Perhaps you can relate: you have your task list, you have your pomodoro timer, and you know exactly what you need to do. Then you look outside and see how grey and cold it is (as it has been for weeks). You don’t have the energy and can’t get into the mental space to do what you need to do.
Or you have the opposite problem: you look outside and it is beautiful and sunny. You have lots of energy, but every part of you wants you to take that energy outside. All those people you see out there are enjoying the weather, why can’t you?
This is what we call the seasonal productivity dip — the times of the year when, due to energy or motivation, your effectiveness is not where you think it should (or could) be.
This dip can be no joke: according to the Cleveland Clinic, about half a million people in the United States suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder each winter. 10-20% suffer from the “winter blues,” which is milder but can still lead to lethargy and irritability. If you’re an employee, this can lead to lower productivity and general unhappiness at work. If you are a freelancer or solopreneur, this can be a disaster — if your business relies on you, you want to be as effective as possible. Anything that lowers that effectiveness can have a direct financial impact.
How Do Seasons Impact Your Productivity?
Before you solve any productivity challenge, you need to know what is causing it. Otherwise, you are just applying a band-aid and not addressing the core issue.
This can make you feel stuck and overwhelmed: you feel like you should be able to make progress toward your goals, but can’t bring yourself to do it. We’ve been there.
Here are some of the ways that the changing seasons can make you feel stuck and impact your productivity:
- Weather: Swings in the weather can impact motivation and focus. For example, according to a survey, 10% of workers surveyed said they aren’t as productive on days when there is poor weather (especially rain). In another study, 45% of employees reported that they are more distracted when there is summer weather. Speaking from personal experience, years ago I had a desk with this view. I can say with confidence that I was more distracted in the summer. Those cruise ship dockings aren’t going to watch themselves.
- Light: Many people find that lack of sunlight causes reduced energy and motivation from the “winter blues,” or even full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder. When the days get gloomy and sunny days are few and far between, winter depression can kick in. Research has found that this seems to be related to our circadian rhythm and melatonin balance becoming disrupted. Interestingly, geography is also a factor. The farther away you are from the equator, the more likely it is that you’ll be affected.
- Activities: If you are self-employed or a remote worker, it can be tempting to be out enjoying yourself in the summer when the weather gets nice. Even if you work in an office, summer often means leaving early on Friday to hit the patio. In the survey referenced earlier, 53% of employees who leave early on Friday reported a drop in personal productivity.
- Families and others: If you are a parent, summer can lead to its own productivity challenges when school is out. For example, I am writing this from a cafe at a university having just dropped my kids off to a day camp and then rushed here to make our daily huddle. I know that for myself, summer means an 8-week long disrupted schedule, so I need to work around that. If you work in an office, your schedule might be disrupted by yours or your co-workers’ vacation schedules.
It’s important to remember that (other than my self-inflicted summer schedule madness), the seasonal productivity dip is not your fault. Everyone is impacted by the changing seasons differently, and in some cases it is a biological issue.
The good news is there are things you can do to reduce the impact of the dip. You may even be able to turn it to your advantage!
5 keys to turn seasonal productivity to your advantage
So we can see how the seasonal productivity dip is a real thing — now what do we do about it?
Here are 5 things to do (and not do) to stay on track:
#1: Don’t fight against it
As I said earlier, more often than not the productivity rut is not your fault. It’s tempting, but there is no reason to beat yourself up about it. Focus on the things you are going to do going forward. Don’t worry about things that have happened in the past.
You also don’t want to fight against these natural rhythms. Trying to “crush it” during a period of low energy is not sustainable.
Instead of fighting against the seasons, you want to embrace them and be aware of them as you build your productivity practices.
There is an excellent thread on this topic in The Dojo, our productivity community, titled “Surfing the productivity wave.” That’s a great way to describe it — its all about learning the techniques to ride the periods of high productivity as long as you can.
#2: Be aware of your energy
When the seasonal productivity dip hits, it’s usually energy levels that suffer the most.
Pay attention to when you have the most energy in the day (even if your peak is lower than at other times of the year). If possible, try to time your most important tasks to align with your highest energy times.
Here’s more on managing your energy.
#3: Establish rituals and systems
As we’ve established, when the seasons change motivation will be lower. Even though we may not be as motivated as we could be, things still need to get done.
The key is to establish rituals — the routines and collections of habits that you do every day to make sure that you get things done and move towards your goals.
The great thing about rituals is that they are not tied to motivation. By establishing rituals and doing them every day, they become automatic.
The key is to make the first step of your ritual so simple that it would be ridiculous not to do it. You know you are not going to feel like exercising or reviewing those professional development materials. However, if you establish rituals that make it routine and easy, it is far more likely that you will actually do them.
Just remember, as the seasons change your rituals may need to be flexible. If your ritual is to wake up at 5 am every day in the spring and summer, you may need to listen to your body and wake up a little later in the winter. If you are too exhausted to do a good workout in the evening, perhaps do it at lunch. You’ll have more energy, and side benefit: it will help keep you going later in the day.
#4: Remember your “Why”
At the best of times, willpower is not strong enough to consistently help you reach your goals, as we discuss in this podcast episode on motivation.
What will help you get motivated? Having a “Why” — the emotional pull behind your goal. Your core reason for doing what you want to do. Even when you don’t feel like it, your why can be a spark that can get you going.
Your why may be positive (“I want to exercise so that I look amazing on this upcoming vacation”) or negative (“I want to exercise so that I don’t end up constantly in pain like my grandparents”). Either way is fine as long as you are honest with yourself.
#5: Balance your environment
Just because it is miserable outside doesn’t mean you need to suffer. Some things that can help:
- Use a light therapy device. Many people report an improvement by using a light box for as little as 30 minutes per day. If you have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, go with your doctor’s recommendation for which kind to get. The usual “dose” is a 10,000 lux light box. There are products like the Philips Wake-Up Light that will gradually wake you up with a sunrise simulation. We talk about it in our podcast on energy management.
- Get vitamin D. Vitamin D is hard to get in the winter, and D deficiency has been linked to depression. It is not clear that taking vitamin D supplements alone will improve mood and energy, but if you are deficient, it may be a good idea to look into it.
- Reconfigure your work space. If you spend a lot of time away from natural light, see if you can move closer to a window. Light therapy should help, but nothing can compare with natural light.
- Take breaks. Try to configure your work into “pomodoros” where you work for short bursts of time and then take a short break in between. Trying to force a long work session when you are tired will lead to poor results. When in doubt, take a short walk.
- Socialize with empathetic people. Interacting with people can help improve your mood and make you feel less lonely and disconnected. Sometimes a quick conversation with the right (and supportive) person can leave you feeling energized. If you don’t have those empathetic and supportive people in your life, you may be able to find “your people” in The Dojo, our productivity community. Whatever you’re struggling with, there are others there who have been through it.
Being less productive during different seasons does not make you an “unproductive person.” It’s important not to be too hard on yourself. Many of us on the AE team have been through it ourselves, and we know what it’s like. It’s the reason we’re able to help so many people get unstuck with our actionable content so they can start making progress on their goals.
If you want to achieve your full potential, it’s important to be flexible and try different things to find what works for you. But here’s the good news: when you find what will help you be more productive during your dip, it will give you a platform to be even more effective once you swing back into a season of high productivity. Win-win.
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