How to beat the afternoon slump

Aug 04, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. Our energy depletes during the day
  2. Your energy can be restored
  3. We work best during short periods of intense focus
  4. How to be beat the afternoon slump

The afternoon slump is a period in the early afternoon where a lot of people experience a drop in energy, motivation, and focus. Occurring usually just after your lunch break, the afternoon slump can be a killer for your productivity.

However, it’s possible to avoid the afternoon slump and maintain a high level of productive output during the working day. Once you understand your mind and body’s natural ultradian rhythm, you can better manage the precious resource of your energy.

Our energy depletes during the day

From the moment you wake up, the amount of energy you have will naturally deplete during the day. This means most people have lots of energy in the morning, and then crash after a hard day of work.

Whilst your energy level will slowly deplete over the course of the day, you will likely feel spikes of energy and periods of tiredness or lack of focus. One of the most pronounced periods of tiredness and lack of focus occurs in the early afternoon and is commonly known as the afternoon slump.

Experiencing the afternoon slump can mean you are essentially writing off a large part of your working day, particularly if you don’t experience a second wind later in the afternoon. It’s never been more important to manage your energy, not your time. During this period you will either not be able to complete any complex, creative or high energy required tasks, or if you do attempt that kind of work, you will likely find that you make more errors due to your lack of focus.

Decision fatigue is another potential problem that can arise during the afternoon slump. When you are feeling tired and have low energy, you will be potentially making decisions that could have a long term negative impact because they feel like the easy right decision at the time.

Your energy can be restored

Whilst it’s inevitable that your energy will deplete during the day, it is possible to restore your energy through certain activities or lifestyle choices.

The most obvious way to restore energy is rest. Getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is the first, and probably the most important thing you can do if you do not want to suffer from the afternoon slump.

However, other activities such as exercising, socialising with family and friends, and leading a healthy active lifestyle with lots of sunshine and time spent outdoors will make a lot of difference to your energy levels and your ability to restore energy during the day.

We work best during short periods of intense focus

Humans aren’t built for long periods of hard work. Over millions of years of evolution we have developed the ability to focus our energy for short periods of time, followed by long periods of rest. We needed to evolve like this to survive. It’s only in the fairly recent past that we started forcing ourselves to work for long periods of time. This natural phenomenon is known as your ultradian rhythm.

Each period in the ultradian rhythm lasts approximately 90 minutes, although there are many factors that will affect this, and it typically fluctuates for different people. However, the point is, you are only able to focus your energy for a fixed period of time before you have to take the appropriate time to rest and recuperate, ready to go again.

During these 90 minutes you should prioritise your most important, complex, or creative tasks that require your highest levels of focus and concentration. During the subsequent periods of tiredness or lack of focus, you should either give yourself the opportunity to rest, or only work on low effort, routine tasks that don’t require very much energy or effort.

If instead you try to power on beyond your set period of focus energy, you won’t give yourself the time and space you require to recover. This means you won’t be able to reach the productive heights of your most focused periods of work because your mind and body hasn’t been able to fully recover. It can also mean that certain tasks will take longer than if you attempted them with a higher energy level.

How to be beat the afternoon slump

So what’s the secret to beating the afternoon slump?

Firstly, you need to work with your ultradian rhythm, not against it. This means 90 minutes of intense, focused work, followed by 15 - 20 minutes of rest, no cheating. It can be tempting to power through when you know you’ve got a lot to do or you’re feeling overwhelmed, but you need to take the time to rest so you can hit your peak focused energy.

During periods of low energy, you can still schedule low effort tasks such as replying to emails, filing expenses, or other routine tasks, which don’t require a lot of physical or mental energy.

You should also prioritise taking a long lunch break, and get away from your desk. If you can go for a walk in the sunshine, exercise, or spend some time socialising with colleagues, friends or family it will help you avoid the lure of sitting at your desk to eat your lunch.

If you follow this routine during the morning hours, you are less likely to experience the afternoon slump because you have maintained your energy level through rest, and restorative activities.

Whilst this might feel like you are losing a lot of productive hours you could be spending getting stuff done, it’s actually a counterintuitive measure to be more productive.

When you know you’ve got a long 8 hour day, you will intuitively work at a lower level because you know you need to sustain your energy all day. However, if you know you only have to work for 90 minutes followed by a period of rest, your effort, focus, and concentration will be at a much higher level. This means it’s actually possible to get more done in less time by following this routine.

Philip Brown


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