putting Off
Need an instant mood booster? Tackle something that you’ve been meaning to do for ages but haven’t been able to get around to doing. You’ll eliminate a mild stressor and free up the brain space you’ve been using to remember that task.
3. Rewrite Your To-Do List (and Cheat a Little)
And speaking of remembering things, now’s a good time to rewrite your to-do list so that you won’t have to hold on to those undone tasks.
When you do so, consider including a task you’ve recently completed (like that thing you were putting off until just recently, for example). Instead of looking at that full list, you’ll see something that you’ve accomplished and maybe be inspired to do more.
4. Work in Sprints, Not Marathons
Want to get more done? Work for short periods of time and then take a break. At The New York Times, Tony Schwartz explains:
…it’s better to work highly focused for short periods of time, with breaks in between, than to be partially focused for long periods of time. Think of it as a sprint, rather than a marathon. You can push yourself to your limits for short periods of time, so long as you have a clear stopping point. And after a rest, you can sprint again.
How long should you work before taking a break? Research has shown that working in 90-minute intervals is the best way to maximize productivity. So, try to work for an hour and a half, then take a break.
5. Do One Thing at a Time
Think you’re an excellent multitasker? Think again. At best, you might be good at task-switching – going back and forth rapidly between multiple projects. But most people can’t truly do more than one thing at a time.
Nor should they try to do so. Task-switching is incredibly expensive, productivity-wise. To get more done, focus on one thing at a time — even if it means blocking off time on your calendar to work or moving to a conference room to get some heads-down time on a project.
6. Go Outside
Got a few minutes to spare? If you can get outside your office, even briefly, you can reset.
This is most effective if you can spend that time in nature, but if you’re not working from home in a rural area or working in an office near a park, just leaving the building can help.
Get some sun on your face. Take a couple of deep breaths. Look at something that’s farther away than your computer screen. Be in your body for a minute, instead of locked into your mind.
7. Drink Some Water
Staying hydrated helps maintain your body temperature, lubricate your joints and keep your skin healthy. It might also reduce stress.
“Studies have shown that being just half a liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels,” says Amanda Carlson, RD, in an interview with WebMD. Carlson is director of performance nutrition at Athletes’ Performance.
She continues: “Cortisol is one of those stress hormones. Staying in a good hydrated status can keep your stress levels down. When you don’t give your body the fluids it needs, you’re putting stress on it, and it’s going to respond to that.”
Plus, it’s a good way to take a break that doesn’t involve loading up on coffee or sugary snacks.
8. Exercise at Your Desk
Exercise is good for your mental health as well as your physical fitness. The Department of Health and Human Services advises adults to perform 75 minutes of aerobic activity per week, plus two sessions of strength training.
If you work way too much to even consider fitting that into your schedule, don’t despair. You can take a fitness break by stretching at your desk, swapping the elevator for the stairs, etc. It might not be training for a marathon, but it’ll help you clear your head.
9. Work in a Different Location
Ninety-three percent of workers say they’re more productive working outside the office, according to a FlexJobs survey. But maybe your boss won’t go for you relocating to a coffee shop for the afternoon, especially on short notice.
If that’s the case, see if you can move your work to another spot in the office — a conference room, an empty office, a break room. A change of scenery might help you reboot your brain.
Bad things happen. Bad days happen because of our reaction to those bad things.
Meditation can help you stop the cycle. It helps boost cognitive functioning and supports happiness and better decision-making — all things that can turn a bad day into a better one. New to meditation? There are loads of free or cheap apps to help you get started.
11. Say Thank You
A recent study shows that people underestimate the value of saying thank you. Participants wrote gratitude letters and predicted how recipients would feel — surprised, happy, awkward. The participants overestimated the awkwardness and underestimated the positive reaction.
Wise decisions are guided by an accurate assessment of the expected value of action. Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own—and others’—well-being.
12. Have a Real Conversation
When’s the last time you spoke with a colleague in person — not via Slack, email, telephone, video conferencing, etc. — and not because you needed something right away?
Workers are busy. It’s easy to let interactions between colleagues devolve into a series of requests. But true collaboration requires connection and communication. That means really talking — and listening.
13. Throw Something Away
You don’t need to Marie Kondo your cube, but you can feel more organized and in control in a hurry by throwing out something you don’t need. So, go ahead and toss out that junk mail or clear out your inbox. You’ll feel better about your day and able to tackle the next challenge.
14. Plan Something Fun
It’s easier to endure a bad day if you have something to look forward to. So, give yourself that.
Sign up for a class you’ve been meaning to take. Make plans with an old coworker or friend you haven’t seen for a while. Set aside some time to work on a hobby that’s fallen by the wayside while you’ve been working hard.
Work-life balance doesn’t mean being in perfect balance all the time. It means committing to seeking balance over the long-term. Especially if you’ve been having a lot of bad days at work recently, it’s important to invest in your life outside of work — before you get burned out and can’t enjoy either part of your life.
15. Be Grateful
Research has shown that gratitude can improve mental and physical health, reducing stress and improving energy levels. If you’re looking for a quick way to get in a better mood, you can’t go wrong with practicing gratitude.
There’s no wrong way to get started, and you don’t need any special equipment to begin your new practice. Use a journal or an app if you want — or just take a minute to recount the good things in your life and career. You might be surprised at how much more positive you feel.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you found ways to be happier at work? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.
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