Boost productivity and mood on cold, dark winter days with these eight 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 and productivity levels. It’s easy to find your internal clock feeling out of sync and experience the winter blues as a result.

Whilst many of us can feel a bit glum as winter approaches, according to the NHS, around one in 15 people (approx. 6% of the UK population) experience seasonal affective disorder (better known as SAD), a type of depression that comes and goes in seasonal patterns. Symptoms include persistent low mood, lethargy, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities or irritability. If these are affecting your daily life, it could be a good idea to visit your GP who will be able to support you with a plan of action tailored to your needs. 

At this time of year, motivation levels can nose-dive, particularly if you’re also planning to return to the office – a significant change from the WFH ‘normality’ that a lot of us had become used to during the pandemic. The shorter, colder and darker days don’t often provide the most inspiring of conditions for swapping our home office for the IRL versions - anyone else feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect? 

If so, this guide’s for you as much as it is for us. From how to introduce healthy work habits into your day to ways to improve your sleep, (please include as a cross link), here’s how to get into a routine and make the transition, from sitting room to city and autumn to winter, as smooth as possible.

1. Embrace routine

Getting stuck into a new routine is key for making the return to the office feel less nerve-racking. “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. A routine can help to make it something to look forward to. “Focus on creating a routine that honours you, from making time for breakfast before you leave the house to catch 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.” You might also enjoy tuning into one of our favourite meditation apps.

Sometimes simplicity works best. “Make your routine easy to achieve and easy 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 quota in the past 20+ months!).

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? Keep to regular sleep hours (sticking to roughly the same sleep and wake up times every day), make sure that your bedroom is dark (we’ve got our sleep masks on standby), quiet and cool and ‘brain dump’ 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. 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 can. 

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.

4. 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. 

5. Try light therapy

With natural light hard to come by in the winter months, using a light therapy lamp for around 30 minutes can be a helpful mood-boosting addition to your morning routine and could provide a useful way to up your energy levels and help regulate your sleep/wake cycle. Lumie’s Vitamin L SAD and Energy Light (£89.99), a class IIa medical device, is a great option thanks to its 10,000 lux power (a light source of at least 2500 lux is best). 

If you find it particularly hard to get out of bed on cold winter mornings, try a sunrise alarm clock. Lumie’s Bodyclock Shine 300 Wake-up Alarm (£129.99) also comes with sunset settings and FM radio to make you that much more motivated to start your day. 

6. Find some fun

There are plenty of things to be cautious about when returning to the office, which makes it all the more necessary to draw on good memories to help balance things out. “There’s definitely some fun to be found in being back – from office laughs to water cooler chit chat and the odd coffee/lunch/after-work drinks with colleagues,” says Anna. Anyone else Zoomed out? The chance to catch up with your team face-to-face can be strange but potentially exciting and a good opportunity to flex your socialising muscles. Feeling self-conscious? Us too. Take comfort from the fact that there’s a good chance that pretty much everyone else might be feeling the same way.

Taking time to connect with the most positive and uplifting of your friends after work 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. We all need a slug of positivity every day!”  

7. Prep your day the evening before

Taking steps to take the stress out of tomorrow can help you to feel more in control and possibly lead to a less fretful night’s sleep. Writing your to-do list, having your bag ready, lunch and hand sanitiser packed and staying up-to-date with your office’s Covid safety procedures can all help provide greater peace of mind.

8. Be kind to yourself & 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. “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.

Image credit: extracted from Eat Green by Melissa Hemsley, Ebury Press – Photography by Philippa Langley

All prices correct at time of publication