The calendar has transitioned from that chaotic holiday rush in December to an exciting fresh start in January. Now is the time to reset your focus on performance goals. Fortunately, with winter in full force across the Northern Hemisphere, it’s easier than you might think to harness mental energy, alertness, concentration, and other executive functions during this time of year. Yes, the cold winter can actually help!
In fact, research shows that our brains work more efficiently when exposed to chilly temperatures. In the first article of The Productivity Box series of 2024, let’s dive into the science behind this phenomenon—and how to use it to your own advantage on the job.
Why exposure to cold air can elevate your brain function
The trend of cold-water plunging is not for nothing—there’s a reason why people love this daily habit. According to new research from the Biology Journal, short-term exposure to an acutely cold environment will make you feel more inspired, attentive, motivated, alert, and energetic.
This can also help alleviate distress, anxiety, or other mood impairments that affect concentration. That’s because cold temperatures activate the release of key neurotransmitters in your brain, like endorphins, cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. In such a combination, they promote stress management and emotional regulation, the journal continues.
On the flip side, uncomfortably warm environments (about 77–85 degrees Fahrenheit / 25°C – 29°C) require the brain to exert more energy. In turn, this increases your mental workload. Between the physical discomfort and cognitive exertion, it’s easy to become frustrated, causing both your focus and task performance to decline.
So, what’s the connection between air temperature and how your brain functions? The answer lies in homeostasis (or balance). Your body wants to always maintain a regulated core temperature. That why, when it encounters excessive heat or cold, it will naturally work to restore homeostasis with certain actions like sweating or shivering.
The body metabolizes a molecule called glucose—its main source of energy—to perform those actions. And it requires more glucose to recover from heat than cold, the Temperature Journal points out. This does not offer much leftover energy for the brain to fuel its neural activities. That’s why it is common to feel lethargic or prone to distractions in a hot environment, versus feeling mentally sharp in a colder environment.
With that said, your brain can only handle acute exposure to the cold for short periods of time. The average person’s workflow tends to be more accurate and efficient in cool (not freezing) conditions.
How to use the cold winter to boost your cognitive performance
All it takes is a few minutes outside to maximize the cognitive benefits of those cold winter temperatures. That would be enough for your brain to respond to the frosty weather’s stimulating effects. Then, come back inside to an ambient temperature range of about 68–71 degrees Fahrenheit / 20°C – 22°C.
You’ll feel invigorated and refreshed to continue working—but not so cold that now you’re too uncomfortable to focus. On that note, here are a few actionable tips for braving the winter chill and boosting productivity.
Start the morning with a cold shower
You don’t need a cold water plunge bath or nearby body of water to leverage these benefits. The International Journal of Circumpolar Health found that a habit of cold-water immersion can improve your mental health, help manage stress levels, and stimulate brain function.
Those who consistently practice cold water immersion during winter months tend to feel more energetic and less tense or fatigued, the study reveals. Harness those cognitive benefits for yourself and start each morning with a brief cold shower to wake up your senses for the workday ahead.
Do a brisk exercise in the chilly weather
Even if all you have time for is a 20-minute walk or run, make exercise part of your routine. Moving in the cold will sharpen mental focus, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reports.
In fact, cold winter exercise offers more benefits than during the summer months since cold air increases the brain’s oxygen circulation and boosts the release of endorphins to ward off seasonal mood slumps, research in the Healthcare Journal points out.
Open a window near your work station
An increase in rain or snowfall this time of year can reduce pollution levels in the atmosphere. So, take advantage of that fresh, cold winter air and open a window near your workspace. This is an effective—and convenient—way to reap the cognitive benefits of cold weather exposure without interrupting workflow. According to Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, direct window access can also enhance productivity.
Step outside for 5 minutes periodically
As a recent study in the PLOS One Journal reveals, intermittent micro-breaks (less than 10 minutes) over the course of a workday can bolster cognitive function and task performance. These short breaks have been shown to replenish energy levels, attention spans, executive control, and other mental resources, so you can refocus on the next goal in front of you.
Carve out 5 minutes periodically to step outside for a revitalizing cold weather micro-break.
Take advantage of the cold winter air to boost your productivity
January is almost over and we’re at the peak of cold weather. It’s normal to complain about your shivering arms and chattering teeth while you dream about those balmy summer months ahead.
But don’t write this season off altogether—use that cold winter air to your advantage and raise your work performance across the board. With a renewed sense of energy, focus, alertness, and motivation, you will feel more productive than ever in 2024!