How to Have a Good Day

I recently attended a fun workshop by David McClements, a managing partner for Whitewater International Training. The purpose of this workshop was to help us develop techniques for managing stress, focusing our efforts, and being optimistic. David asked us to participate in an exercise that I thought was very insightful.

The exercise was to ask ourselves two questions and jot down the first answers that come to mind in 1 minute. The two questions were:

  • What makes bad days “bad”?
  • What makes good days “good”?

Go ahead and try it now if you have time, before you continue reading. For each question, give yourself 1 minute to think of your answers.

Here is a sample of some items that participants in our workshop mentioned in their responses.

What makes bad days “bad”?

  • Unpleasant interaction with a work colleague
  • Learned of a major issue or delay with a project
  • A high-performer on my team notified me she is leaving
  • A high-potential candidate declined our offer
  • Traffic or public transit delays
  • Someone said something nasty to you in the parking lot

What makes good days “good”?

  • Spent time with my family doing something we enjoy
  • Achieved an important goal
  • Got a lot of things done at work
  • Feel well rested
  • Got to do some exercise
  • Learned something new

The causes of “bad” days

What do the things that make bad days “bad” have in common? They involve people or things that that are outside our control. Sometimes they involve bad luck.

When you focus on these externalities, you relinquish control — your feelings, your outlook, and your impact — to someone or something else. You get worked up about something that you can’t do anything about or influence.

More traffic than usual on the way to the office? You can’t control that there’s some new road construction on your route to work.

Someone declined your offer, despite your best recruiting efforts? It’s ultimately their decision. You can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Stop surrendering what you can achieve to other people.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t reflect back on what you can do better. Of course you should. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up over a bad outcome, especially if the outcome was based on a solid process and was ultimately the result of someone else’s actions, or bad luck.

This line of thinking about “bad” events and outcomes reminds me of Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, and which I summarized in “How to Be More Resilient.” Pessimistic people look at setbacks and failures as permanent, pervasive, and personal. Optimistic people look at setbacks and failures as temporary, specific, and external.

The key word in this case is “external.” That means you recognize that there are factors that influenced these “bad” events that are external, and out of your control. It could be the actions or decisions of someone else. Or maybe it’s just plain bad luck.

If you recognize that you can’t control or influence the bad event, you chalk it up as something external and you move on. You don’t dwell on it, you don’t get upset about it, and above all — you don’t let it define you.

The causes of “good” days

What do the things that make good days “good” have in common? They are all things you can control.

You decide where to spend your time — including if it’s doing something fun with your family. You can decide to go to sleep early, get a full night’s rest, and do exercise in the morning. You can prioritize your work, concentrate on the tasks at hand, and take a disciplined approach to get a lot of things done. These are all things you control.

By focusing your energy and mindshare on things that you control, you can achieve the things that ultimately result in a “good day.”

What it all means

So, how do you maximize your chances of having a good day? Don’t waste your time and energy on “bad” things you can’t control. Focus your time and energy on “good” things that you can control.

Don’t surrender your feelings, your outlook, or your impact to other people or external events. Don’t let these things get you down. You can’t control or influence these things anyway. Getting upset about them will do nothing but increase the chance you will have a bad day.

You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control your response. Acknowledge that these “bad” events are externally-driven, and move on. “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it.”

Instead, focus your energy and your mindshare on the things that you can control, and the things that make you happy. Spend your time on the things that give you fulfillment — whether that’s with your family and friends, getting rest, accomplishing things, or learning something new. Your choices, decisions, and actions are your own. You control them.

You can make every day a good day if you try.