How to avoid the winter malaise and keep productivity up through the dark season

Game of Thrones, and its Song of Ice and Fire source material before it, connected with viewers around the globe for a variety of reasons. Arguably first among them was escapism. For an hour each week, viewers would disconnect from their lives and focus instead on this intoxicating fantasy realm, replete with magic, medieval brutality, and dragons. But even the most seemingly imaginative of otherworldly distractions requires some ties to everyday reality to land with an audience. For Games of Thrones, one such stark (and Stark) pronouncement that permeated the zeitgeist and became an everyday part of the cultural lexicon was the oft-repeated, ever-ominous assertion: Winter is coming. As clocks turn back in most of the western world, we must contend with the fact that, though we are still in the throes of autumn, winter has come, or at the very least is coming, bringing with it the annual productivity malaise that accompanies the season of darkness.

Winter is the least productive season for businesses. That’s according to research from project management software company Redbooth, published in Forbes magazine1. The company analysed their data over a four-year period and found that in winter users completed 22.8% of their tasks on average, compared with 27.3% in the autumn, 25.4% in the summer and 24.5% in the spring. A report by British Summer Fruits2 found that during the colder months, 74% of people find it harder to get out of bed for work, while 37% are far more likely to call in sick. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens proclaimed that, “Darkness is cheap.” Not, it seems, if you’re running a business contending with a seasonal productivity slump.

Why does winter hamper our productivity?

Some of the reasons for our drop off in productivity through the winter months are clear to all. The first is that, naturally, we get less light during winter than we do during the other seasons as there are less hours of sunlight. This minimises the amount of Vitamin D we receive, which can negatively impact3 our mood and performance. The darkness, paired with the cold, also has a motivational impact. We are less inclined to get out of bed and go for a pre/post-work walk or run (or whatever wellness habit floats your boat) on a dark, wet and windy day than we are in the height of summer. And this kickstarts a cycle. As we become less active, we become lazier. And laziness only breeds more laziness. Lack of exercise leads to lack of motivation to eat well, which in turn gets made worse by the cold weather that makes filling comfort foods a more appetising prospect than that mid-November salad. The downward spiral becomes self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. Once our routine is broken, it becomes incredibly difficult to get back on the wagon. At least until the frost melts and we’re returned to the hope of spring.

There are scientific reasons for our winter malaise too. Darkness—or more precisely, lack of natural light—is proven to have a significant impact on our mood, alertness and general well-being4. Our body clocks, or circadian rhythms, are naturally tied to the sun’s hours. In winter, we often rise in darkness, throwing our bodies into what Greg Murray, professor of psychology at Swinburne University in Australia, calls “phase delay5. Phase delay means that our circadian clocks are nudged later during winter, so that piercing iPhone alarm is going to feel much crueller the day after the clocks go back than it did before. Bad news for the annual optimists preaching the virtues of “the extra hour in bed”.

That’s not to mention the one in fifteen people who deal with seasonal affective disorder6 (SAD), a number that may be on the rise7. For sufferers of SAD, winter brings about prolonged mood changes and oftentimes spells of severe and debilitating depression. The point, if it weren’t already clear, is that the effect winter has on our mood and performance is profound. But there are steps we can take to minimise darkness’ damage and try to keep on track.

Battling the elements

Let’s start with the body. In order to counteract the lack of vitamin D, we’d be well advised to take supplements through the winter8 (and maybe through other parts of the year). Which is not to say supplements can suffice for the real thing. We should absolutely try to get outside during daylight hours as much as possible. That can be a run or walk on our lunch break, or pre-work for the early risers. In fact, one benefit of the ubiquity of home and hybrid-working patterns in the wake of the pandemic is that it gives us greater autonomy over our working schedules, meaning we may feel more comfortable putting work on hold to get outside during working hours than we would if doing so required leaving an absent desk in the view of potentially disapproving colleagues and bosses.

In the same way we might subsidise the vitamins and nutrients we receive from natural light, so too might we subsidise natural light itself. Those who suffer from SAD will likely already be familiar with SAD lamps9, a form of light therapy designed to replicate daylight and trick the body into releasing serotonin in the same manner it would through warmer months. This concept is no longer reserved exclusively for sufferers of SAD, with many leading lighting brands now offering some form of bio-adaptive lighting10—designed to work in tandem with the circadian rhythm— that mimics the sun’s natural patterns and helps the body react to artificial light as it would to the natural variety it is impersonating. This can improve our mood, alertness, sleep pattern, and even our creativity. Similarly, such lights can work as alarm clocks, simulating the look and feel of sunrise to wake us up naturally, removing the bleakness of surrounding blackness from our waking experience so we’re less likely to start our day in a negative mindset.

Light and its benefits aside, what can you do to enhance productivity? Tick off tasks first thing. Mark Twain famously said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” He was being facetious, of course, but studies show that ticking off a major task early11 can set us up on the path for achieving more throughout the day. Others agree that completing tasks early is the way to go but argue that it’s better to accomplish a few small, achievable tasks12 first thing rather than anything monumental, simply to get your mind in the habit of getting things done and feeling productive. Neither option will be right for everyone, so the trick is finding which works for you.

If you already have a routine heading into the winter months, don’t let it slip. It’s all too easy to let those first bitter mornings destabilise an established, fully functional set of morning habits and break the cycle. And starting a routine again is far harder than keeping one up. If you do happen to slip up, don’t worry. According to a study13 published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, missing any single day of a particular habit has no impact on your long-term ability to stick to the habit. But as Atomic Habits author James Clear notes14, “the most important thing is not to prevent mistakes altogether, but to avoid making a mistake twice in a row.” So, if you falter, as we all do, rather than castigating yourself, instead focus your attention on avoiding the second mistake.

Maintaining a routine through the winter months could be key to not letting your standards drop off, so if you have one, keep it going. If you don’t, it’s never too late to get started. As the entrepreneur Jim Rohn notes, “Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”

Let routine bring some light to your winter—and keep the dark slump at bay.

References

1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2017/12/08/when-do-people-actually-get-work-done/?sh=27502a742e5d

2 https://palife.co.uk/news/winter-slump-productivity-suffers-in-the-colder-months/

3 https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/benefits-vitamin-d

4 https://www.business.com/articles/flick-of-a-switch-how-lighting-affects-productivity-and-mood/

5 https://www.wired.com/story/science-explains-why-we-should-work-shorter-hours-winter/

6 https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/overview/

7 https://www.healthline.com/health-news/more-people-may-experience-seasonal-affective-disorder-this-year

8 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vitamin-d-supplementation-during-winter-phe-and-nice-statement/statement-from-phe-and-nice-on-vitamin-d-supplementation-during-winter#:~:text=Everyone%20is%20advised%20to%20take,of%20falls%20in%20older%20people.

9 https://www.healthline.com/health/sad-lamp

10 https://www.interact-lighting.com/global/capabilities/bio-adaptive-lighting

11 https://theproductiveengineer.net/hardest-or-easiest-work-first-what-the-research-shows/#:~:text=However%2C%20other%20experts%20believe%20that,and%20work%20their%20way%20up.

12 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/sep/07/change-your-life-procrastination-burkeman

13 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674

14 https://jamesclear.com/second-mistake