Working Smarter

The Hidden Connection Between Mood and Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THE SIGN on the copy editor’s desk said, “Next mood swing in 8 seconds.” It always brought a smile to my face, and it was pretty darn close to the truth in the war room of the copy desk at the Los Angeles Times (where I once worked), where editors have to negotiate last-minute story edits and be the last line of defense on errors before publication, all while racing against the clock of the daily deadline.

Mood swings aren’t confined to newspaper editors, though. They are a fact of life for all of us. Our mood is highest on Friday and Saturday (for some reason), lowest on Monday. Mood tends to be high in the morning and low at night. Weather can affect mood, as can headlines, things people say, traffic, and too many other influences to list here.


Each of us cycles through multiple moods several times a day. Depending on how we feel, we may be gung-ho to take on a project or be immobilized by a pessimistic funk. Like stress, moods are often reactions to events and operate behind the curtain of consciousness, pumping us up, shutting us down, leaving us at the mercy of whatever feeling has bubbled to the surface.

Moods have a big impact on what we get done during the day, how much we get done, the decisions we make, and the stress that we feel. Researcher Marcial Losada found in a study that looked at the behavior of business people in meetings (using a two-way mirror for observation), that those with positive mood, who asked questions, didn’t go on the defensive, and used positive framing in their language, were more productive employees, had better sales, and got along with others better.

Maybe we should pay more attention, in that case, to the emotional levers of mood, since they have such an impact on performance, motivation, interest, persistence, and satisfaction, among many others. These are some of the reasons that my work-life balance, stress maangement, and time management employee training programs teach the power of optimism and the resilience that comes from it.

Without awareness of our mood or how to change it, we wind up little more than a marionette to the urgings of autopilot emotions set off by events out of our control.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

We’re all familiar with how things go results-wise when the day gets off on the wrong foot. Everything seems harder, takes forever, as intrusive frustration, sadness, or anxiety gets in the way of what you’re doing. The tone tends to spread throughout the day.


Researchers have found that the opposite is also true: Get off to a good start in your workday, and more good things happen. Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School of Business and Steffanie Wilk of Ohio State found in a study conducted with customer service representatives that those who started out the day in a calm or happy mood generally stayed that way. Interaction with customers didn’t reduce that emotional state, but increased it.

On the other side of the spectrum, people who began their mornings in a bad mood finished the day that way. Not surprisingly, those in a negative state were 10% less productive than their positive colleagues.

Negative emotions don’t do much to win over customers. They keep us caught up inside our head and ego, which makes it hard to empathize, share, or connect with others. Meanwhile, positive emotions are a magnet for others. Studies show the visible sign of optimism in your demeanor, known as positive affect, is a hallmark of all kinds of success, from business to dating. Who wants to hang out with a grump? Optimists make an average of $25,000 more per year than pessimists 

In the same way that moods imperceptibly latch onto us, they also spread those emotions, positive or negative, to the people we are working with or trying to sell a product to. Emotions and the expressions of them in the tone of voice or facial expressions of others are highly contagious, thanks to mirror neurons in the brain designed to simulate the emotions of others. It's a social bonding tool.

The positive emotions we generate set off those same emotions via mirror neurons in others. When you’re in a negative or pessimistic frame, that triggers a similar attitude in others, which comes back at you to reinforce an unhappy or irritated state.


The work of Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and the leading researcher in positive emotions, has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us. We are more open, take more initiative, meet new people, take more risks, feel more confident, bounce back faster. A pessimistic state reverses the outward direction, and we wind up bottled up in an internal bunker, distracted by frustrations, anxieties, cynicism, or fears. The focus is on me, me, me, and that shreds our chief productivity tool, attention, as we retreat into the fallacies of the ego.

Moods are ephemeral. They come, they go. We don’t have to be their prisoner. We don’t have to take them seriously or have them put the kibosh on starting a new project, reaching out to others, or enjoying our lives. We can change our mood in an instant. Think of something you should be grateful for that you haven’t been paying enough attention to, and a down mood disappears. The experience of gratitude wipes the surface ego-clinging emotions clean.


How do we get off to a positive start each morning? It starts the night before. The science of work recovery shows the way. If you don’t get rid of the stress and thoughts about the demands of the day when you get home from work, that stress and negative emotions follow you to work the next morning, researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz report. When you recharge brain and body through activities that build positive mood, you go back to work the next day in a positive frame.

We all need work recovery strategies to detach ourselves psychologically from the events of the day. After-work recreational activities from running to going to the gym and relaxation processes such as reading, listening to music or meditating can help you make that break. The most effective tool to get mental separation is through mastery experiences, activities that allow you to learn and increase your core need of competence—aikiko, a dance class, playing an instrument. You feed your core identity this way, not just your performance identity at work, and that allows you to feel good about yourself no matter what happened at the office.

You can also do things in the morning before you start work that get you out of your head and into positive contact with others. Have a light conversation with the barrista, the garage attendant, your neighbor and you can get an attitude adjustment.

What music makes you feel good? Use it on the way to work or during the day to lift you up. The grea,t retired voice of the Los Angelee Dodgers, Vin Scully, would play opera and classical music in his car on the way to the broadcast booth to sustain that genial spirit beloved by millions.

The lesson of a host of behavioral science is that being buffeted around by stress and moods isn't very smart. We are more productive and happier when we are proactively doing something to manage the negative and accentuate the positive. We are not tree stumps. We can make choices that change our world for the better. 

To get your team off to a good start and stay that way, click the button below for details on my work-life balance and stress management training programs.

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Tags: optimism and productivity, resilience, positive emotions and productivity, positive mood, mood and work productivity

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