Your high-energy, high-output morning feels like a distant memory, and the end of your workday seems about a week away. That third cup of coffee is wearing off and you’re debating whether your stomach can handle a fourth. We’ve all been there — the afternoon slump — and we’ll all be there again. Some of us may even be reading this blog post in the midst of a 3 pm productivity tailspin.
If your afternoons are often more of an uphill battle than a victory lap, we’ve got news for you.
The afternoon slump is more than just a marketing ploy. It’s not an attempt to sell you alien-shaped-sleep-at-your-desk pillows or productivity-boosting facial spray. The afternoon slump is very real. In fact, it’s a natural part of how the human brain works, and it’s pretty much unavoidable.
Because we understand the brain mechanism that contributes to the afternoon slump, we also understand how to mediate its effects. Below is a quick summary of the relevant research. Plus, we’ve included a few activities you can do at lunchtime or for a quick break to power past your PM lethargy.
Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study to determine what actually happens in your brain when you suddenly find it difficult to maintain focus after an extended period of work. The study measured groups of participants’ performance on a series of hour-long computer tasks. One group took two short breaks during the tasks, while the other took none. The only participants that exhibited no decline in performance over time were in the group taking the breaks.
The study results confirmed researchers’ hypothesis that the human brain’s ability to maintain constant focus eventually plateaus and then declines. It’s like how you notice a distinct smell when you first walk into a room but cannot smell it after half an hour. The results also confirmed their idea that the brain naturally revs up when one shifts focus.
Taken together, these findings suggest that a 5- to 10-minute break during a project requiring hours of sustained effort can naturally reinvigorate your ability to focus and promote maximum productivity.
Here are three of our favorite break-time activities to give your focus a chance to recharge and, according to science, enhance your brain function:
1. Daydreaming makes you a better problem solver.
Studies show that stepping away from a difficult project to do an unrelated and easy activity makes you more creative when you get back to work.
The evidence: This UC Santa Barbara study found that mind wandering boosts creative problem-solving skills. Subjects performed an Unusual Uses Task (UUT) — a traditional psychological measure where one lists as many uses for certain objects as possible. After the UUT, subjects engaged in either a cognitively demanding or undemanding task. Neuroscientists measured the subjects’ levels of mind wandering during these tasks, and found that those performing the undemanding task exhibited a much greater tendency to let their minds roam. All subjects then performed another UUT. Guess which group of subjects showed dramatic improvement in their second UUT? Yup, the daydreamers.
2. A 10-20 minute power nap between 1-3pm is better than a cup of coffee.
By timing it right, a short nap immediately recharges your brain’s ability to focus. Even better, it all happens without the subsequent drop in energy when the caffeine buzz wears off.
The evidence: A 2006 study on nap duration found that 10 up to 20 minutes is the ideal length of time for a power nap. Nappers who slept for more than 20 and up to 60 minutes exhibited sleep inertia for half an hour after they awoke. What is sleep inertia? It’s the scientific term for the grogginess you feel immediately after rising, and it’s definitively proven to seriously impair cognitive performance. A nap shorter than 20 minutes keeps your body from falling into the deeper levels of sleep known as slow-wave and REM sleep (the types of sleep that produce sleep inertia). Naps of this length are known to replenish attention and strengthen working memory.
3. Reading a novel makes you less stressed and happier.
Engaging with fiction tricks your brain into believing it’s in another world. In so doing, it relaxes you and strengthens your ability to empathize with others’ points of view.
The evidence: Numerous surveys comparing readers and non-readers — such as this one by Quick Reads and the University of Liverpool — find that people who read as little as 30 minutes per week experience less feelings of stress and depression, report 20% greater life satisfaction, and are better equipped to deal with difficult and unexpected situations. Neurological research has actually documented changes in brain connectivity as a result of novel reading and suggests that these changes enhance one’s ability to adopt other perspectives.