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How to be happier at work

After reading this alarming piece about the rise of the ‘sad desk luncher’ (which reveals 64% of employees recently surveyed by BUPA break for less than 20 minutes each day), this lunchtime Muddy Stilettos made a stand. Downing tools, we trooped outside to sit in the sunshine and decompress. As we nibbled on our salads – OK, scoffed crisps – we chatted about the modern way of working. Insanely long hours, overflowing inboxes, endless to-do lists, being glued to our mobiles and desperately seeking a mythical notion of work/life balance – sound familiar?

However much you love your job (and we do, of course!), sometimes it can just be a bit… much. So in the interests of working smarter, better and more happily, we tapped up top business psychologist and academic Tony Crabbe for some advice. He’s the author of excellent self-help book Busy: How To Thrive In A World Of Too Much (Muddy’s Kerry Potter swears by this tome – it’s her career bible) and has worked with companies such as PWC, Microsoft and Disney. He knows his stuff when it comes to making work work for you, so here are Tony’s top tips….

1/ Learn how to job craft

Would you work with this goon?! (Hero Brown: founder of Muddy Stilettos)

You have more power to shape your job than you think – something worth bearing in mind next time you launch into a moaning session about your terrible day. “Too many people assume a job is what a job is and therefore you either like it or don’t. But the reality is that we can change our experience of it, depending on how invested we are in it and the choices we make around it,” says Tony. “This is job crafting – it’s about a deliberate set of intentions to make your job more meaningful.”

One of the ways of doing this is to analyse your working relationships. In simple terms: working more with the people you like and less with the people you don’t will make for a happier day. If there are colleagues who are inspiring and fun, find ways of collaborating more with them – for example, ask for their input on a project you’re working on. Or if there’s someone senior who you don’t know well but you admire, you could ask her to mentor you. Relationships are important if you’re self-employed too. If you have a relentlessly tricky client, consider not working for them any more and finding a nicer replacement. Scary but doable. You can also do this with tasks – drill down into the parts of your job that you love and those you don’t, and make a list. How can you work out ways of doing more of the good stuff and less of the boring bits?

2/ Step away from that iPhone

That fact that these days we can work anywhere with wifi has made for a much more flexible working life. But ever feel like your smartphone or laptop is controlling you rather than the other way around? Tony is passionate about putting in boundaries to ensure life isn’t all work, work, work. He advises setting rules with your colleagues and boss about when you will and won’t be available, which then means you can ditch the 7am and 11pm panicky inbox checking. “When people know your rules and why you have them, they are far more willing to adapt,” he says. “And the world can actually survive without you for a few hours”. He also suggests putting your gadgets in another room, out of sight, in the evenings and turning off all notifications, so you don’t respond like Pavlov’s dog to the continual ping of new messages and instead check them on your own terms.

3/ Get creative

Day-dreaming, model style

As well as keeping you sane, working less (and thinking about work less), can enhance your creativity. “When do we have our best insights or big ideas? Often it’s in the shower, or on holiday – the times when we’re not plugged into electronic devices,” says Tony. “The rest of the time our brain is overwhelmed by stimulation.” As such, he’s a big fan of the humble daydream (something to remember next time we moan at our children for doing just that). ”One of the biggest discoveries of neuroscience is the fact that the brain is very active when we’re not doing anything. We’d assumed the brain would take a rest when we switch off but it doesn’t. This is because of the default network – it allows the brain to digest things and make new connections, which is the essence of creativity. It’s this process that triggers those ‘Aha!’ moments.”

4/ Where you work matters

When you’re stuck into your laptop, you don’t tend to think that much about your surroundings but they can hugely impact on our happiness, productivity and creativity at work. “We massively underestimate the effect our environment has on our thinking,” says Tony. “How many of us associate our personalities with a grey drab office with bad lighting? We find that cool, creative environments feel more ‘us’, and create expectations that we’ll do cool, creative work. Hence the rise of hip, well-designed co-working spaces.” But what if you are stuck in a boring old unit on an industrial estate? You can still try to zone your working environment. According to Tony, we are least efficient when we sit at the same desk for an eight hour slog. Instead, the ideal working day would see us move around, according to the task in hand. “You might relax on a sofa for an ideas meeting, retreat to a quiet nook for some deep-thinking and pop to a buzzy coffee shop between appointments to do low-level tasks like clearing your inbox.”

5/ Become a demon delegator

People often struggle with delegating to colleagues, but it can be invaluable for freeing up your time to concentrate on bigger picture tasks – and it could be the difference between leaving on time and being chained to your desk all evening. Too much of a control freak to delegate? “Shift what you try to control: instead of controlling the quality of your personal work, see it as your role to raise the quality of the whole team. Delegate and if people’s work is below standard, coach them to improve,” says Tony. “I worked with Simon Woodroffe, the founder of YO! Sushi, who says his business really took off when he let go of trying to control everything. He realised he was the blocker for progress.” And be sure to ask nicely… but not too nicely.

“We often sidle up to someone, with ingratiating small talk and ask if they’ll do us a favour. You place that person in a position of power over you and they might decline, saying they’re too busy.” Instead, simply tell them what you need them to do and why. If they say they can’t fit it in, help them re-prioritise their workload. Also – bonus! – delegation is a transferable skill, so you can sneakily use it at home too. Now you’re talking Tony! “When you delegate, use the word ‘because’. Research shows that doing this increases the chance of people saying yes by 50 per cent. People like a rationale so give them one.” So instead of screaming: “Can you just, for once, clean the bathroom?!”, try “Please can you clean the bathroom after work because I’m going to yoga so I won’t have time to do it.”

6/ Turbo-charge your free time

It seems like everyone we know is doing a Tough Mudder or joining a book club – what gives? It’s all about purposeful leisure, says Tony. And no, that doesn’t include caning an entire Netflix boxset in one evening. “It’s important to do something purposeful as part of our leisure time, to connect us to what’s important to us and give us a reason not to work, he says. “Lots of people get a huge buzz from work – it’s goal-focused so you’re more likely to get highs from it than just vegging out at home. People who have good work/life balance do things that are significant outside of work – it means work doesn’t always ‘win’.” Basically, make your leisure more worthwhile and you’ll be more likely to carve out time for it. Anyone fancy a wine-tasting course?

Busy: How To Thrive In A World Of Too Much by Tony Crabbe

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