Winter Productivity Tips: Stay Motivated Through Short Winter Days

Does your productivity take a nosedive in the winter? Read on for my winter productivity tips.

Productivity Tips | Winter Blues | Short Days, Long Nights

At this time of year, there’s always a flurry of blog posts centred around setting goals to finish the year strong or advice on sailing smoothly through the holiday season.

Perhaps it’s because I live so far north, but when I read these posts I’m inevitably left with a sense of inadequacy. Here my peers are talking about finishing projects and preparing Christmas feasts and I’m struggling to even bother to make something more exciting than frozen peas and brown rice for my dinner.

Today the sun rose at 08:26. It will set at 15:40. With these short, dark days, my motivation suffers, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

When it’s dark when my alarm goes off, I want to snuggle back under the duvet. When it’s dark when I get home from work, I want to curl up on the sofa with a book. On the weekends, when it’s only 3:30 in the afternoon and the sky is already getting dark, my brain thinks it’s time to relax and my motivation lags.

This last one is doubly challenging, because at midday the sky is bright and I look at the clock and think I have loads of time to get things done, so I spend some time relaxing, figuring I’ll get to my to-do list later. But ‘later’ is very quickly night; my energy levels drop and I’m unlikely to get much accomplished.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a variety of tools to help me get the most out of these short days and prevent the busiest time of the year from becoming too busy. Read on for my winter productivity tips.

Load up on light

Productivity Tips | Winter Blues | Short Days, Long NightsAs I touched on already, one of the primary reasons we struggle to get things done at this time of year is because of the darkness. Dark mornings signal that it’s not time to wake yet, while dark afternoons and evenings signal that it’s time for bed.

Disclaimer time! I’m not a doctor. I can’t help you if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you think you’re displaying the symptoms of the disorder then please see your GP.

What I’m addressing in this post is the more general productivity and creativity slump that many of us have in the winter, described by one of the psychiatrists who first identified SAD as the ‘winter blues’. However, as Rosenthal mentions in the post above, the winter blues and SAD have the same root cause: the lack of sunlight.

Purely anecdotally, I find that I’m much more productive on long summer evenings, because my perception of how late it is differs. It feels less late at 9pm on a bright June evening than it does at 4pm on a December afternoon.

That might just be my own perception, or it might have to do with my brain’s hormonal response to the lack of light. Either way, it’s helpful to find ways to increase my light exposure, especially to daylight.

Get some sunshine

This one’s easier said than done in Scotland, but it makes such a difference. At my old job my desk was right in the middle of the building, so there was no hope of natural light while I was working. Given the aforementioned sparse daylight hours, this meant that if I wanted to see daylight between Sunday afternoon and Saturday morning, I had to go for a walk at lunch.

So I did. As long as it wasn’t pouring with rain (which, admittedly, happened quite a lot), I’d go out for 20-30 minutes every day at lunch during the winter months just to get a peek of sunlight, or even grey, cloudy skies.

I couldn’t believe the impact this had on my productivity in the afternoons. It probably helped that I was also getting some movement in, but I found it much easier to focus in the afternoon and to stay on-task when I went for a walk compared to the days I didn’t.

Similarly, Rosenthal’s article mentions clearing off windowsills. This one doesn’t work when you’re stuck in the middle of an office during the week, but again it’s something I’ve done and I was astonished at the difference it made.

We have quite deep windowsills in my flat (6-8”), which always made them the perfect shelves. In the kitchen especially we had all our cleaning supplies and detergents on the windowsill, where they were easily accessible from the sink. One day I was tidying in there, and after clearing out the cupboard under the sink I managed to completely clear off the windowsill.

The room was noticeably brighter. If you’d told me before that clearing off the windowsill would make a difference, I’d have laughed at you. But it did! So now, in the winter especially, I make sure our windowsills are free of anything that might block the light coming through the window and reflecting off the white-painted sill.

Other ways to make your home brighter include using light-coloured paint to reflect the sunlight and putting chairs and desks next to the window, as well as removing any privacy blinds or sheer curtains.

If you’re stuck in an office five days of the week, try talking to your boss about ways to bring more daylight into the office. Perhaps there are conference rooms you can take your laptop into for a couple of hours of work in the sunlight or your colleagues would be amenable to removing the blinds in the mornings.

This is probably the most important winter productivity tip in this entire article, because it helps get at the root reason so many of us suffer from a winter slump. If you take one thing from this post, let it be this: Go outside as much as you can, and do as much as you can to bring daylight into your environment.

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Try a LIFX bulb

When you have to get up before dawn a LIFX bulb is a total lifesaver. We have one in the bedroom and it is fantastic in the winter time, for two reasons.

First of all, it can be programmed to turn on at a set time, meaning that by the time our alarms go off the bedroom is already lit up. No more waking up to a dark bedroom!

Secondly, the colour can be programmed as well, so in the winter we have it programmed to start a sunrise simulation around half an hour before we need to get up. It begins with a very dark red light and turns into a blue light that mimics daylight.

The two things combined mean we often even wake up before our alarms go off, meaning that waking up in the winter even nicer than in the summer, when we have blackout blinds blocking the sunlight so we can sleep.

If a LIFX bulb is too pricey for you, then you can also try a regular bulb on a timer. Set it to go on a moment or two before your alarm, so that when you get up to turn off your alarm it’s already light in the room, making it less tempting to go back to bed.

Eat for success

Productivity Tips | Winter Blues | Short Days, Long NightsWith the wide array of treats at this time of year, it’s easy to subsist on a diet of chocolate and wine. Unfortunately, the simple sugars in a lot of the food around during the Christmas season cause energy slumps, so they’re not ideal for productivity.

I’m not going to tell you to deprive yourself (that would make me a complete hypocrite, for a start!), but I find I’m more productive if I put in a little bit more effort to eat three healthy meals a day. My energy levels are more stable and I get more done, and I can always have a wee treat if I really fancy it.

I also find that at this time of year I’m more likely to snack through the evening because it’s so dark. It’s a double problem in that the darkness means I’m less motivated to cook, but it also means I’m more likely to forget I haven’t already had dinner. A little bit of planning helps ensure I have a balanced meal to keep me energised.

Employ productivity hacks

Long, lazy summer evenings might mean you can take a more relaxed pace and still get things done, but when you’re struggling to get anything accomplished after a long drive home in the dark a few well-chosen productivity hacks can make a big difference.

As I mentioned above, sometimes I look out the window at noon and think I have loads of time, only to find it dark in a few hours. In the summer, I can get away with this slower pace, spending Saturday afternoon leisurely reading and then tackling my to-do list during the bright, sunny evening. In the winter, on the other hand, I really need to knuckle-down and get things done during the day, because it will only be harder if I wait until evening.

Now’s the time to dig into your arsenal of productivity hacks and implement your tried-and-true methods of getting things done, but it’s also a great time to try some new productivity tips, because the things that worked for you in the summer might not be cutting it now that it’s darker.

Try fixed-schedule productivity

Sometimes the best thing to do is to accept that your energy levels and motivation will be lower in the winter and stop trying to fight it.

If you have the flexibility to do so, modify your schedule so you’re only trying to work within daylight hours. If you’re a student or work from home, try challenging yourself to implement fixed-schedule productivity, and only work from dawn till dusk. You might even find you’re more productive when you only have until 3:30pm to finish working instead of 10pm.

If you have a 9-5 or other fixed schedule, then those productive daylight hours will be spent on your day job and, no matter how much you might love your day job, that does mean that you’re going to be struggling to find the motivation for your non-work tasks.

A daylight-centric fixed-schedule productivity model might still be an option for you, however, if you move tasks from your evenings to the weekend. For instance, if you’re having difficulty finding the motivation to cook dinner every evening, then you might try batch cooking during the day on Sunday instead.

Even if you can’t get every single non-work-related task done in the 15 or so hours of daylight on the weekend, by focussing on spending those hours on being productive, you’ll find your weeknight burden is alleviated.

The key here, though, is to only work the daylight hours at the weekend; this has the double effect of ensuring that you’re active at your most productive times, and making sure you have plenty of time to relax at the weekend as well.

I could never manage to focus my non-work tasks on the weekend in the summer, because I’d find myself working until 9 on Sunday evening, and then on Monday I’d wake up and wonder when I could get a break. In the winter, on the other hand, the sun setting is a very clear reminder that it’s time to stop, and then there’s another six hours before it’s time to sleep when I can do, well, whatever I want.

Get your hygge on

Denmark is as far north as Scotland; Copenhagen, the same latitude as Edinburgh. You’d think, then, that there’d be a high prevalence of winter blues there, yet the Danes are consistently
ranked among the happiest people on earth.

Danes only work an average of 33 hours a week, so perhaps they’re employing some fixed-schedule productivity, but there’s another key in the Danish lifestyle, and that’s how they spend all those other hours in the week.

Productivity Tips | Winter Blues | Short Days, Long Nights

What is hygge?

Hygge (pronounced HUE-guh) is usually translated as ‘cosiness’ or ‘cosy’, but it has a broader application. There’s a sense of conviviality, although some Danes argue it can be hygge to curl up under a blanket and watch a movie alone, and although it’s closely associated with the long, dark Danish winters, it’s equally hygge to stroll along the beach eating ice cream on a hot summer’s day.

I remember when I was in Copenhagen in May being struck by how many people sat on restaurant patios in the evenings, for hours after they finished eating, snuggled under blankets and beneath heat lamps. That’s hygge.

How will hygge impact my productivity?

You might be wondering why I’m detouring into happiness here, and it’s because I firmly believe that happiness is a key, but oft-overlooked, component of productivity.

Think about it this way. You know those days when you wake up, the sun is shining, you have an epic breakfast, and you are ready to take on the day ahead?

Compare that with those days when it’s grey and rainy (or dark!) when you get up, none of your food looks appealing, and you just can’t even with your to-do list.

In the first case, you probably ploughed through that to-do list and had a fantastically productive day, while in the second case you would struggle to dredge up the motivation for even the simplest of tasks.

By filling your downtime with activities that enrich your soul, essentially, you help yourself to have more days like the first one and fewer like the second.

So take some time to have your friends over for dinner, to light some candles and read a book, to do whatever it is that moves your soul, and you’ll find your productivity improves with it.

The short winter days make it harder to be productive, but by implementing these productivity tips and striking a balance between happiness and productivity now, you’ll find that when June rolls around you’re a productivity powerhouse.

Over to you

Do you find your motivation slumps in the winter? What are your favourite productivity tips to get through it?

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