Why Summer Makes Us So Unproductive

The dog days take a bite out of your workflow. Science is here to explain why that is.

Do you have the feeling that summer is your least productive season? As Maria Konnikova reports in the New Yorker, it may just be a part of human nature. And the nature of heat. 

"Our brains do, figuratively, wilt," she says. 

But what's with the wilting? Why do the dog days make our minds melt, during a season where we can indeed be productive? Research suggests at least three options:

  • we'd rather be doing other, more summer-y things,
  • the humidity makes us stupid,
  • the heat makes us feel good, which makes us stupid

Let's find out exactly why. You may wish to bring a Popsicle.

We want to play

Better weather places less emphasis on workflow fidelity, as a 2012 study between Harvard and the University of North Carolina demonstrated. During one portion of the experiment, students were given data entry. Konnikova recaps the hilarity that ensued:

The students were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: before starting to work, they were either shown six photographs of outdoor activities in nice weather, such as sailing or eating outdoors, or were asked to describe their daily routines. The researchers found that participants were less productive when they’d viewed pleasant outdoor photographs. Instead of focussing on their work, they focussed on what they’d rather be doing—whether or not it was actually sunny or rainy outside (though the effect was stronger on sunny days). The mere thought of pleasant alternatives made people concentrate less.

Fascinatingly, it's not just in the option to opt out of data entry and go play in the grass that is a part of summer's productivity-sapping sweetness: Other research has shown that during higher temperatures, people are prone to what psychologists call "heuristic thinking." That is, the unexamined, superficial thought processes that rely on mental shortcuts instead of critical thinking. (To wade deeply into the critical and uncritical systems, read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow—one of our fave popular psychology books.)

And if it's not the heat, it's the humidity: Mugginess, Konnikova reports, reduces concentration, too.

We feel good, so we don't think good

But the emotional input of summer may have the most intuitive—and strange—results. People tend to be happier in the summer, research has shown, and the better people feel, the less vigilant they are about their thinking. A similar example has been found in the way your playlist relates to your workflow: If you're nodding your head to the beat, you're getting energized, but if you're singing along with Frank Ocean, you're getting distracted.

A hidden key to a productive summer, then, may be getting a little grumpy.

Related Story: 10 Things Not To Wear To Work In The Summer

[Image: Flickr user Falk Lademann]

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3 Comments

  • Robbie Brilliant

    I think you're seeing work the wrong way. Work is what we do to attain pleasantness. It is not the end goal, but merely a coping mechanism.

  • Mohammad Taqi

    Almost true, I am from a mountainous country (Afghanistan) and I am studying in a tropical country (Malaysia) where everyday is like summer for me. And from my very first days of coming to Malaysia not only I think I become lazy, I actually see the people here are the laziest people of the world.

  • Eugene Salganik

    Who says we need to be "productive"? There is more to life than contributing to GDP.