As a writer, artist, self-declared thinker, etc. etc., I’m constantly contemplating reality and our perception of it, even as I try to hide from it and all the hard questions that go along with living on this planet. It’s been said a million times before but the lives we lead seem to be largely guided by our perception of what we are doing and where we are in life. What’s that oft-quoted statistic? “Life is 10% what actually happens and 90% how you perceive it?” Even when things don’t come up roses, if we can manage to put a positive spin on it then our takeaway from pretty much any situation can have value.
So it makes sense that our moods can affect our productivity in a big way. When I consider the way I want to spend my days, I prioritize two goals: I want to wake up feeling awesome and I want to write something great. It’s important to keep them in this order because if I don’t wake up feeling awesome, I’m not going to write a damn thing. SO if I orient my time around the desire to write, I won’t be nearly as productive as when I orient my time around my desire to feel good. The writing seems to flow more naturally when I’m in a happy place, in contrast to the stereotype of how writers like to suffer and feel miserable a lot of the time.
What’s interesting is that we have some amount of control over our attitude, or perception, but we don’t seem to have any modicum of control over our moods. Moods are complex and beastly and can ruin an entire day or many in a row. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a temporary state of mind or feeling,” mood is really what rules our existence from moment to moment. It can help elevate our reality to one of elation and joy or sink it to an irritable, sullen state of despair, regardless of the situation we are actually experiencing.
Mood is largely a reaction to brain structures and neurotransmitters that are having a constant party in our heads – but we don’t have a lot of information about the relationship between mood fluctuations and genetics. Moods are linked super closely with our individual personality traits, as well. If you have a personality that tends to fluctuate with many high highs and low lows, chances are your mood has more of a tendency to fluctuate along with it. By contrast, and following logic, people with more consistent personalities tend to have more stable moods. But this is largely biologically predetermined and out of our control.
When Bad Moods Rear Their Ugly Heads
Bad moods can easily overpower a positive attitude no matter how hard we try not to let them. “A large body of empirical evidence has shown that negative affect-–depressed and anxious mood–-is associated with reduced cognitive performance and lower cognitive flexibility,” says Sophie Von Stumm, a senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and one of the creators of moo-Q, a productivity app for the iphone that helps people learn about the correlation between their mood and productivity. “In other words, if you’re feeling moody at work, no matter how determined you are to get the job done, your productivity and creativity will suffer.”
What she and her team at The Hungry Mind Lab set out to test was how much your moods really affect your productivity and if gleaning some insight into this relationship could actually help you hack your mood and improve your productivity. Employers around the world could save billions of dollars if armed with more knowledge about how certain times of day or certain days tend to bring on bad moods and, as a result, lowered productivity in their employees. And maybe writers could actually come up with some formulaic schedule that reduces the hours and hours of staring at white walls or pounding our heads against them.
The Moo-Q Assessment
Strumm and her team worked with specialized psychological testing developers PSYT to study the relationship between mood and optimized brainpower. They looked at all types of factors that were affected by mood, including short-term memory, processing speed and working memory, three of the biggest components of productivity.
The way it works is that you take a short survey a few times a day to assess your current mood. After the survey you complete a few memory-based numeric quizzes. Then it finds the correlation between your mood and how well you perform on these productivity-gauging quizzes.
Most users report that after using the app they can clearly see how their productivity was hindered by dips in mood. This kind of information can help you identify the times when you’re feeling energetic and should sit down and get cracking on a project as well as the times that you should maybe just lie on the floor and listen to Velvet Underground records until bedtime. Both moods are perfectly acceptable and part of being alive, after all, so you may as well make the most of them.
Though the productivity app is available in the iTunes Store right now, their team is still compiling data from it’s early users to figure out answers to some of the bigger questions, like whether our brains really work more efficiently on some days than others and if these highs and lows can be neatly organized into helpful patterns. Mood changes are healthy, after all. The unhealthy ones are characterized as mood disorders, and those aren’t what Moo-q is trying to address (not yet, anyway – here’s to hoping that one’s on the way).
Strumm says there are three basic things to keep in mind as you’re navigating natural mood shifts and trying to write or accomplish any tasks in a workday: Smile when you’re in a bad mood, work when you’re in a good mood and take a break when you’re having rapid highs and lows. Poor sleep, stress and other situational factors can trigger psychological imbalances that leave us in our most unproductive and vulnerable state. So try to maintain an awareness of how emotionally sturdy you are at any given moment and, if it’s vacillating, take a step back from the desk and go for a long walk or something not related to work – you’ll be more able to concentrate and apply yourself once you’ve identified the stressor and spent some time trying to eliminate it.