How to Stay Productive When the Days Get Shorter

December 14, 2020

“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.” 

- Aristotle

It may feel like it’s been winter for months already, but December 21 marks the winter solstice for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the shortest day of the year, and the official start of winter.

I know, right?!

The last thing we need on top of a quarantine that keeps us in our homes is even less daylight to enjoy when we escape outside . . . 

It’s been a hell of a year. 

Between having either too much alone time or none at all—depending on your living situation, record unemployment, a constantly shifting public landscape, and oh, yeah, a global pandemic to deal with, you’re probably thinking . . . 

Andrew, how can I stay productive this winter? It’s a depressing time of year ANYWAY!

Great question. Let’s dive in.


Let’s start by kicking your old definition of productive to the curb.

And while you’re at it, ditch lots of definitions that belong in the past. At least for now.

“Working parent” now means something like a combination of full-time cafeteria worker, janitor, tutor, and babysitter, on top of a traditional full-time job title. 

And we almost never talk about “distance” without the “social” anymore. 

So let’s start by clarifying the objective of this post. It’s NOT about trying to get you back to your pre-COVID productivity levels.

You might do that, or you might not. 

You might write that novel, lose that weight, or finally finish that remodeling project that’s been sitting half-done for months. Or, you might not.

And that’s okay.

It’s not about achieving greatness this winter. It’s about achieving “good enough”-ness. 

Even Tim Ferriss calls his day a win if he accomplishes 3 of the 5 things in his famed morning routine.

So decide what “productive” means for you, in this season, in this time. 

Maybe it’s bathing the kids twice a week at least. Maybe it’s squeezing in one uninterrupted work hour every day, or keeping the lights on at home however you can.                      

Create your own list of five things that mean a successful day for YOU. If you do at least three of them in a given day, that’s plenty productive.


Your inner bear is probably telling you that bedtime is at 6 p.m. So shut that guy down, and learn to love your inner tortoise.

Carl Honore had a great TED talk a few years back about the value of slowing down.

When we drop our obsession with staying busy at all times, and instead slow down long enough to enjoy the moment and accept what is, we measurably improve the quality of our lives.

Here are a few practical ways to do this:

  • To do more . . .  do less. Sort your list of “to-dos” in order of importance, from most to least. If you can’t do it all, start eliminating things from the bottom up. You’ll feel a LOT more productive at the end of each day if you do three things well than if you half-ass six things—and have to do them over again tomorrow.

    Bonus points for delegating the things on the bottom of your list that would be great if someone did them … it just doesn’t have to be you.
  • Hit the “off” button. Take the time to unplug. Be mindful of the mental space occupied by the Internet’s constant chatter. Not all screen time is bad—focused work or a Zoom chat with loved ones are much different than mindless social media scrolling. If you aren’t doing anything of value, turn the screen OFF and do something else instead. You can find HOURS a day this way, even if you piece it together a few minutes at a time.
  • Incorporate a slow ritual. If you’re already swamped, don’t panic. This doesn’t have to be something you dedicate lots of time to. ANY time is better than none, but aim for 10-15 minutes of a ritual that forces you to slow down. Take a tech-free walk. Read a story to your kids, doing all the crazy voices and without skipping any parts. Practice yoga, meditate, read, cook . . . you get the idea. It might sound crazy, but taking time in your day to slow down will actually enhance your performance when you get back to work.


Whether you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or not, most of us get at least a little bummed out in winter.

Why? Well, at least in part because we have less daylight. That means less Vitamin D, and less time to enjoy time outside.

It’s hard to feel jazzed about diving into your pet project, or a day of work, when it’s cold and dark outside.

Get at least 30 minutes of light each day, however you can. A brisk walk outside on a sunny day is best, but if that isn’t possible for you—or if you need more—try a light box.

You can buy one online, or make one yourself from a filing box and lightbulbs.

Either way, shining a little light on the subject goes a long way.


Winter doesn’t have to be SAD.

If winter gets you down in general, take a proactive approach this year to beat the blues.

That doesn’t mean you need to adopt a new workout regimen, eat only whole foods, and sleep 8+ hours every night. Though all of those things can be great energizers.

You don’t have to dedicate hours a day to a new habit. 

Simply creating the space in your life for acceptance and quiet can recharge your batteries, too.

Channel your inner tortoise, and slow down. Acknowledge that “productive” in Winter 2020/2021 is going to look different than it did last year, or even this year during the spring, summer, or fall.

Get light when you can and how you can.

Slow down, chin up, and you’ll be amazed at how much you get done.
Removing any unnecessary sources of stress—like, say, a house full of clutter—is an instant productivity boost. Click here to sign up for our De-Stress Your Mess Challenge.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!