Short term mental burnout?
July 17, 2004 2:54 PM   Subscribe

When I'm doing something really mentally taxing, like working on a difficult programming task or doing a really really tough crossword puzzle, I sometimes reach mental overload. I'm sure most of you have this. It makes me sleepy and sometimes a bit dizzy, and if I try to work more, I comprehend less and less. At this point, I generally need to do something else for a while. If I come back to the taxing work the next day, everything is fine. Probably, I can come back to it on the same day, an hour or so later. I CAN'T come back to it five minutes later. I'm interested in tactics that let me return to the mental workout as-soon-as possible. When I quit working, what sort of activity should I do to recharge? How long should I do it? Is there anything I should ingest? Is it better to quit before absolute mental burnout occurs? Are there any studies about this?
posted by grumblebee to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about any studies, but I have the same problem. You've mentioned it makes you sleepy. My eyes fall down. I either have to have the 15min power nap in my chair or get up and wander to the bed. Failing that I just step away from the damn computer for a while and go outside or do something mentally non-taxing. Seems to help a bit.
posted by damnitkage at 3:25 PM on July 17, 2004

I wish I could recall specifics, but there was some group at MIT or some company that made people take perodic breaks to do the complete opposite of what they were engaged in and it showed marked performance improvments.

So, if you are programming, you'd have to do some right brain activity to clear out your thinker- drawing, painting... something.

It is possible that you may be more of a right-brain thinker forcing yourself to code, which is more of a left brain task. Perhaps there is a book or study about programming for right brained people that would help?

I'm a left-brain thinker and while I love being creative, I'm always drawn back to programming.
posted by pissfactory at 3:44 PM on July 17, 2004

When this happens to me at work, I have to go take a walk around the building. Usually there is a copy of the daily newspaper in the breakroom, I go read that and drink a soda or something.
posted by Hackworth at 4:04 PM on July 17, 2004

Avoid sugar, caffeine and simple carbs that peak and burn out fast. This may not cure your condition, but it will definitely help.
posted by squirrel at 4:52 PM on July 17, 2004

As a grad student who works full time, this happens to me all the time.

Here is what works for me.

1) I don't know how to put this delicately, but you might try having sex, or if that isn't an option, umm, err, pleasure yourself (*ahem). Then have a short nap. You will wake up ready to give'er.

2) If you listen to music, switch it. Start your work session with something mellow (try this). When this music ends, get up, put something more upbeat. It helps me if this music is something that I am not too familiar with.

3) Make sure you drink lots of water (half-hour hydrated). I know this sounds kind of lame, but you work better hydrated. If I am working on a paper or studying, I will drink up to 4 liters of water (1 gallon). The constant pee breaks force me to get up for a few minutes, and this technique (for me) keeps me from getting to the point that you are describing.
posted by Quartermass at 4:59 PM on July 17, 2004

Not the same thing as you asked, but this study showed an improvement in learning ability among the group that took a mid-day nap.

I agree with the previous posters who've indicated doing something that uses different parts of your brain. Nap for 20 minutes. Juggle. Go outside and draw something. And while you're doing any of the above, let go of thinking about your problem... as thoughts continue to arise about it, let them go. (I'm talking about continued fretting... if a eureka grabs you, run with it.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:47 PM on July 17, 2004

not sure it's quite the same, but i find that getting into the "zone" requires a certain amount of nervousness and/or pressure and, sometimes, caffeine and/or sugar, and is much easier in the morning. once i'm there, it's easy to stay there until exhausted (providing i don't have to talk to anyone etc), but sometimes i need to be careful not to get too "panicky" (for want of a better term).

i think you're referring to the exhausted part. i don't know any fix for that except sleep (i often cat-nap, but even that won't get you back to the same level as a full nights sleep). the annoying thing for me is that i can get a migraine (which doesn't hurt, for some obscure reason, but zaps my central vision, making it difficult to type), which tends to limit how had i can push.

alcohol really screws things up, though. even a single glass of wine makes me lose it (getting to that focussed state) for the rest of the day, which is a bummer if i'm off-shift and want a glass with lunch.

for the "other part of your brain" bit - which is a different kind of thinking, broader ranging, less focussed, more speculative, either sleeping or a hot shower work well (hot shower in the morning after sleeping is where the hard problems are solved :o). alcohol doesn't help here either, for me, although running does.

i don't know of any medical studies that say thinking is bad, although stress can be bad (and at least for me, they're kind of associated - see above). generally, having an active mind seems to help keep you active as you age.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:44 AM on July 18, 2004

I find that some really vigorous exercise, even if it's just for five or ten minutes, followed by some rehydration and eating something brainfood like [high protein, not a lot of sugar or starch] helps get me going. Get out of your office and run up and down the stairs for a bit, or go do some heavy lifting and it's almost impossible to keep obsessing over the crossword puzzle or whatever other task-at-hand you may have. There's also eyestrain to think about which can also be tiring and dizzymaking. Try to look at something that is more than 18 inches away from your face. Focus on the horizon, or down a long hallway, or even in to the next room if it's all you've got.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on July 18, 2004

I try to do something really different that can be consumed in small chunks or paused and returned to. Pr0n, video games, something to cleanse the mental pallette.
posted by yerfatma at 10:22 AM on July 18, 2004

I seem to remember New Scientist running an article that says your brain does burn up more energy if you're thinking about something challenging. Now you're never going to get slim by thinking about it but it may be that keeping your blood sugar up could help you out. I'm afraid I don't know enough brain chemistry to know how easily replacable sugars are in the brain.
posted by biffa at 12:30 PM on July 18, 2004

I have been very succesful using the right sort of herb for this problem. It is interesting to note that some studies have shown that certain alkaloids are more effective on ADD than THC, and some varities have more of these.

I suspect that material I've worked on this way were viewed differently in the two different mental states, and that I was able to use this to great advantage. Such material was better internalized. Sort of like, first work with it, then play with it.
posted by Goofyy at 12:08 AM on July 19, 2004

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