We all experience mental fatigue in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. Have you ever had a brain lapse and experienced a scenario similar to the one below?
I take a seat back at my desk and glance down at my to-do list; I open my browser back up and navigate to Analytics… oh, wait.
I look down at the to-do list again… expense reports, right! Expense reports… I toggle through the files and open last month’s to use as a template. Ooo, nuts.com! I haven’t put in our snack order for next month yet, and it’s already… *clicks to open calendar* Oh yes, the 28th… *starts shopping online for office snacks*
Mental Fatigue and How to Avoid It
Wait, what am I doing?! I look down at my to do list again… Expense reports, right. Expense reports...
We’ve all been there - the afternoon work-day slump. The wall. The “Black Hole.”
This morning, you were on fire! Zooming through tasks, full of creative energy and coffee, ready to tackle any challenge unfortunate enough to stand in your path. Now, you’re here - struggling to focus, lacking a drop of the initiative you had when you arrived, and perhaps even looking for time wasters.
Likely, your coworkers are right there with you. A survey of 2,000 workers concluded that most employees hit this slump at about 2:22 pm, and over 75% of workers said they noticed their peers having the same problem. Many reported sending emails or messages to the wrong person during this time, drifting off during meetings, and making spelling and grammar mistakes in correspondence and important documents they normally wouldn’t have.
The mid-day slump is common, but it doesn't have to be.
The Energy Project, a firm dedicated to helping create “work cultures that are more human, more energized, and sustainably high-performing,” states in their key philosophies that “strengths overworked become liabilities.” They believe that the structure of the typical workplace and workday are often antithetical to what makes humans work best - and there’s quite a bit of proof that they have a point.
Pulse and Pause to Avert Brain Lapses
Research shows that people actually work best with a “pulse and pause” pattern. Working for 75 - 90 minutes at a time followed by a 15 minute break significantly improves the quality (and quantity!) of work that one completes. There are several theories as to why. One is that it allows the body to “consolidate information and then retain it better,” according to Robert Pozen, an MIT lecturer on Management. In an interview with Fast Company last fall, Pozen said “That’s what’s happening physiologically during breaks.”
There is another pulse-and-pause pattern called the Pomodoro Technique. This method calls for working short sprints of 25 minutes at a time (on only one task at a time, completely uninterrupted) and taking a break for 5 minutes, then repeating! Different pulse-and-pause patterns work for different people and different types of jobs, but the concept itself applies to nearly every office job.
The other make-it-or-break-it for making it through the day with your initiative intact is how you choose to use your pauses. If you primarily use breaks to snack and fill up on coffee, the additional (likely carb-heavy) calories and caffeine can actually induce the very effects your break is meant to reduce! Try drinking water instead of coffee (hydration improves brain function), and if you're hungry, snack on something protein-rich instead of carby to help prevent a blood sugar crash.
Activities that allow you to get up and move around (and leave the vicinity of your desk where work is looming) are helpful alternatives. Exercise, whether a quick trip to the company gym, a brisk walk around the building, or an office yoga session can all meet the same goal of getting your blood pumping and allowing your “thinking brain” to take a breather. It can also be beneficial to simply sit, think, and do nothing (no phone, tablet, or reading material!). This type of non-activity has been shown to mimic the positive effects of meditation, which will increase your focus once you make it back to your desk.
Most importantly, as Pozen suggests, is that the specific amount of time you spend working should not be as important as what you’re getting accomplished. “We need to do away with time as a success metric. You can accomplish more when you give yourself breaks to reengergize!” An organization's management should consider avoiding mental fatigue an important goal in their employee's day-to-day lives.
Erica is the Director of Administration at VTR, and a mom. She delights in challenging the status quo of how organizations run and how work happens, and is on a never-ending journey to make the workplace and culture optimal for human productivity + happiness. She enjoys good coffee, hiking, painting, and is also an enduring fan of The Walking Dead.