There’s no denying the reality of the afternoon slump. Even the most motivated people can find themselves extremely tired by midday. And whether it’s due to a lack of sleep or a heavy lunch doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it’s impacting your ability to get things done.
As we’ve written in the past, there are all sorts of factors that contribute to our energy, motivation, and focus throughout the day. And knowing what to do when you feel the afternoon slump coming on can help you stay productive in spite of it.
So how do you make your afternoon hours as productive as your morning ones?
Let’s explore what causes the dreaded afternoon slump and then cover five practical ways you can overcome it.
What causes the afternoon slump? How your mind, body, and routine contribute to your midday crash.
Unfortunately, there’s no single source of the afternoon slump. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a biology major or doctor to understand most of its root causes.
First, let’s start with the physiological reasons you crash in the afternoon. What feels like a post-lunch crash is really just a part of your Circadian Rhythm–our body’s clock or sleep/wake cycle that dictates our energy levels throughout the day. While we all have slightly different rhythms, the Circadian Rhythm of most adults makes the urge to sleep strongest between 2-4 a.m. and 1-3 p.m.
Yet beyond your mind and body’s natural cycle, your lunch routine isn’t doing you any favors either. We all know the feeling of needing a nap after a heavy meal. And researchers have found that certain types of foods and portion size also contribute to feeling tired in the afternoon.
Even worse, the way we schedule our days doesn’t account for this crash. Afternoon meetings are routine in many workplaces. And stifling yawns while planning an important project or listening to a client’s needs could give the impression you don’t care.
You might also feel ‘foggy’ during the slump, making it hard to pay attention during mentally demanding tasks and getting frustrated when you can’t focus. This means when you hit a slump you not only have more to do but less productive time to do it.
It’s obvious this energy decrease is a problem, but what can people do about it?
5 science-backed ways to get over the afternoon slump
If you can’t duck out for a quick siesta or cancel your afternoon calls to catch some z’s, there are still ways to combat the effects of the afternoon slump (without drowning yourself in caffeine).
Here are a few strategies to try:
1. Get familiar with your peak productivity times and tweak your to-dos
As we wrote earlier, we all go through energy peaks and valleys throughout the day (beyond just the afternoon slump). You can think of this as your Productivity Curve—and it explains why some people love getting their most mentally demanding tasks done as early as possible, while others would rather wait until later.
So how does this apply to the afternoon slump?
Simply put, once you understand your body’s natural rhythms, you can work with them, instead of fighting them every day. This means scheduling your most demanding tasks when you’re at your best and giving yourself a break (or easier tasks) when you’re hitting a low point (like during the afternoon).
You can also change the structure of your to-do lists to accommodate your curve.
If you often find your list is too overwhelming and causes panic when your energy level slips, experiment with the 1-3-5 method. It involves knocking out one large task, three medium ones and five small responsibilities per day. All you need to do is slot them in where they align with your energy levels.
2. Get moving (preferably outside)
Exercise is one of the simplest things you can do to feel more alert. Standing up and stretching your arms toward the ceiling helps release the tension of sitting at a desk and staring at a screen all day.
If your schedule allows for it, take a brief walk or head to the gym for a light workout. Getting outside to go on the move could also help you enjoy even more productivity benefits. Various studies show a link between walking in nature and seeing work-related benefits.
And this doesn’t have to be an hour-long walk or hike. According to one paper published in 2018, participants experienced mood improvements after only stepping out for five minutes.
For these reasons and others, many people advocate that more employers should even let their workers get stuff done outside. Some companies take that advice to heart and put park benches and picnic tables in grassy, sun-filled areas to encourage people to set up temporary workspaces outdoors. Even when people don’t have that option, they can still enjoy brief periods of outdoor goodness.
However you work it into your workday, movement can help stop a productivity slump before it happens. Try to tune into your body and be proactive when feeling the first signs of sluggishness.
3. Use music to your advantage
Music impacts us at a base level. More than just making us feel good, it can help us dig in and focus, get creative, or even zone out and stay productive during boring tasks.
In fact, A study published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that listening to your favorite type of music lowers your perception of tension, making you more likely to be happier and productive during stressful situations (like at work).
This isn’t to say that all music is good, however. When it comes to dealing with the afternoon slump it’s important to match the right tracks to the right task:
- For simple tasks, choose songs you’ve heard before. When it comes to repetitive or boring tasks (like answering emails) research says you’ll be more efficient and happier if you’re listening to music you know and love.
- Opt for instrumentals when you’re trying to learn. If you’re doing something more cognitively challenging, classical and instrumental music has been shown to increase performance more than music with lyrics.
- Pump your favorite jams when you’re doing work you love. Have songs that pump you up? Turns out if you’re doing something you’re an expert at, listening to those songs can help motivate and inspire you.
- Hit the “sweet spot” when you’re doing creative work. If you’re looking for a breakthrough during your afternoon slump, science says you should opt for songs paced at 50-80 beats per minute are best.
As always, it’s best to see what works for you. Add some music into your afternoon mix and track your productivity with a tool like RescueTime to see if it helps.
4. Schedule more collaborative work in the afternoon
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, working with others can help boost your energy.
One of the huge benefits of collaboration is that it imposes limitations and guardrails to your day. When you’re exhausted during the afternoon slump it’s easy to spend hours on an email or zone out while trying to write a doc. But when you’re working with others, you can’t fall into this trap.
The Pomodoro Technique is one of the best time management strategies out there for staying motivated and focused when you’re exhausted.
We’re not designed to work in continuous stretches throughout the day. Instead, the Pomodoro Technique involves working in 25-minute bursts, taking a five-minute break between them and then having a longer break after five 25-minute sets.
Going this route helps you avoid the monotony of only dealing with one task for hours and instead keeps you engaged and energized.
5. Stimulate your senses
Finally, if you’re hitting a serious afternoon slump there are a few other weird hacks you can try.
Essential oils: Some essential oils trigger relaxation, but peppermint oil has the opposite effect for most people. Give it a try by putting a drop in your hands and rubbing them briskly on your face (but away from your eyes). You don’t need much to get results. And a bottle of oil fits in a desk drawer or bag pocket for easy access.
Chewing gum: Research shows that chewing gum can increase periods of concentration. It works especially well when working on tasks requiring continuous monitoring, such as entering data or editing a document, scientists say. Choose a flavor like spearmint or cinnamon over fruitier ones. Or, if you’re adventurous, you can even find ghost pepper gum for a shock to your senses.
Remove Sluggishness From Your Afternoon Routine
Feeling tired in the latter half of the day is a natural but fixable problem.
By paying attention to your energy and following some of these tips, you can not only prevent the dreaded afternoon slump but take preventative measures to skip it entirely. And if all else fails, you can always find a quiet place to catch a quick nap. We won’t tell.