How do I break through a mental/energy slump during the work day?
November 24, 2018 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Part-way through most weekdays, usually after meetings that require a lot of thoughtful social interaction, I suddenly hit a wall. I feel entirely depleted of energy and spoons. Sometimes I feel sleepy, but usually I just feel out of gas, out of energy, done. All of the good intentions I started out the morning with go out the window. Everything on my to-do list that doesn’t have a firm deadline gets pushed off to another day.

After I hit the wall, I finish only what must be done (scheduled meetings, things with imminent deadlines) and then either go home or become incredibly unproductive in the office for the rest of the day. At home, I lie on the couch or bed and surf the Internet. Sometimes I’m modestly productive at home on non-work things, like cleaning or cooking. I often bring work home with me in the hopes of getting a second wind. But once I hit the wall in the afternoon (sometimes it’s late morning!), I rarely get any meaningful work done for the rest of the day.

This pattern gets worse as the week goes on: I hit the wall earlier on Thursdays and Fridays than I do on Mondays. By the end of the week, I’ve basically given up on being productive. Every weekend, I recharge, catch up on some work, and vow that the coming week will be different. But I’m stuck in this pattern.

I’m definitely an introvert, and I find that the frequent social interaction (with coworkers, clients, outside colleagues, etc.) that my work requires is especially draining. For example, if I have three meetings before 1 p.m., it’s a safe bet that I won’t have the energy to accomplish much between 1 – 5 p.m.

I do sometimes have flexibility over meeting times. Writing this out, I can see that one solution might be to, whenever possible, schedule my meetings closer to the end of the work day, leaving my mornings and early afternoons free for productive work.

But when I don’t have that flexibility, what can I do to push past the wall and continue to be productive? If, like me, you find social interactions draining, how do you “refill your tank” during a work day and keep going?
posted by thepokylittlesockpuppy to Work & Money (21 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a good to do list, you might be able to sort it into the things that require energy and the things that don't. One thing I've realized recently is that a non-trivial amount of work time is taken up by timesheets, installing my laptop update, clicking my way through the latest required online ethics training, etc. Doing those when I'm completely exhausted but should stay on the clock has helped me save more of my energetic time for other things.
posted by slidell at 2:51 PM on November 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

This might be out of left field, but I used to get this when I used to eat carbs. I'm assuming my sugar should drop after lunch, and that would be that. Not saying this is the issue, but maybe figuring food/caffeine intake out might help you identify some triggers.
posted by pyro979 at 2:58 PM on November 24, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'm like you: an introvert with only so many social spoons.

Here's what I do.
* Postpone my first coffee until I get to work. I find too much caffeine too early in the day reduces my spoons.
* Take a short walk or hide in a toilet (with my phone so I can read metafilter) for a short while after early meetings.
* Have an invigorating meal for lunch- salads rather than heavy food.
* Select items to work on in the afternoon that don't require interaction with others and I can go at my own pace. I make a to-do list (as slidell mentions above), and tick them off. The ticking-off in itself is a positive reinforcement and provides a sense of forward movement.
posted by Thella at 2:59 PM on November 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe check your food intake; more protein every couple of hours? And definitely no sugar - ever.
Also consider walking outside for 5-10 minutes when your start to slag. Even just standing outside might help - you know, breathing outside air?
Learning to say 'no' politely to unnecessary interactions so your work companions learn to trust your energy boundaries.
posted by Mesaverdian at 3:01 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I usually eat a quick protein meal and nap the rest of my lunch.
posted by tilde at 3:07 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is it causing problems at work because you're falling behind, or do you just feel bad that you're not accomplishing much in the afternoon? IME, there are some jobs that are actually do-able when you're only going full-bore part of the time, in which case I give you internet-stranger permission to half-ass it after meetings with no guilt.

That said, the things that spring to mind to help you reboot:

* Make sure you're hydrated, drink water through your meetings and/or a glass when you come out.
* Can you get outside for a brisk walk and some fresh air post-meeting? Even if you have to cover it up with 'going out to buy a coffee' which you don't even really need, perhaps don't even buy. When you're out, listen to the sounds of the outside world, or maybe stick on a podcast about a world totally unrelated to your own.
* Even better, if it's a morning meeting and you have the facilities and physical capacity, go for a run at lunchtime. If you're not a runner, start a Couch to 5K programme. Or go to the gym, or for a swim. It might seem impossible when you're weary but if you can do it you'll have much more energy and focus afterwards. Endorphins FTW.
* Take yourself off to the loo and do a three minute breathing space meditation.
* Are you getting enough sleep at night? Can you go to bed an hour earlier for a week and see if it helps add a spoon or two to your daily allowance?
* If you're at all prone to even mild anxiety/stress around meetings, start a regular meditation practice and regular exercise routine so that your general stress level is a little lower and you have tools to manage stressful moments during meetings. Headspace is oft-recommended for starting to meditate.
* If you can do it without falling behind, stop taking work home. It sounds like you never really get any proper relaxation time, when you're not feeling bad about work, and that must grind you down and leave you less resilient generally. Add to your spoon collection by not spending every waking hour feeling guilty that you should be working.
posted by penguin pie at 3:08 PM on November 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

There are probably a bunch of healthy ways to handle this, but the way I handle it is by having a cup of coffee in the afternoon.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:20 PM on November 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Not to abuse the edit window: The more I think of it, the more I think that stopping taking work home could be key here, especially as I reread and see you also take work home at weekends? That's not good - presumably means there is literally no waking time when you're not partly thinking you should be working?

Apart from being draining, doing that also tells your subconscious while you're at work that it can chill if it wants, because you can always catch up this evening/at the weekend. The sheer fact of a deadline and finite time in which to complete a task can be an excellent source of focus, and you're not getting that.

(That said, I also saw on reread that you can have three meetings before lunch and my heart goes out to you! I'm relatively extrovert but hate meetings and I'd be off to lie down in a dark room for my lunch hour with that schedule!)
posted by penguin pie at 3:20 PM on November 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

This stopped happening to me when I quit eating candy at work. I still have a cup of tea with two teaspoons of sugar in the morning with no problem, so I didn’t quit sugar altogether. And I’m vegan with a diet very high in what are technically carbs (steal cut oatmeal, brown rice, beans, carrots).

I also take a walk in the afternoons, but the slump stopped with the diet change.
posted by FencingGal at 3:21 PM on November 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


The biggest helps for me with daytime tiredness (from all sources - overwork, too many peopleful interactions, meds with side effects of tiredness) are B Complex vitamins, vitamin D, Rhodiola, and plenty of water.

Also smoosh some exercise into your day. I like right after work, for revivification and solitude.

If you can get flexible with meeting times, put them all first thing in the a.m., then take lunch right afterwards to get away from everyone. Maybe also see if you REALLY need to be in all these meetings. Or if you can attend from your office via Skype or Zoom. Anything to escape the cacophony.

And if all else fails, "That won't be possible" is a great comment on the endless meeting train.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 3:54 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have the same issue. While I agree that nutrition, sleep hygeine, and keeping work at work during work hours only, are all excellent suggestions, it is also possible that your allottment of spoons is truly fixed. If that is the case, strategic planning to make the most out of the energy you have is your best bet.

I personally have a limited number of spoons each day -- like you, I can do about 3-4 hours of pretty effective, thoughtful work after an average restful night. I also have a propensity to overfocus and overexert myself when something is interesting to me or when it is presented as urgent by my boss.

I used to try to fight my body to do more -- caffeine and almonds and just forcing it to happen -- and quickly learned that overexerting myself on just one day can often causes me several subsequent days of recovery where I feel burned out/exhausted/unable to do a thing. It was never worth it.

I only get a few good hours each day, and I'm OK w/ that because I know I am pretty damn efficient when I am working. I can get a lot of things done in the time that some colleagues stretch out over their 8-hour day. I may not be the highest performing person ever in my office, but I'm solidly getting done what is expected of me.

I'd definitely agree w/ scheduling your most important work in the mornings when your spoon supply is higher, and scheduling any life-draining meetings at your most fatigued times. Also, sometimes my energy comes back when I become thoroughly engrossed in a task I enjoy. The hardest part there is getting myself to start on those enjoyable tasks even though I'm sluggish and feeling brain dead.
posted by tealcoffeecup at 4:10 PM on November 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

I will also add that -- you'd be amazed at how much a poor-fit job can suck the life out of you. Give some consideration to what an ideal job and ideal work day looks like for you-- maybe there is something out there that won't exhaust you like this!
posted by tealcoffeecup at 4:14 PM on November 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is it absolutely vital to produce consistently every hour you're at work? In office jobs, it usually isn’t. As long as you have found a rhythm that allows you to accomplish the essentials, maybe let it ride? Embrace the idea that certain tasks are better suited for the morning/earlier in the week. Are your reviews okay? Is your boss unhappy with your output? In other words, is this really a work problem?

If the problem is less about output and more about feeling blah, I agree proper nutrition, exercise, breaks and sleep will go a long way (as would finding your ideal job, but easier said than done.)

I find meetings incredibly draining and I refill the tank by taking a break and then doing mindless work afterward.
posted by kapers at 4:23 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are you getting enough good quality sleep? Most people aren't. When I've been shorting myself on sleep (and especially if I've been propping myself up with caffeine so that I don't nod and yawn my way through the day) this mental wall you describe is one of the first ways in which my performance starts to suffer. The fact that this gets worse as the week wears on further suggests that this is a sleep deprivation issue—on Monday you're still pretty fresh from the weekend, but by Friday you've shorted yourself five nights in a row.

More caffeine doesn't help; it will prevent me from sleeping, but it won't make my brain work again. What I need is sleep. I bet that's what you need too.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:44 PM on November 24, 2018

I found a standing desk helpful for this mid-afternoon slump, but it’s definitely no substitute for lack of sleep. (Now that I have a baby and bad sleep it isn’t as helpful.)
posted by john_snow at 5:54 PM on November 24, 2018

I do try to keep some fairly mindless work on hand to do when I'm just not feeling like doing anything intellectually demanding; maybe try front-loading your day with the trickier tasks so that the afternoon has all the easy work. And a brisk walk around the building often helps for a while. Sleep is the real answer though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:01 PM on November 24, 2018

Do a food diary for a week and see if what you eat correlates to how you feel. Eating high GI foods may result in an insulin spike, and then a crash or a bonk.

You could also consider going for a brisk walk or to the gym if that's feasible. Or even a bike ride. Cardio exercise can reinvigorate your energy levels.

Meetings can be draining. Although I don't really think it's appropriate for adults in adult working situations to avoid meetings because of being an "introvert" (it's just a colloquial term and is not a clinical definition) I do find meetings can disrupt my focus. So I try to ensure meetings are a) focused and have a clear intent and b) last no longer than 25 minutes.

You can ask for an agenda and you can also just say that you're only available for 20 minutes. I tell other people I work with (if they like to have hour-long meetings) that I just do short ones. In one org I'm known as the coworker who likes short, efficient and focused meetings.
posted by JamesBay at 8:40 PM on November 24, 2018

I also schedule easier tasks on days when I have meetings, and harder tasks on days when I have no interruptions.

(I have to produce for every hour I work, or I don't get paid -- I'm a freelancer)
posted by JamesBay at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2018

When I was exhausted by 3 PM every afternoon and it turns out that I had an underactive thyroid. I am a cis female. A friend of mine, a cis male, also have that problem. If you have not had your thyroid function investigated, I strongly encourage you to do so. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:39 AM on November 25, 2018

Lying down and closing your eyes, even for ten minutes, can make a big difference, if (like me) you're not invigorated by the exercise other folks are suggesting. If you don't have your own office, I've done this under my desk, in my car, outside, in stairwells, and in a locker room.
posted by metasarah at 5:10 AM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all! There are too many good suggestions here to single out best answers, but you've given me helpful ideas. Much appreciated.
posted by thepokylittlesockpuppy at 6:42 AM on November 25, 2018

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