Color hacks to help you work smarter

Scientists claim that colors influence us on a mental, physical and emotional level. [1] The right shade, they argue, can even enhance our cognitive performance. But are they being colorful with the truth?

Published 10 June 2020
Color hacks to help you work smarter

Blue is the business

When lighting designer Mark Hensman fitted out a London restaurant with all-blue lights, owners spotted something strange. Around 10pm, when diners usually felt drowsy, they started to perk up – and it wasn’t the after-dinner espressos talking. Intrigued, Professor Russell Foster and his team of researchers explored the phenomenon. Their ground-breaking study discovered a new cell in the eye – the ‘photosensitive ganglia’. [2] These cells help regulate how alert we feel and, crucially, only blue light tells the brain to wake up. Further studies found that blue light can increase performance with attention-based tasks. [3]

But too much blue isn’t a good thing. The blue light of smartphones, laptops and tablets interrupts our circadian rhythm, affects our sleep and can undo its brain-boosting properties. [4]

Hack #1

Sunlight is the main source of blue light, so try taking your lunch break outside. [5] And if you’re working late, switch your phone/laptop to ‘night mode’ to filter out the blue wavelength.


In the red corner

Blue may make you more alert, but red could give you an extra edge. When watching the 2004 Olympic Games, scientist Russell Hill from Durham University noticed that Taekwondo fighters randomly allocated red gear seemed to win more fights than their blue-clad opponents. After investigating, he found that in close contests, fighters in red won over two-thirds of the matches. [6] In a separate study, researchers digitally manipulated the footage of Taekwondo fights – swapping red for blue. But referees watching the films back still favoured red fighters (even if they’d originally lost in blue). [7]

Hill dug deeper with a study of footballers taking penalty kicks. He found those wearing red shirts had lower levels of stress-related hormone cortisol. So, not only does red alter how others perceive you, it can also enhance confidence in your own ability.

Hack #2 

The Financial Post writes that: "Red can be seen as a bit hostile in the work environment." If a crimson power suit sounds too much, consider a red tie, shoes or bag to lift your confidence. [8]


Green light a good mood

Red may make you feel great, but studies also show seeing red before a cognitive task can undermine performance. You’re more likely to work smarter, the study found, by looking at green. [9]

Green can also lift your mood. In a study of cyclists, those who watched video screens of a rural, green environment felt better than those pedalling in front of grey or red. [10] Many studies have shown that outdoor exercise can improve self-esteem and lower anxiety. [11] But the cycling experiment reveals how colour alone contributes to the ‘green exercise effect’.

Hack #3

Aglaonema, Philodendron and Peace Lillies are great, easy-to-maintain indoor plants for a splash of green on your desk. [12]


Getting the mix right

In the 1980s, psychologist Angela Wright linked colours with patterns of human behaviour. She argued that "four psychological primaries" affect us differently. Red affects the body, blue the mind, yellow the emotions, ego and self-confidence, while green balances the mind, body and emotions. [13]

Yellow, for example, can boost creativity. As Wright says, "The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem." What’s more, combining colours can bring out the benefits of each. For example, a blue room with yellow cushions could stimulate your emotions and your mind. [14]

Hack #4

Interior designers Connecting Elements advise, "Too much yellow can increase anxiety or even your appetite. So, feel free to paint the break room yellow, but limit yellow to accents and decor elsewhere." [15]

But before you redecorate your office, many scientists are sceptical of the power of colour. As the authors of ‘Colour and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work’ say: "There is considerable promise in research on colour and psychological functioning, but considerably more theoretical and empirical work needs to be done before the full extent of this promise can be discerned and, hopefully, fulfilled." [16]

Basically, colours do affect us; scientists just aren’t sure how exactly . But you can still rock that red tie to boost your confidence, or turn on a blue lamp to focus better. And if you’re fretting how it all works, a walk in leafy green surroundings will help you relax.

[1] ‘The designer’s guide to using colour in branding’ (2018). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[2] BBC Horizon, ‘Do you see what I see?’ (2012). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[3] Andrew J. Elliot, ‘Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work’ (2015). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[4] ‘Screen Light at Night - Disrupts Your Sleep, Worse for Your Health’. Available at: (accessed 12 November 2018).
[5] Gary Heiting, ‘Blue Light: It's Both Bad And Good For You’ (2017). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[6] Russell Hill, ‘Red enhances human performance in contests’ (2005). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[7] BBC Horizon, ‘Do you see what I see?’ (2012). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[8] Financial Post, ‘The best and worst colours to wear to the office’. Available at: (accessed 12 November 2018).
[9] Andrew J. Elliot, ‘Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work’ (2015). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[10] A Akers, J Barton, R Cossey, P Gainsford, M Griffin & D Micklewright, ‘Visual color perception in green exercise: positive effects on mood and perceived exertion’ (2012). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[11] University of Essex Green Exercise articles. Available at: (Accessed 12 November 2018.)
[12] The Plant Doctor, ‘Top 10 Best Plants For Your Desk At Work’ (2018). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[13] Angela Wright’s ‘Colour Affects’ website. Available at: (accessed 12 November 2018). Parts of Angela Wright’s ‘Colour Affects System’ theory may seem out of date - such as dividing people into four groups who respond to colours differently . But many of her claims, such as red’s ability to alter our perception of time, have been backed up by recent studies.
[14] ‘The exact color to paint your office to become the most productive’ (2013). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021).
[15] 'Office Color Schemes: The Psychology of Productivity’ (2017). Available at: (accessed 12 November 2018).
[16] Andrew J. Elliot, ‘Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work’. (2015). Available at: (accessed 2 February 2021)

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