My job has two basic parts, and chances are yours does, too:
- Generating ideas
- Implementing them
In my case, as a writer, the challenge is to come up with something to write about in the first place, and then turn that idea into some sort of coherent, engaging piece of content. The first half requires creativity, and the second requires me to focus without distraction. Many if not most knowledge workers’ roles are set up similarly: First you’ve got to come up with a solution or an action to take, and then you’ve got to put it into action. Nailing both steps is the real productivity challenge.
For a long time, I’ve been using Cal Newport’s “deep work” method to write productively. I block out a period of time to work on my writing with no distractions, and it it usually works like a charm–for Part 2 of my job, anyhow. But I’ve increasingly found it isn’t ideal for Part 1, the idea-generation step in the writing process. I can’t just schedule a block of time to “be creative” every day without fail. Some days, creativity comes easily to me, and some days it doesn’t; I’m either in a creative mood or I’m not.
So I decided to experiment with something different. For the past month, I’ve tried to systematically track and measure my mood in order to find out exactly how it impacts my productivity. You might expect the results to be obvious, but they surprised me.
The Underutilized Power Of Moods
But first, science: According to a 2015 study by researchers at University College London and Princeton University, our brains produce certain moods in order to generate psychological momentum toward new goals, based on the recent outcome of previous ones. Since it’s essentially a feedback loop–“Experiences affect mood, which in turn affects subsequent experiences,” the study authors write–we should be able to tap into that momentum to achieve our goals more productively.
I decided to test this out (unscientifically, on myself). For two weeks, I made sure to record my mood every hour of the workday as honestly as I possibly could, alongside the work I was doing at that moment. I also rated how effectively I felt I was working that period. My objective was to find some patterns (if any).
Some of what I learned reinforced what I had already guessed, but I also discovered a few things that changed how I think about productivity. These are my three biggest takeaways:
1. Each Mental State Has Its Upsides
There are times when scheduling creativity does work, I found, but there are times when it doesn’t. I can’t accurately predict when I’ll come up with great ideas–when I’ll just struggle to fill an empty notebook with anything substantive. But over the course of a couple of weeks, I noticed that ideas and new thoughts flew freely whenever I was in a light and positive mood. When I felt dark and gloomy, or even slightly frustrated, I couldn’t let my mind wander.
Not too surprising, right? However, I found that being slightly frustrated was actually great for “Part 2” tasks. After I’d already generated an idea, actually writing and producing the content was easier if my mood had soured somewhat. If I was in a positive mood when I sat down to write or edit my work, I was more likely to get distracted.
These results aligned with the findings of two studies on the topic. One, conducted in 2010 at the University of Western Ontario, found that “cognitive tasks that rely on behaviors such as hypothesis testing and rule selection may benefit from positive mood,” as the researchers wrote. Since the parameters of my undertaking were already clearly defined–come up with something to write about–mentally testing out potential ideas came a bit easier when I was feeling good.
A second study, at the University of New South Wales in 2013, concluded that negative moods may boost performance in both “externally focused” realms like “social thinking” that involve other people as well in certain “applied fields” that require using your memory and focusing on reducing “judgmental errors.” While good judgment and memory are certainly assets while writing, the social side didn’t seem relevant to my experience. But the larger point was clear, and validating: Certain moods suit certain cognitive tasks better than others.
2. I Needed Less Willpower When My Mood Matched The Task
It’s hard to find the willpower to do something you know is going to be difficult or uninteresting, especially when you’re first getting started. While the theory of “ego depletion”–basically, the idea that willpower is finite–has been called into question by psychologists, I still found that the amount of willpower I thought I had influenced how much I actually demonstrated (a notion that a 2010 experiment had supported, before the field of study underwent some revision).
Whenever I felt like I had the willpower to do something, I was more likely to do it. As long as I aligned my mood to the task it was best suited to, I typically didn’t need as much sheer force of will to keep going.
3. Productivity Isn’t About Time Management
Almost every productivity book begins with one piece of advice: If you want to get more done, you should start by tracking and managing your time. The late management researcher Peter Drucker is especially famous for this recommendation.
While I don’t disagree with him completely, my experiment led me to believe there’s more to it than this. Tuning into the way my moods impact my productivity has convinced me that productivity may be less about time management than it is about attention management. The quality and outcome of my work isn’t determined by how many hours I put in, but how well the hours are used.
When I focused on managing my moods–rather than my time–I was able to maximize the attention that I was getting out of my hours (which were always finite). In fact, it completely changed how I plan and organize my days; instead of a rigid schedule, I now let my emotional states dictate how I spend my day. That may sound like a free-for-all, but in my experience it’s been anything but. The result is less wasted time and higher (and better) output–which is something to feel pretty good about.