Want to be more productive in the office?

How to Have a Good Day is overflowing with self-help tips, even if it's not easy to wade through. But it would make perfect corporate toilet reading.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 26 Apr 2016

If the headline title conjures up canoodling on a Caribbean beach and sipping cocktails at sunset, you've picked the wrong book. It might more accurately read 'How to have a more rewarding and productive day at the office'. But I guess the publisher wasn't seeing that as a big seller. To be fair you will have a better day at work if you take the advice - but even the best structured to-do list may not live up to the sell of being actively 'good'.

In that white-collar professional context, this is a tour de force. Caroline Webb is a former McKinsey consultant and it shows. She has combed hundreds of published works on behavioural economics, behavioural psychology and neuroscience and woven together the best advice. It's jammed with proven ways to improve your day.

If you are a pop psychology junkie (and if you're drawn to books like this then you might well be), you won't learn a huge amount that is new. What you get instead is a one-stop shop for every piece of research you've come across in Management Today, airport business books, TED talks, makes perfect  links and the lifestyle bits of the papers. Less breakthrough album, more Now That's What I Call Music.

The sheer quantity of well-researched advice is almost overwhelming: there was a moment when I felt I was drowning, it was so hard to process it all. This is not a book that anyone should try to read from start to finish in a few days. Unless you have to submit a review of it and have no choice. It would make perfect corporate toilet reading, if you have that kind of office and really trust your colleagues to wash their hands.

The downside of the McKinsey research-heavy flavour is that the author's voice is remote, making it less of a joy to read than it might have been. It lacks the power of nuanced stories that really ring true. Littered instead with rather one-dimensional characters like 'Peter an IT consultant' who take the proffered advice and transform into supersonic versions of themselves. Which is ironic as Webb makes a strong case for the power of socially encoded stories, demonstrating why we remember gossip so much more readily than phone numbers.

Personally, I'd like to see more honesty about human failings and, heaven forbid, a bit more humour. If I was being mean, I'd suggest a whiff of those heavy-duty 80-slide PowerPoint blitzes designed to show the cleverness of the presenter that leave the audience a bit dazed. But the truth is I would never get around to organising everything I've read and am grateful someone else has gone to all the trouble.

It reminds you of things you were trained to do and use when needed: planning downtime, batching your day into chunks. It reinforces the few good habits you may have adopted, such as choosing what matters most before you start the day. And gratingly reminds you of the things you know perfectly well you should do, but just can't be bothered, so never will. Like tidying your desk and exercising at lunch.

One of my favourite sections is how to turn people down while avoiding their defensive reaction. So next time you want to decline a task - such as writing a book review - instead of saying 'sorry, I'm too busy', you should respond in a way that leaves the asker feeling fuzzy inside.

This so-called 'positive no' starts with warmth: 'Matthew, how wonderful to hear from you. It's one of my great pleasures in life to see MT thriving under your inspiring leadership.' Then moves to 'your yes' which is your priority at the moment, ideally one they can relate to: 'As you will understand my three small children and full-time job mean I mostly don't have time to shower let alone write coherent sentences.' Expressing your sincere regret: 'So, unfortunately on this occasion I just don't think I can do it justice.' Ending with more warmth and general helpfulness: 'However, let me know if you want me to suggest someone who will do a far better job than me.'

It makes me wonder when we will reach peak behavioural psychology and the answer will ping back: 'Christine, please don't insult my intelligence with insincere flattery; I read the same stuff you do. Look forward to getting your copy on Wednesday.' (But Christine, writing the review was your idea in the first place, Ed.)

People who are brilliant at what they do but are oblivious to the limits of their own work styles and who get frustrated by the responses of others would learn a huge amount from this book. But I suspect that they will never consider reading it. Not even on the loo at work.

How to Have a Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life by Caroline Webb, published by Pan Macmillan at £14.99

Christine Armstrong is a founding partner at Jericho Chambers. Follow her on Twitter: @HannisArmstrong

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