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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

7 Things Killing Your Productivity Today (That Are Completely Out of Your Control)

person not being productive
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You’re having a bad day. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. You’re not getting anything done, and your self-esteem’s taking a hit.

I get it. Alexander gets it.

We all have our reasons for not being productive at work. Many of them are in our control. But just to make you feel better, I’m not going to tell you it’s your fault that that report’s not getting done, or that you missed that deadline, or that your client’s impatiently waiting on you to email them back. Blame it on circumstance, on your office, on life itself.

In fact, I can name several reasons you’re not being productive today that have nothing to do with you. So you’re welcome. I hope this puts things into perspective and turns your day around just a bit.

1. The Lighting

Imagine an interview room on your favorite cop show. Cold, bare, except for one excruciating ray of brightness from a single light bulb.

Sound like the vibe in your office? I’d guess you’re probably about as productive in it as you’d expect someone to be under interrogation.

Science backs me up on this one. In a 2013 report published by the Centre for Performance at Work in partnership with Philips, it was found that artificial light can affect performance in all sorts of ways, from causing eye strain, headaches, and stress to influencing employee’s moods—depending on if the color of the lighting is “warm” (reddish), “cool” (bluish), or “artificial” (white), that is.

Realistically, you can’t swap out the bulbs in your office or go to your boss begging for better lighting (because they’re most likely not going to listen to that). But at least knowing this can influence where in your office you choose to work—maybe by a window or in a well-lit conference room, for example—or, if you work from home, how you light your remote setting.

2. The Wall Color

Yes, I did just say color can affect your mood. In one early 2000s study it was found that employees working in an office painted red reported higher negative mood characteristics compared with those in an office painted a blue-green shade. Maybe time to advocate for a paint job?

3. The Temperature

It’s well talked about (and joked about) that office temperatures favor men, and thus leave women freezing in the summertime. But we’re all actually subject to inactivity as a result of our company’s thermostat.

A 2015 study on “Workplace productivity and individual thermal satisfaction” discovered that when we have greater thermal satisfaction (a.k.a., when we’re more comfortable with our body’s temperature), we’re more productive. So if your office is making you too cold or too hot, you may find yourself desperately trying to Goldilocks your way to more motivation.

4. The Air

Seriously, nothing’s off the table when it comes to complaining about your office. A study published in Harvard Business Review on participants in a controlled workspace found that poor air quality—based on how much outdoor air they ventilated in, how many chemicals were concentrated in the air, and the levels of carbon dioxide—can lead to worse decision-making performance.

5. The Weather

Is it sunny out right now? Is the sky so madly beautiful and the outdoors so incredibly tempting you would give your left arm to be able to skip work and frolic outside?

The weather’s playing a mean trick on you, that’s what’s happening. According to a 2012 Harvard Business School study tracking the work ethic of employees at a midsize bank in Tokyo over the course of two and a half years, it was found that your productivity fluctuates depending on the actual weather outside and perceived weather (basically, if you’re exposed to various imagery related to the weather).

Researchers found that “the top performers (those who completed the task the fastest and the most accurately) were the rainy-day control group participants, who had seen neither the actual sun nor pictures of the sun before doing the task...Meanwhile, exposure to the sunny-day photographs significantly decreased the performance of participants who came to the lab on rainy days,” HBS’s blog author Carmen Nobel summarizes.

(Fun fact: Daylight Saving Time also makes you less productive, so you can place extra blame on that day specifically.)

6. Your Work Friends

You probably don’t need scientific proof to tell you your co-workers are a massive productivity killer, from being distracting to annoying to lazy and unreliable. But I’ll provide it anyway for good measure.

Recent research has found that while having a lot of “multiplex friendships”—friendships with colleagues you share an office with and work closely with—can offer lots of benefits, it can also detract from your performance through “emotional exhaustion.”

“You’re playing two roles at once: friend and colleague. Friends unconditionally support each other, but colleagues can’t always do that, especially when their own reputation is at stake. It can be draining to have to decide which role to play, and when,” explains New York Times author Melissa Dahl.

7. Sports

Being too into your fantasy football league or rooting heavily for your sports team has its downsides. The Workforce Institute at Kronos found that 45% of employees ages 18 to 34 believed they were more likely to have anxiety about going back to work the Monday after the Super Bowl. Another study of football fans found that negative team performance spills over into poor work performance.

See, you’re not in the wrong! Life’s just making things more difficult for you today.

But, in case you want to take back some control of your productivity—because yes, despite all these factors, you can absolutely get yourself back on track—you can read this article on bouncing back from an unproductive day, or follow these tips for making your open office a little more bearable to work in.