How do I stay alert at a computer for long periods of time?
February 4, 2004 5:57 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to stay alert while chained to a computer for nine hours a day? I take regular breaks but still find myself flagging by mid-afternoon. Preferably the answer shouldn't involve too much caffeine or sugar, because I'm also trying to lose weight.

Er. Not that caffeine makes you fat, to the best of my knowledge. But you get my drift.
posted by bwerdmuller to Work & Money (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you're asking a bigger question: "how can I do something not all that interesting for nine hours a day."

Not to digress. You may want to look in the archives for a thread on writing, and there's another on comfortable chairs such as the mirra or aeron.
posted by mecran01 at 6:00 AM on February 4, 2004

Have you tried Cocaine?

Seriously though, I have this problem too and find that switching between projects whenever I feel myself starting to fade helps. It may not be the most efficient way of working, but neither is falling asleep at the keyboard or making dumb mistakes because your mind is a million miles away. If it is possible to vary your working hours, you could consider whether you would be better working earlier or later. I have started coming in to work an hour or so earlier and I find that I still start to flag around the same time each day, rather than after a certain number of hours, so I get more useful hours in before collapsing. The hardest part has been maintaining the discipline to go home an hour earlier as well, but that is another problem altogether.
posted by dg at 6:15 AM on February 4, 2004

I work at a computer 9 hours a day. I also play football at lunchtimes twice a week. I find, without fail, that I'm *much* more alert in the afternoons after I've played football.

So my advice is, get some serious exercise in at lunchtimes. Go running. It'll get help you lose some weight.
posted by salmacis at 6:27 AM on February 4, 2004

Listen to some peppy music. I recently reduced my caffeine intake (for which I beseeched the help of AskMe; you might be able to use some of their tips) and have found that a good shot of the Ramones or Louis Prima around 3:00 really helps get me through that slump.
posted by boomchicka at 6:39 AM on February 4, 2004

Cutting out the sugar may help with the problem itself. Do you have chocolate/sweets/cake with lunch? Consider fruit instead. Though sugar laden stuff can give you an initial energy burst your body will use it up rapidly and you'll become lethargic, slower digesting fruit sugars will mean energy becomes available more evenly over the day.
I assume you're staying off the lunchtime pop also.

Try going for a little walk. I also find lying down for a few minutes can help me liven up. This works best if you don't fall asleep however.
posted by biffa at 6:55 AM on February 4, 2004

Make sure you get plenty of regular (like, every day) exercise (which, naturally, will help with the weight loss too). I find that it helps regulate my sleep schedule, and I have more energy throughout the day.
posted by jpoulos at 7:05 AM on February 4, 2004

Stress and shallow breathing can lead to fatigue. When you start to feel zonked, try the 4-7-8 technique.
posted by studentbaker at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2004

what are you doing on the computer?

i work 10 hours days, working through lunch from 9 to 7, typically. if i'm bored/unhappy with my job then it seems like an eternity - music, mefi and other sites pass the time, but don't make me work any better. on the other hand, if i have an interesting problem - some new code that needs writing, or a bug that needs fixing against a deadline, then the time can fly by.

and although i'm as solitary as any other programmer, i think interacting with other people helps (even if it's via email, to another continent). if there's someone at the end of the wire saying "ok, it's crashing for me too, but i can't work out why", then it's a lot more involving than tracking down the same bug when nobody seems to care.

identifying with a social group is also useful. i hate managed social situations (one yearly review at another company: your work is great, but you need to go drinking more with the rest of the dept). but yesterday "our" side in the great office politics took a huge hit, with a project manager resigning. realising that you need to get in there and fight for some sensible management against the assholes that have just chased out the one forward thinking person that might help save the dept motivates you (well, me at least) to work.

having a friend at work you can talk to is a good idea too. taking a break to walk round the parking lot isn't going to do anything except waste 5 minutes. but arguing with rafael about the definition of inference, the significance of rdf, and why his code isn't more structured just because it's got bloody objects in it, can make a whole day (seriously!).

i'm surprised at how i'm listing only social factors. another one that springs to mind is feeling that you're important. it makes a big difference when the code i'm writing gets tested - even though that means dealing with users and sorting out bugs.

but all this takes time. i've been at this job for 6 months now and only recently have i felt involved (after the adrenaline highs of the first few weeks). it takes time to find stability, and stability is necessary - i don't mean things shouldn't change, but that you understand the psychological terrain, and your position in it. i don't mean boring, but rather knowing that you can rock the boat without falling over the side.

also, i think it helps that the 10 hour shift is a deal i negotiated - the payoff is 6 days free in every 10. knowing that helps me get through the worst of it (he says, on the first day of summer holidays, with a shift off, meaning 20 whole days of freedom....)

(and what others say - i exercise regularly, eat my way through a pile of tuna sandwiches spaced throughout the day rather than binging on snacks, have a nice desk and comfortable chair (not a silly money dot-com trophy, but a standard, properly designed seat like secretaries have used for generations)).

oh, and comfortable headphones are a good idea.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2004

oops - 6 days free in every 14. 80 days in two weeks.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:23 AM on February 4, 2004

4 days of 10 hours each sounds much more attractive than 5 days of 8 hours; gives you a whole extra day off. But it's 80 hours in two weeks, surely? Not 80 days... (if I'm wrong, I'll call you about that time machine).
posted by adrianhon at 7:37 AM on February 4, 2004

sorry, one more - i don't do this at work, but at home i also program for long stretches and find a 30-45 min nap mid afternoon can help enormously. (and 80 hours above)
posted by andrew cooke at 7:39 AM on February 4, 2004

I find that a long walk outside the office really helps my mood. That and what others have said, laying off the sweets with lunch, breaking up the routine some, customizing your workplace. I find that getting my blood going, even a little bit [like running up and down the stairs for 5-10 minutes] propels me forward for the next hour rather well. And also, snacking. I don't mean like keeping a tin of cookies by the desk but bringing in something healthy with very few make-you-fat side effects [carrots, celery, unbuttered popcorn, raisins, sliced cucumbers, rice cakes, whatever] and eat them with a LOT of water. Just getting up and going to the bathroom a whole lot can help snap you out of a office-boredom funk.
posted by jessamyn at 7:47 AM on February 4, 2004

Lunchtime exercise, even if it's a walk or ping-pong is the single best way I've found to feel better at the computer. Sometimes an afternoon stretch break (real stretching, on the floor and stuff) as well. Not that I do either any more. Caffeine and sugar are so common because they work, but they aren't ideal. Maybe a lot of water would help, too.

I also vouch for that 4-7-8 breathing deal. I read about it in an Andrew Weil book and being the skeptic I am was extremely... skeptical. Until I tried it for the 3rd or 4th time and got a very pleasant head rush.

Try not to hold your breath or unnecessary tension in your muscles while at the computer. I haven't figure out a way to succeed at this part.
posted by callmejay at 8:20 AM on February 4, 2004

If you eat a good amount of protein at lunch time, it'll keep you going for much longer than a carb-heavy lunch. Also - protein snacks are good - nuts, peanut butter, soy crisps, etc...

I can really feel the difference between days that I have pizza for lunch and days that I have grilled chicken and veggies.
posted by MsVader at 8:50 AM on February 4, 2004

is it feasible to take a scenic, brisk walk outside during lunch? if there are novel or soothing sights outside nearby anywhere in particular, gravitate towards that. there's an elementary school across the street from the computer labs here, and sometimes i'd take a walk around and hear the kids playing during recess. cheesy i know, but it was kind of reassuring. noticing the novel details that surround you--the bantering guy who owns the deli next door, the dog that always barks across the street, the great garden of a nearby home--helps sometimes.
posted by ifjuly at 9:13 AM on February 4, 2004

I thought it was programmed into our circadian rhythms to become lethargic and distracted around 3:00 in the afternoon? It certainly happens to me. (Does this not explain the need for a siesta?)

Your "problem" may simply be human physiology.
posted by joeclark at 10:09 AM on February 4, 2004

Hmmm, also a programmer here, I work a weird schedule so I can spend time with my kids.

Typically Monday 2-4 hours; Tues 6 hours; Wed, Thurs, Fri 10-12 hours. Usually 40-45 hours a week.

Staying awake isn't an issue, it's staying awake enough to be productive that is. It's so easy to zone out for a couple of hours if you're tired.

Anyhoo, my little tricks. Most have already been mentioned here.
  • Eat small meals, your body won't experience a huge insulin surge then like it does from a big meal.
  • At lunch, one of two things work, either take a nap if you're tired, a 30 minute nap can do wonders. Or exercise over lunch, I run 4-6 miles, although not everyone has the luxury of a shower at work.
  • When you don't have time for a nap or excercise, stand up, stretch, and walk around, or do a quick set of dips or pushups to get the blood flowing.
  • Find a friend or coworker, and just make small talk and return to work.
  • Lastly every once and a while plan a long lunch, go to a matinee, walk around, enjoy a leisurely lunch out.

posted by patrickje at 10:18 AM on February 4, 2004

I'll give you my favorites.

Drink water. You can't sleep while you're drinking. It will keep you alert again for a couple of minutes. I survived sleepless nights and going to class on this.

Get up every hour on the hour for five minutes and do something other than sit there. We work well on regularity.

The water will help with that too. :-)
posted by filmgeek at 10:32 AM on February 4, 2004

I thought it was programmed into our circadian rhythms to become lethargic and distracted around 3:00 in the afternoon? It certainly happens to me. (Does this not explain the need for a siesta?)

It does for me, and this is what I usually do - because I can. But there are so many wonderful tips in this thread, that I had to comment just to get it in my comment history - otherwise, I might never find this thread again. What would I search for?

I'm not just being flippant, however. If you do find there is way to have a siesta in the afternoon, do it; you then get two different, split periods of work in which you feel totally alert. Of course, I am mostly doing it this way at home, working on my own, which is just fine. Going to work/goinghometosleep/goingbacktowork would not really feel very cool to me.
posted by taz at 11:58 AM on February 4, 2004

I'd suggest electrified nipple clamps. It works wonders for me.
posted by deadcowdan at 12:28 PM on February 4, 2004

Give up caffiene, alchohol and sugar completely.

Start rising at dawn. Maximizing the amount of time you are awake before you go to the office helps.

I bike 18 miles a day, but I'd say any kind of outdoor excercise that lasts about an hour will do. I prefer doing it before work.

Feeling fit helped me feel awake more than anything else.

Also being able to sit cross-legged in my chair for about 5 minutes of every 20 helps.

Things that don't help: aimless internet surfing and instand messaging. they seem interesting but they are kinda boring. if you stay inside your own head you can keep yourself better entertained.
posted by n9 at 2:33 PM on February 4, 2004

Check into "adrenal exhaustion". It's what happens after years of living on adrenalin (sugar and soda squeeze it out of you). The adrenal glands love sea salt as a way to renourish but its a many year process to get back in balance. Your diet overall is a big factor.
posted by stbalbach at 6:06 PM on February 4, 2004

How long a siesta would you guys recommend and what sort of rough time? I usually sleep 6-7 hours a day (I feel like crap if I have more) and get up just before dawn to pray.
posted by Mossy at 6:21 PM on February 4, 2004

50 milligrams of Provigil. Order 100mg pills over the Internet and cut them in half, or find a cooperative doctor willing to overlook that you are probably not narcoleptic. Relatively non-addictive compared to non-Rx speed, doesn't make you feel crappy like coffee, and intensely focuses the center of your brain that makes you awake with relatively few side effects.

Or get a new job.
posted by Slagman at 10:24 PM on February 4, 2004

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