Andrew Laird (Dean, Marketplace Institute) considers whether it is possible to have a good day at work more frequently, in light of one author who thinks that she’s found the three essential ingredients. This article was first published on the Life@Work website.
Caroline Webb is the author of How to have a good day: Harness the power of behavioural science to transform your working life. The former McKinsey partner has spent the past twenty years interviewing hundreds of people about what it takes to have a good day at work. In a recent interview she outlined what she believes are the three essential ingredients to a good day at work:
“It’s something about feeling that you’re doing the right stuff, that you’re doing a good job as you’re pursuing that right stuff, and that it feels sustainable, that you get up the next day and feel that you can do it all again”.
Or to put it another way, purpose, productivity and sustainability are the keys to a good day at work. On the flip-side, a bad day at work will often be characterised by a sense that what I was working on didn’t really matter, or I wasn’t able to get much done, or I found myself saying, “I cannot continue to work at this pace”.
There is great wisdom in Webb’s reflections upon work, and some of her tips for how to achieve purpose, productivity and sustainability are very helpful. For example, she explains that, “productivity is desperately rewarding to the brain”. This is why crossing items off a to-do list feels so good. One way of achieving this productivity is to only do one task at a time. The notion that we can multi-task is a great myth; our brains actually cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. What seems like multi-tasking is actually our brain furiously switching focus from one thing to another to another, only slowing us down. Webb suggests that one way to overcome this is getting away from things like email for tasks that really matter.
However listening to Webb I couldn’t help but wonder if the Christian faith provides a power to these three essential ingredients that opens up the way for us to have not just a good day at work, but a great day.
For example, the Christian faith provides a purpose for our daily labour that empowers our work, regardless of how meaningful or significant we might consider it to be. Timothy Keller writes, “No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God”  because all work can be part of our worship of God and service of others (Colossians 3:17, 23-4:1). When we remind ourselves of this it empowers our work with a purpose that can never be taken away.
Similarly, the Christian faith provides a power which sustains us in our daily labour, as we realise that all the gifts, talents and abilities that we have come from God, and that all our labour is enabled by Him and done in His strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Nevertheless, we may also need to make hard decisions about how much we can and cannot accomplish given our creaturely finitude and learn to say no. But again, it is the Gospel which empowers this ability to say no, as it reminds us that while our God is infinite, we are not.
However problems arise when we come to the essential ingredient of productivity. While the purpose which empowers us is unchanging, and the God who sustains us is ever-present, our productivity is often times thwarted by other people, workplace procedures, or (perhaps most frequently) by personal limitations. Of these three essential ingredients to a good day at work, perhaps it is this one which is the most difficult to overcome, as it is perhaps the one most significantly affected by the affects of the Fall upon our work (Genesis 3:17-19). Thorns and thistles frustrate our attempts to do good work.
How do we overcome this? Perhaps by first realising that totally overcoming the frustrations of work is impossible in this lifetime. The frustrations associated with work because of our sin will be with us “all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). A healthy dose of realism actually goes a long way towards enabling us to handle frustrations, as they no longer surprise us when they inevitably occur. We might then not be so discouraged by them also.
But wisdom also says that we can develop habits and practices which do assist us to be more productive, limiting the impact of the thorns and thistles. Webb’s suggestions are wonderfully helpful here. Similarly, a productivity book from a Christian perspective that I’ve personally found helpful is Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next: How the Gospel transforms the way you get things done. Like Webb, Perman also dispels the myth of multi-tasking.
But perhaps the greatest aid to enhancing productivity comes from letting the Gospel’s purpose for work so completely reshape the way with think about what we do, that what seem to be hindrances to our productivity actually become part of the reason God has us in our workplaces. For example, what if we viewed the interruption from a colleague not as an obstacle to our productivity but an opportunity to serve and love them, by being genuinely attentive and supportive of their needs. Or what if we viewed surprise tasks handballed to us by a boss not as obstacles to our productivity, but as opportunities to display servant-heartedness. Or what if when the server goes down or I can’t access my emails I respond with patience and gentleness and so display to my colleagues something of the patient and gentle God who has redeemed me. All of sudden these apparent frustrations to my productivity become opportunities to worship and serve. And working in that way surely means that in God’s eyes I’ve had a great day at work.