Boost productivity & mood on cold, dark winter days with these 10 expert tips

There can be something especially unsettling about looking out of the window and seeing that it’s pitch black. Even more so when you realise that it’s only 4pm. In the colder months, sunlight is sparse, and it can have an effect on mood as well as energy levels. It’s easy to find your internal clock feeling out of sync and experience the winter blues as a result.

Feeling anything but ready for the day at the moment? Whether you’re still WFH, have returned to the office or you’re embracing "hybrid" working, this guide’s for you. From healthy work habits to time management hacks and tips to improve your sleep, here’s how to get into a daily routine during the darker, shorter months that boosts productivity and motivation levels.

1. Plan pockets of joy

"Routine is incredibly important for our wellbeing," explains Anna Percy-Davis, an executive careers coach and trainer who specialises in helping people thrive in and out of the workplace. Even more so when it’s something to look forward to. "Focus on creating a routine that honours you, from making time for breakfast before you leave the house to catching the tube when you’re most likely to get a seat and making sure that you have your favourite podcast or music to listen to on the way to work."

Sometimes simplicity works best. "Make your routine easy to achieve and to sustain so that you can run your days in the office in as positive a way as possible," Anna suggests. The last thing we need is for the quest for routine to become a source of stress (because let’s be honest, we’ve had more than our fair share in the past couple of years!).

2. Stick to a sleep schedule

When times get stressful, sleep is often one of the first things to suffer. The shifting of the seasons can also have an impact – fortunately, there are some simple yet effective ways to help you feel more rested and energised.

How can you get into a sleep routine? Keeping to regular sleep hours (sticking to roughly the same sleep and wake up times every day), making sure that your bedroom is dark (we’ve got our sleep masks on standby), quiet and cool and ‘brain dumping’ your worries into a notebook before bed so that they don’t keep you up at night can all improve the quality of your shut eye. You might also find our guide to best sleeping aids and Yoga Nidra helpful.

Your bedtime routine needn’t start late at night. Exercise (provided that it isn’t too close to when you’re planning to go to bed) can help you to stay asleep, as can avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine and alcohol, in the evening.

3. Find the best time of day for doing key tasks

Are you struggling to get stuff done? Try structuring your day so that you get the most challenging tasks on your to-do list done when your energy levels are at their peak. "Be mindful of when you work at your best," says Anna. "I find the beginning of the day is a good moment for me and so I often try to get important tasks done then while nursing my early morning cup of coffee." Handy if you find that your energy levels dwindle more than usual in the later, darker afternoon hours.

Make your working environment work for you. "If you’re hybrid working, make sure you plan what you’re going to do at home and what you’re going to do in the office," Anna recommends. "If there’s a task where you'll need help or other’s input, it can be better to do it in the office, while the work you can get done alone and perhaps requires greater concentration is best done at home."

4. Book in IRL Facetime

For days when you’re not WFH, take advantage of more face-to-face meetings to help re-energise and re-establish connections (your inbox will thank you). With many of us having been talking over a screen for so long, it could just be what’s needed to keep things interesting at work and increase motivation levels. "Shore up relationships when you’re in the office," Anna recommends. "We all thrive so much better if we have a strong sense of community and that includes our community at work.

"Take time to grab a quick coffee with a colleague or just stroll across the office for a quick catch up with someone else. If you can book in a few meetings or coffees with more senior individuals that can be hugely helpful too – building a strong network at work not only makes the environment more fun but it helps to navigate and grow your career."

5. Make the most of your lunch break

It can be super easy to spend hours in front of a screen without even realising it. Incorporating short, sharp breaks (where you can) into your office routine can help break the cycle and provide pockets of calm amidst the chaos. Scheduling them or setting alerts on your computer or phone to act as friendly reminders can prevent you from slipping into unhealthy habits. It can also be a good idea to make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible, with your desk positioned near a window.

If you’re able to, resist the urge to stay indoors during your lunch break. Maximising your exposure to natural light is a great way to help ward off the winter blues. "Get outside if you can," advises Anna. "A few minutes of outside light on a regular basis can make a huge difference to your everyday life, especially if you begin and end work in the dark during the winter months." A quick 10-minute walk can do wonders for energy levels.

6. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Talking of work lunches, it’s common for many of us to crave carbohydrate-heavy foods during the darker winter months. Sometimes comfort food is just what’s needed, but in order to maintain energy levels and boost your mood, try opting for more servings of fresh fruit and vegetables throughout your day over highly processed and high sugar options. To ensure that you have something tasty to hand during the week, try batch-cooking and freezing your meals and snacks. For some cooking inspiration, check out these 5 healthy batch-cooking ideas that’ll have you looking forward to your lunch hour even more.

7. Try light therapy

With natural light hard to come by in the winter months, using a light therapy lamp on a daily basis for around 30 minutes can be a helpful addition to your morning routine to up your energy levels and help regulate your sleep/wake cycle. Consider using Lumie’s Vitamin L SAD and Energy Light, £99.99, a class IIa medical device that delivers 10,000 lux at 22cm to simulate the effect of sunlight in the darker months.

If you find it particularly hard to get out of bed on cold winter mornings, try Lumie’s Sunrise Alarm Clock, £49.99, which comes with sunset settings, coloured mood lighting and five wake sounds to make you that much more motivated to start your day.

8. Find some fun

Create a routine that includes time to connect with the most positive and uplifting of your friends and family after work. It could be a great way to let loose and see the good side of being out and about again. Anna refers to them as our "balcony people". "You know who they are – those people who take you up to the balcony and show you the view, who remind you of the best version of you," she says. "We all need a slug of positivity every day!"

9. Prep your day the evening before

Taking steps to take the stress out of tomorrow can help you to feel more in control & possibly lead to a less fretful night’s sleep. Writing your to-do list, having your bag ready and lunch packed can all help provide greater peace of mind.

10. Be kind to yourself and others

It’s been a time of huge upheaval for many of us and we could all do with additional support to deal with our collective cognitive overload. These tips, while useful, come with a huge serving of self-compassion as many of us will still be acclimatising to the ups and downs of the last couple of years. "It’s totally normal to feel a little fragile in the face of big change, so go gently," says Anna. "Notice if you or one of your colleagues is feeling vulnerable and give yourself time to adjust to the return to the office – reach out for help if you’re feeling particularly anxious. Your manager or HR department should be able to tell you what help is available." Here’s to a happier and healthier workplace in the darker days of winter and beyond.

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