Matching mood to task

Tiago Forte has talked a lot about the idea of mood-based productivity. It’s one of the key pillars of his human-centred approach to work, and its based upon the observation that we’re not robots. We can’t just feed ourselves an input and spit out an outcome. We can’t just give ourselves a task and then accomplish it. No, no. We’re far more contextual than that. 

In fact, we do our best work only when our mood aligns with the task at hand. To draft an essay, to hop on a progress call, to run a meeting, to drop by and deliver some bad news, to do some admin. All these require subtly different moods and states of mind, and that’s the problem. How do you get in the right mood at the right time?

There’s two ways of acquiring this alignment between mood and task. The first is having the ability to switch mood and mindset at will. For example, if I want to write but don’t feel like writing, I need a procedure or trigger that can get me into the right frame of mind reliably. Of course, to have such mind control is a tall order. It’s a discipline that takes years, decades even, to learn and master. But there is another option.

The second way of matching mood to task requires some autonomy and negative space. We need a measure of control over how we deploy our time, energy and attention, and we need the space to shift these things from one task to another when we feel like it.

Without this tyranny over your own time, you cannot opportunistically match mood to task. Which means you can’t do your best work. For example, I’ve been at work before and for no apparent reason begun to visualise the outline of a post. But because I’m at work, doing my job, I can’t drop everything and start drafting it. Instead I have to capture my thoughts and re-create the state of mind that yielded them at a time when I can sit and write them out. That’s not ideal.

So, what to do?

In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the difference between hard and soft tasks. Hard tasks are things which have to take place at a specific time or date. Meetings, calls, appointments, deadlines. Soft tasks are things not bound by time constraints. They can be fitted around the hard tasks.

Obviously, it’s hard to match mood to hard task if you’re not a jedi mind master. You need to have figured out the first way of matching mood to task. But matching mood to soft tasks is easy because all you need to do is not plan how you’re going to spend your time

You don’t want to end up playing calendar tetris. Instead, you want your calendar to be utterly empty, except for hard tasks. That way, you have the freedom to match mood to soft task.


Calendar Tetris, Exhibit A


Calendar Tetris, Exhibit B


Calendar Tetris, Exhibit C

By planning nothing except the hard tasks, you have the autonomy to adapt to whatever mood you’re in and do whatever activity is best suited to it. No more gritting your teeth, no more grinding. Instead, you approach the day with an openness, with an opportunism, and consequently, each task gets done with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.