Negative associations with the workweek seem to know no bounds -- TGIF, anyone? The common assumption is that work is difficult and taxing, something we get through to live our real lives for the few precious moments we aren't in the office. But does it have to be that way?
The philosophical chicken-or-the-egg question becomes, are we miserable at work because it is, in fact, miserable, or does our outlook on the situation make it altogether more difficult to bear? It turns out, brain science has an answer. The good news is, with a few simple changes, you could improve your entire outlook and work experience.
If you're feeling burnout around work and counting the seconds until the weekend, take a look around your workspace. Look at everything:
- Sayings on notebook covers, calendars, or cards you may have received over the years
- Posters or pictures in view
- Desktop organization -- or lack thereof (physical and digital)
Most of us would say we (or our brains) are smart enough to know the difference between a sarcastic comment on a poster and how to approach the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The brain is heavily influenced by images and simple associations -- a concept known as priming in behavioral economics. The things we surround ourselves with impact the decisions we make and how we act, even when the following choices are completely unrelated:
- Merely being in a room with a backpack instead of a briefcase makes people more cooperative.
- Holding an iced drink instead of a hot one can make you evaluate others as more cold and distant.
- Seeing the Apple logo instead of IBM's for a fraction of a second can make you more creative in subsequent tasks.
While a negative outlook and images become a vicious cycle, there is a clear intervention point to reverse the process. A 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that inserting flashes of positive mental imagery in contexts that are associated with negative experiences can have a brightening effect on the mood of those with depression.
In your office, that means removing anything that isn't clearly positive, motivational, and uplifting from your workspace. Don't worry--that doesn't mean you need to surround your desk with unicorns and rainbows. Where you work needs to reflect your own goals and aspirations -- inspiring imagery for me could be useless for someone else. Here are the simple steps to change your mindset by changing your surroundings.
1. Consider your goals and what it will take to reach them.
When you think about your future -- 10 or 20 years from now -- what do you want people to say about you? What companies do you admire? Why? What qualities do you want to be known for? Make a list of your top words and concepts.
2. Turn those words to images.
Now that you have your top list of concepts to help you achieve your goals, narrow it to no more than five you want to focus on. Then ask yourself questions like, "What does innovative look like to me?" It could be as simple as a logo of a company you admire (see the Apple example above). The image itself doesn't matter -- if you look at it and instantly think "innovation," it will work.
3. Clean it all out.
I know taking everything out of your office will take some time (simple doesn't mean "quick" after all), but this is a critical step. As long as things remain in the office, they are the status quo and the burden is on taking them out. When you shift the process to be about what comes back in, it changes the whole conversation for your brain.
4. Create your space.
Allow only things back in that align with your five concepts. Choose images for the wall or desktop very carefully. Organization and simplicity will help your brain focus during the day, and you want the dominant presence in your space to be those top concepts.
5. Embrace the new outlook.
Even the most positive space is no match for someone who is convinced this won't work. If you want to change your mindset about work, practice positive thoughts. For 30 days, take five minutes each morning to reflect on the meaning of each item you see until it becomes habit. Throughout the day, look for moments when your thoughts creep back to the negative so you can stay on track.
Soon, this will all become habit, I promise. And with a little focused effort, work can be inspiring again.