Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

How to Survive the Darkest Days at Work

Be one with the sun.

Winter is coming. Frigid, short days can turn even the cheeriest person into a grump by February, and the seemingly eternal darkness is bad for productivity. Can anything be done to solve this seasonal problem?

Studies have found that exposure to natural sunlight improves workplace performance and is good for your health. People exposed to natural daylight in one study were more alert at the end of the day than those under artificial light, and levels of cortisol, which helps manage stress, dropped in poor lighting conditions. Daylight has also been associated with improved mood, enhanced morale, lower fatigue, and reduced eyestrain, research has found. Sun is good; darkness is bad.

So we decided to do a little experiment. To conform to winter’s absurd version of daytime, we would work for a week in the office only while the sun was up—in New York right now, that’s from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—to see if we could hack the seasons and avoid the winter mood and productivity slump. We were aided by sitting next to floor-to-ceiling windows to catch as many rays as we could. Here’s what we found:

Prepare to wake and commute in the dark

For those with more flexible work hours, making sure you’re in the office by daylight means actively choosing to wake and commute in darkness. Sun peeking through the curtains is the most natural stimulant to waking up and preparing your brain for the day. To supplement it, we got the Philips Wake-up Light (with Colored Sunrise Simulation), an alarm clock replacement that uses the gradual brightening of a sun simulator and nature sounds. It lessened the blow and was even better than waking up later to the jarring blare of an iPhone alarm.

No one’s in the office yet

Aligning your schedule with the sun rather than when your colleagues are in the office has its problems. Sitting at our desks before we would normally be leaving our homes felt good and productive. For some jobs, however, there’s little you can do while everyone else is asleep or commuting. We wasted some time just watching the rest of the Internet wake up. We wrote strong e-mails for people to read first thing in the morning, which seemed a bit like a power move. In the end, we were limited by what we could do just because of the time of day.

We weren’t more energetic throughout the day

Despite the studies, there was no sustained burst of sun-fueled energy. But we were more energetic at the end of our day, when the 4:30-to-6:30 p.m. lethargy would usually kick in. With a hard sunset deadline, we were more motivated to power through the end-of-the-day tasks and actually got a lot more done. Plus, leaving early means more time to do leisure activities and errands after work. The cold, dark winter is a lot more bearable with a happy hour drink or five.

We were, overall, less cranky

The satisfaction of waking up early, combined with not having to sit in front of a computer through hours of darkness, led to an overall improvement in our moods. When we left the office, we felt alert and less concerned about the dark night ahead.

It’s hard to actually leave before dark

It’s difficult to leave the office at 4:30 p.m. when everyone else is still working. People want to schedule phone calls and meetings later in the day, and you’re the difficult jerk with the weird time constraints. Because of the realities of our jobs, neither of us managed to leave as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Nine hours of sunlight is really seven

Waking up early in December doesn’t guarantee a bright, sunshine-filled morning. At 6:30 a.m. it’s dark gray outside. By 6:45 a.m., the sky turns a dirty gray as the weak, low sun creeps above the horizon. If the sun sets at 4:30 p.m., it starts getting dark at the top of the hour. Escaping blackness is almost impossible. And if you work in the middle of a city full of skyscrapers, like New York, the sun can be difficult to find even at lunchtime.

Still, lighter workdays are worth the pain

Shifting your entire life to working with the sun is impractical, but it’s a goal worth pursuing. Minimizing time spent in an office surrounded by blackness will lead to an improved mood and increased productivity at the end of the day. Observing daylight saving time year-round, which naturally gives us more sunlight after work, would help solve the dark-after-work sadness problem. But until the entire country decides to change its biannual clock-changing ritual, consider an earlier schedule if possible, starting the workday at 8 or 8:30 a.m., so you can wake and commute in the sun. While it’s hard to leave the office at 4:30 p.m., clearing out by 5:30 is a perfectly reasonable goal. Despite the logistical obstacles, maximizing your time viewing a well-lit world feels better than the alternative.

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