It’s 3 PM and you’re feeling sluggish. You’ve still got tasks to tick off your to-do list but your mind just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate.
Brain fog settles in. All you can think of is pounding back another espresso or bag of candy.
This is what is often referred to as the “afternoon slump”, a dip in energy levels that many people experience between 1 and 3 PM. For many of us mere mortals, it poses a daily and serious challenge to our productivity.
The good news is that by making a few simple changes to your routine, you can protect your energy levels and minimize the afternoon slump.
What Causes the Afternoon Slump?
The afternoon slump hasn’t got anything to do with motivation or discipline – it’s a natural consequence of how our bodies function.
It’s thought to be related to the natural ebb and flow of certain hormones and neurological signals throughout the day. For instance, a dip in alertness appears to be a natural part of your circadian rhythm, the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
Food also has a part to play. Not eating enough food or not eating regularly enough means your blood sugar becomes low, leaving you lethargic and at risk of other nasty symptoms. Additionally, eating certain things can cause your blood sugar to spike and then fall rapidly.
Your alertness is also impacted by your sleep hygiene. Poor or disrupted sleep can leave you feeling foggy and low energy. While you might make it through the morning, come 3 o’clock and it can hit like a truck. The “slump” or fog is an indication that your circadian rhythm isn’t well regulated, making the dip worse.
So, the bad news is that you’re probably not going to be able to escape it entirely. However, there is plenty that you can do to reduce the slump and keep your energy levels up throughout the day.
Eating to Combat the Afternoon Slump
Food is a key part of keeping yourself energized and remaining productive. According to Hubspot, workers who eat healthily throughout the day are 25% more likely to achieve higher job performance. That’s a very big number.
To make sure you have enough fuel to see you through the afternoon, make time for food throughout the day. Skipping meals is a surefire way to bring on a slump.
If you struggle with eating big meals at breakfast and lunchtime, consider breaking them up into smaller, more frequent meals instead. You should also keep healthy snacks within easy reach to keep your energy levels steady and prevent your blood sugar from fluctuating too much.
What you eat dictates how much energy you have to work with and how long it will last. Avoid foods that are high in sugar or that contain simple carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta. Because they’re processed very quickly by your body, they can cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly and then dip just as rapidly, meaning you experience an energy high followed by a low.
For a lunch that will really keep you going through the afternoon, aim for something that’s high in lean protein and complex carbs. Chicken, fish, eggs, pulses, whole grains, and vegetables are all good things to include.
And plan ahead so that good choices are easy to make. As psychologist Ron Freedman explains in the Harvard Business Review, high sugar, high carb options are often more convenient, readily available, and feel more efficient. As he puts it: “We save 10 minutes now and pay for it with weaker performance the rest of the day.”
And worse, eat the wrong foods and it can really knock you out. A food coma – more formally known as “postprandial somnolence” – is also more likely after a heavy meal.
Drinking plenty can help you keep the slump at bay. Even mild dehydration, which occurs naturally throughout the day as you work, can leave you feeling tired and impair your cognition.
What you drink matters as much as what you eat. It’s tempting to reach for sodas and fruit juices. Sticking to beverages that don’t cause you to overload on sugar (and the resulting crash) is a more energy-savvy choice. So, water, coffee (in moderation), unsweetened tea, and other sugar-free options are your friends.
Speaking of coffee… is it really a good idea to head for the coffee machine for an afternoon pick-me-up?
Caffeine definitely has been proven to help many people feel more alert. It’s important to remember though that it doesn’t actually give you energy – instead, it stimulates your nervous system and blocks the receptors for adenosine, a hormone that causes you to feel sleepy. That means that caffeine can impact your sleep and could have a knock-on effect on your energy the next day.
Use caffeine mindfully. The FDA in the US advises healthy adults to consume no more than 400mg of caffeine per day. (That’s still 4 to 5 cups!). Keep in mind that foods can contain caffeine too. There’s a huge amount of variation in the way people respond, so make sure you monitor how caffeinated foods and drinks make you feel.
Taking a brisk walk around the block, doing a few seated yoga poses, or regularly switching from seated working to standing could be exactly what you need to power through your afternoon tasks.
Movement helps in the short term by transporting more oxygen throughout your body, meaning your brain can function more effectively. More vigorous movement causes an increase in certain hormones, like endorphins, which will leave you feeling more energized.
You should also think about incorporating more regular exercise into your routine as this can bring long-term benefits. Exercise creates more mitochondria: the parts of your cells that generate chemical energy from the food you eat. So, by working on your fitness, you’re effectively boosting your body’s natural energy levels over time.
Plan Around It
While there’s plenty you can do to mitigate the slump, chances are you’ll often find yourself feeling a bit depleted during the afternoon due to the wear and tear of the day (and the kid, dog, or neighbor who kept you up all night). Use that awareness to design your afternoon routine.
You could adopt the “eat the frog” principle and tackle larger or more difficult tasks first. This means you’ll be able to accomplish the major items on your list before the slump sets in.
If there are tasks on your list that require less mental effort, you could try saving them for the afternoon. You don’t want to bog yourself down in mindless tasks that might increase your feelings of fatigue though. So, make sure to include some variation to keep your interest.
Some people, particularly extroverts, find social interaction energizing. If that’s you, schedule in a coffee meeting or a brainstorming session with a colleague to help carry you through.
Other Things You Can Do to Beat the Afternoon Fog
There are several other tactics you can try that could help to propel you through the afternoon.
Making sure you’re exposed to lots of daylight reminds your biological clock that it’s still daytime, increasing your alertness and helping to regulate your circadian rhythm. Natural light can also boost your mood, helping you to power through the afternoon doldrums. Get outside regularly, sit near a window, or invest in a light therapy lamp.
Turn on Some Music
Ever turned on a fast-paced song when you were feeling tired and found yourself feeling amped up and ready to tackle your next task? Listening to music you enjoy causes an increase in dopamine, a hormone closely linked with motivation.
Take a Break
Sometimes it’s best not to try to fight fatigue. Taking a strategic and intentional break when you can feel yourself struggling could give you the respite you need to carry on. Hey, maybe even take a quick nap?
Own Your Afternoons
Experiencing a slump in the afternoon is a natural part of the way your energy and alertness ebb and flow throughout the day. However, by being more mindful about what and when you eat, keeping hydrated, and keeping your circadian rhythm well regulated, you can lessen the impact and protect your productivity.
There are also steps you can take to give yourself an immediate boost, including having a healthy snack, moving around, or putting on your favorite song. Understanding what contributes to a dip in your energy levels is the first and most important step toward managing them more effectively.