The afternoon doldrums can strike at any time. One minute you’re working away and the next you’re fighting the urge to lie down from exhaustion.
If afternoons are a daily struggle, you’re not alone. Our attention spans take a natural dip in the afternoons because our bodies have an internal alert system ― what scientists call the circadian alerting system ― that strengthens and wanes over the course of the day.
“The grogginess that people often experience in the mid-afternoon, and commonly attribute to a heavy lunch or a dull meeting, is usually the result of a brief lull in the strength of the alerting signal,” Harvard’s Healthy Sleep site explains. “While sleep drive continues to climb, there is an hour or two each afternoon during which the alerting signal fails to keep pace, and alertness suffers as a result.“
When this afternoon slump hits, you can either keep pushing through your fatigue or take a step back and try out some of these proven tips that can give you the energy boost you need to get through the rest of the workday.
1. Drink some water.
When in doubt about why you’re so tired and your head is pounding, try drinking more water. Dehydration makes us tired, and people at work often forget to hydrate while sitting or staring at screens all day.
Even mild dehydration levels ― a body water loss of 1% to 2% ― can impair cognitive performance and cause poor concentration and short-term memory problems, as well as moodiness and anxiety, according to research. So drink up!
2. Turn up the lights or get outside.
If you feel sluggish after lunchtime, it may help to get your body exposed to more light. If going outside is not an option, turn up the lights where you’re working. Research has found that more intense light can improve feelings of alertness and vitality.
But go outside if you can. Paul Glovinsky, the clinical director of the St. Peter’s Sleep Center in Albany, New York, and the author of “You Are Getting Sleepy: Lifestyle-Based Solutions for Insomnia,” said outdoor light is much stronger than what you get inside.
“In lux, a unit of illuminance, residential lighting is typically under 500 lux and offices around 1000 lux, while direct sunlight can be 100,000 lux,” he said. “Our circadian rhythms are best entrained by this strong outdoor light, but many of us are hardly outside at all during the day.”
3. Take a power nap.
Instead of pushing through fatigue, take a little time to rest so that you can finish your day strong. Just be sure to time it right, and don’t make it longer than an hour unless you’re OK with staying up later.
“Some do well with a 20-minute power nap, others with 30 or 45 minutes,” Glovinsky said. “I would avoid an hour nap or longer unless one is living in a siesta culture where stores reopen, dinner is late, etc., because long naps will cause sleep timing to drift later.”
4. Talk with someone.
Angela Karachristos, a career coach who previously worked in human resources, said her afternoon slump hits every day at exactly 2 p.m. She tries to schedule conversations that can perk her up for the afternoon, saving her focused solo work for the morning.
“Sometimes I try to connect with a friend or colleague or I try to schedule meetings during that time so I’m engaged in a conversation,” Karachristos said. “One of my go-to time management strategies is to get all the work that I have to do independently done in the morning. I’m awake and super motivated once my a.m. coffee kicks in. If I have back-to-back meetings in the afternoon, I am still engaged and working, but it doesn’t require that laser focus that I needed in the morning.”
5. Eat a fun, motivating snack.
If you need a pick-me-up, eat a snack. What we eat and drink can make a big difference for problem-solving, attention span and memory. Brain foods like broccoli, grains, lentils and eggs, for example, can help boost concentration when you need it most.
And you can think of the break you’ll take to eat your snack as something to look forward to.
“Another way I trick myself is I have go-to treats that I save for slump time. So instead of getting coffee from my favorite spot in the morning, I’ll save it for slump time as a pick-me-up,” Karachristos said. “Or, if I have a special treat like leftover dessert, I save it for the afternoon break.”
6. Think about what activity nourishes you, and make time for it.
By the time the afternoon rolls around, you may be mentally and physically drained and think you have to keep working without a break in order to finish. But counterintuitively the promise of a fun activity can keep you motivated to get through each day.
That’s why Adjoa Osei, a licensed clinical psychologist, recommends reflecting on what activities nourish and refresh you, and doing them. The answers can vary depending on your personal needs and personality.
“For some people, it could be movement, such as going for a walk, taking a dance break with music, stretching or looking at enjoyable pictures,” Osei said. “For other people, it might be taking a moment for stillness, such as focusing on your breath or meditation.”