I show up to work, but my brain doesn't.
July 6, 2011 8:51 PM   Subscribe

How can I prevent my brain from remaining a useless sack of protoplasm for the majority of the work day? (Significant (but not excessively over-indulgent) snowflakianism follows....)

Help me get my brain into a higher gear, earlier in the day. I’m in my late 30’s now but this has been a challenge for most of my adult life (probably previously also).

I’m having difficulty living up to my job responsibilities because for the first 5 – 7 hours of the work day, my mental and social abilities are “low”.

I have difficulty thinking through problems. I get distracted easily; find myself easily frustrated or overwhelmed; lose perspective. This is true for tasks both rote and complex. I have difficulty remembering, integrating new information; connecting the dots.

My mood is a bit lower; I’ll spend way too much time ruminating about [organizational or process] obstacles that are fairly standard for my line of work (knowledge worker in a high-tech corporate setting) and which I really ought to be used to by now (having worked in my field and many similar environments for ~15 years; and at my current employer for 2.5+ yrs) and which don’t at other times (later in the day) seem like anything more than petty annoyances or expected hassles. I’ll doubt, second-guess myself; question my abilities, my value to my employer, etc.

I have difficulty communicating my ideas with my coworkers. I have a problem finding the right words, forming sentences that get my point across. As a result I find myself being less assertive than I need to be, and in general not communicating effectively. Sometimes when I'm trying to focus on what someone is saying, my mind will wander. Other times, even if I've been following them & understand what's been communicated, my response will sounds dumb or inappropriate because I haven't yet had a chance to integrate all my thoughts or form then into coherent statements in time.

However, later in the day I am a completely different person. I can think through challenges, solve problems, execute tasks etc. much more quickly. New information about a project or task is instantly integrated into my understanding and able to be acted upon. My mood is much better. I have more perspective, take things in stride more, go with the flow, etc. I’m able to communicate better with my colleagues, in a more natural, assertive manner which is not forced or labored over, as is the case in the morning. Tasks or projects which in the morning seemed insurmountable, or frustrating, or utterly boring, are now in the afternoon just “Whatever, let’s get it done,” or, even can become interesting, engaging challenges.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. By the time I’ve finally switched my brain out of 1st or 2nd gear, it’s close to the end of the workday, and for various reasons (commute constraints; family obligations), I don't have the option to just stay late at the office for an extra hour or two, or work after I’ve gotten home at night, in order to make up for time lost in the morning when my brain was a oozing mass of useleness.

I don’t find myself feeling “tired” in the morning. In fact I am getting more sleep (both qualitatively and quantitatively; generally between 7 -8.5 hours) now than I have for the past several years. However I don’t believe I’m sleeping too much… I’ve struggled with that before and know what that feels like. I when I was younger, I’d combat this by limiting my sleep once or twice a week to 5.5 or 6 hours, which would lead to both greater alertness and higher mood during the day, but even then it wasn’t sustainable and now that I’m a bit older and becoming wary of the long-term health effects (e.g. heart disease, etc.) of under-sleeping, I’m wary to try doing it again (even if I had faith that it wouldn’t have a net result of worsening the challenges I’ve described. Which I don’t.).

As for coffee: I love coffee and almost always have a cup within 1-2 hours after lunch - before the stage when my brain finally starts shows up to work. But I don’t drink coffee in the morning. If I do, a get a very sudden (but short) high (both mental acuity and mood), then come crashing down by mid morning or lunchtime. It’s almost like a panic, but not an anxiety-filled panic; more like, MY BRAIN IS RUNNING TOO FAST LA LA LA and it burns through all energy sources in my body and then all I can think about is needing to eat. I find that I must have eaten both breakfast and lunch before I should even think about having a cup of coffee. It’s as though my body doesn’t have enough fuel to function until it’s mid-day and a couple meals have gone down. I eat a decent breakfast before leaving for work… not too heavy (I’ve found that eating more in the morning doesn’t seem to help the situation. Plus, I’m almost never hungry when I wake up… though I’ll always get something into me regardless).

FWIW, I figured out many years ago (in my early / mid twenties) that I’m very sensitive to sugar in the morning. If I were to have a muffin or donut or even half a cup of orange juice, I’d quickly spin up and then sputter out (similar to the previous description about morning-coffee results) and perhaps become exhausted the rest of the day (unless I quickly followed up with a high-protein, hi-fat lunch). So, I avoid it like the plague. However, if in the afternoon – after I’ve had a good meal - I do follow through on a sugar-craving, I experience no such negative results.

So, wrapping it all up: most days, it is not until 2, 3, or 4 o’clock that I feel like my brain has finally shown up for work; and it’s a frikkin’ laser until 8 or 9 at night. But by that time, I’ve lost the opportunity to accomplish much. I’m trying to get to the bottom of why this is happening, and what I might be able to do counter this.

Oh, right -- a couple details I forgot: my waking day / work-day hours are pretty standard: I get up between 6:30 and 7, at work by 9. Leave the office between 5:30 and 6:30; in bed between 10 and 11.

Thanks for your input, hive mind.
posted by armoir from antproof case to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, your best bet is to visit a naturopath, who can do a comprehensive assessment of your habits and functioning. My first guess is perhaps you aren't sleeping as well as you think you are, and midday coffee could be causing it. Your ability of your liver to metabolize caffeine is genetically controlled; some people are very rapid metabolizers and others are very slow. But really, this stuff is hard and there are hundreds of variables, and without an expert guiding you, can take years of trial and error.
posted by blargerz at 9:26 PM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's your diet like? For instance, what's your typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Do you exercise, and if so, how and how much/how often? Have you had your blood sugar tested recently? Have you had other blood work done? If so, what were the results?

Off the top of my head, the slow mornings combined with coffee/sugar insta-burnout make it sound like you might not be getting enough protein/fats, especially in the morning. If you're currently eating carbs for breakfast, maybe you could switch to bacon and egg breakfasts (or something similarly protein-heavy) for a week and see if that helps?

Either way, I think you should go to the doctor for some blood work. This could be an indication of diabetes, another endocrine problem, or even a nutrient deficiency, so you might as well rule out any physical problems before you spend too much time changing up your routine.
posted by vorfeed at 9:30 PM on July 6, 2011

"... If I were to have a muffin or donut or even half a cup of orange juice, I’d quickly spin up and then sputter out (similar to the previous description about morning-coffee results) and perhaps become exhausted the rest of the day (unless I quickly followed up with a high-protein, hi-fat lunch). ..."

IANAD. What's you're overall state of physical fitness? Improved fitness nearly always comes with the benefit of significantly improved metabolic function, which is key to effective brain function, alertness, etc. If you can literally tell the effect of half of cup of orange juice in the morning, taken on an empty stomach, you're almost at the textbook definition of hypoglycemia, if not in Type II diabetes blood sugar range for much of the day.

If I were you, I'd definitely see a doctor immediately, get a handle on your blood sugar through effective, several times a day testing for a couple of months plus whatever diet modification/medications your doctor recommends, and at the same time work hard to significantly improve your fitness/lower your BMI.
posted by paulsc at 9:44 PM on July 6, 2011

I've had issues with staying focused on work and personal tasks -- not exactly your combination of issues, but I can relate.

On the caffeine and diet front: Have you experimented with different combinations? A protein-heavy breakfast might work. Personally I eat 2 squares of dark chocolate and drink a small glass of OJ, but that might be too sugary for you.

Have you tried tea in the mornings instead of coffee? It's a lower caffeine dosage. Green tea is even lower than black tea. Maybe a small cup of green tea, sipped over an hour or so, might give you a trickle of stimulus rather than a rush followed by a crash.

On the productivity strategies front: I have learned to deal with my focus issues by using lists. I have a small notepad on which I list my day's tasks, and often I start plotting out the next day's tasks (and sometimes even the day after) in advance.

I also maintain what I call "narrative" notes. I have a file on my computer in which I make daily entries. Each entry is subdivided into sections, for the various projects I work on. Each morning I copy yesterday's notes, and paste the copy in at the top of the file. Then I change the date to today's date, and I go thru each project and refresh my memory on what's been done, what needs to be done, etc. I update the notes over the course of the day, to reflect what I've accomplished or learned, and what needs to come next.

My narrative notes include bulleted lists, but also paragraphs of text in which I'm simply writing to myself, in full sentences, about my work. This is part of how I figure out what I need to do... and it also makes it effortless to come back later and figure out what I did, or what I planned to do.

I find that in my day job, as well as in my personal creative projects, knowing exactly what to do when I start work really helps me get in the groove quickly. And the best time to "pre-program" your tasks for the next work session is right at the end of the previous session.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:46 PM on July 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, vorfeed.

Typical breakfast (in three parts):
(~7:30am): bowl of multigrain serial w/ whole milk. Or a piece of toast with butter or cheese.
(~8:15am): an apple or orange while sitting on the train. along with lots of water.
Then 3 out of 5 workdays I'll grab a Noah's bagel w/ cream-cheese spread after I get off the train, and either eat it before the shuttle takes me from the station to the office, or I'll eat it when I get into the office.

Varies. My company provides lunch. Some days it's sandwiches, or make-your-own salad. Other days it's a hot meal of [turkey/chicked/pork/beef], rice, and veggies. Seems pretty healthy & well balanced. I definitely jonesin' for lunch by the time 11am roles around, and always feel more mentally on-the-ball after lunch. I watch my portioning so I don't get the after-lunch coma.

Yeah, it sounds like I'm probably not getting enough protein and fats in the morning. Although I've been adding nutritional yeast to my cereal, and having a spoonful of flaxseed oil, or a fish oil tablet.

I did have some fairly extensive bloodwork a few months ago after going to see the doctor for a persistent fever (turned out to be pneumonia!!) but the results showed nothing remarkable. I think this included thyroid and liver/kidney function. Perhaps I need to ask specifically for a wider endocrine system test?

As for general fitness: (looks around sheepishly) I probably don't get enough exercise. I do walk everywhere - I don't drive. My morning commute involves three forms of public transit, none of which is more than 25 minutes, and I do a fair amount of walking (up to 12 mins) between those links. When I graduated high school (~20 years ago) I was the 5'10" skinny kid who weighed 145lbs who could not put muscle on to save his life & generally felt weak & underweight all the time. Throughout my 20's. Now I'm around 175lbs and feel a lot better in general - stronger, more resilient. However I don't get any regular "push yourself" exercise. That being said, I do take the dog for a decent walk on a regular basis, and at least once a week I'll go for a 20 minute hike up & around a significant San Francisco hill... enough to get the heart rate up & start a sweat. Not that that's enough exercise for a guy who's probably 15-20 lbs overweight, but, just calling it out for context (i.e. I am not a couch potato. I don't watch TV.).
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:56 PM on July 6, 2011

Could be a circadian rhythm disorder. Basically, your brain's 24-hour cycle is out of sync with the schedule you are living. There are ways to get the two realigned. Treatment might be as simple as exposure to bright light in the morning, but you definitely want to work with a sleep specialist. I'd call a sleep clinic and make an appointment. More info here and here.
posted by islandeady at 10:11 PM on July 6, 2011

I noticed gluten in your breakfast.

Maybe cut out the gluten and sub in other foods for breakfast, see how you feel.

(In general I didn't believe in the whole gluten thing, even though I know folks who swear they have a sensitivity. That said, yeah, it seems to me you are maybe one of these people with a sensitivity. I'm starting to get convinced.)
posted by jbenben at 10:18 PM on July 6, 2011

Typical breakfast (in three parts):
(~7:30am): bowl of multigrain serial w/ whole milk. Or a piece of toast with butter or cheese.
(~8:15am): an apple or orange while sitting on the train. along with lots of water.
Then 3 out of 5 workdays I'll grab a Noah's bagel w/ cream-cheese spread after I get off the train, and either eat it before the shuttle takes me from the station to the office, or I'll eat it when I get into the office.

I'm willing to bet that eating a low-carb, high-protein breakfast for a few weeks will really make a difference.

If you've had blood work done recently, that might rule out diabetes and it might not. I'd see the doctor anyway -- bring a printout of everything you've said above. I'd also suggest doing something about exercise; paulsc is right about that, it's one of the easiest and healthiest ways to boost your energy levels. Weight training for an hour three times a week really pays off, especially if you're sedentary at work.
posted by vorfeed at 10:24 PM on July 6, 2011

I agree with other people's suggestions to get a sleep study done. But meanwhile it seems like the obvious solution is to shift your work hours, if at all possible. Would your workplace consider letting you try flexitime or something? It seems like you could still get the bulk of your work day to match when other people are around, but if they let you work 11-8 instead of 9-5, they'd benefit from your increased productivity.
posted by lollusc at 3:17 AM on July 7, 2011

Nthing diet and lifestyle - I was reading this thinking my brain wouldn't function well on that breakfast and I'd be keen for my lunch break. The reason why it feels like your brain hasn't been fuelled until after your lunch break is because it hasn't been. Up protein and fat in the morning, ensure you have lots of vegetables. And get moving - climb that hill daily.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:24 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have the option of getting on an earlier schedule? Can you get up an hour earlier than usual, but go to work at the same time? That might give you an extra hour of clear-headedness at work. If you have that flexibility, perhaps you could even use the extra time in the morning to do some exercise.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:30 AM on July 7, 2011

Nthing a better breakfast. If you look at the difference between your breakfast (carbs mainly) and your lunch (protein, vegetables, and carbs), it makes total sense that you start to feel better a few hours after lunch.
posted by lulu68 at 7:30 AM on July 7, 2011

I have the same brain fog in the morning. I'll 2nd the recommendation for more protein at breakfast. I am considering doing a gluten-free trial, because there are a lot of credible reports.

I recommend smaller doses of coffee or tea. Something like 1/4 cup of coffee or a corresponding amount of tea, per hour. I drink a cup of coffee 1st thing, and can't function much without it. I don't drink any caffeine at all after 2 p.m., usually not after noon. Coffee and tea both have well-documented additional health benefits, too.
posted by theora55 at 7:59 AM on July 7, 2011

I'm going to piggyback on this question a bit and ask for ideas FOR high-protein breakfasts, because I've just read this question and realized I have exactly the same problem.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on July 7, 2011

Exercise in the morning! This will help your focus and mood. If you can bike to work as well, even better.

Other than that, I think you may have to accept that it's pretty common to be an evening person -- my brain, too, doesn't really turn on until 4, and it is really like a switch being flipped. Try scheduling less important tasks during the early part of the day, and work harder to block out distractions.

You may also want to consider whether you are depressed, since diurnal mood variation (feeling better as the day goes on) is one symptom.
posted by yarly at 8:37 AM on July 7, 2011

I'm going to piggyback on this question a bit and ask for ideas FOR high-protein breakfasts, because I've just read this question and realized I have exactly the same problem.

Empress, there are a bunch of threads which should come in handy!

Don't forget about protein powder, which is, as always, your friend. It's a cheap and easy way to get a shot of protein with your morning meal. Also, it helps if you're willing to break out of the traditional breakfast paradigm a little -- if you're sick of eggs and ham/bacon/sausage, there's nothing wrong with eating leftovers or making "lunch/dinner food" for breakfast. Pork chops or baked chicken for breakfast are awesome, and you can easily make them ahead on Sunday night.
posted by vorfeed at 10:11 AM on July 7, 2011

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