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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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Beat the Afternoon Slump - Killer Tips To Stay Productive

The day was so promising... What went wrong? You had a wildly productive morning at work - you blitzed through your projects, fired off emails, had a fantastic phone call with a client. Then lunch happened.

You returned to your desk happy and satiated, but 2pm hit and your eyelids started to droop. By 3pm you were staring blankly at the screen, watching hopelessly as minutes ticked by on the clock.

Your last 3 hours of work were so unproductive you might as well have crawled back into bed.

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon. Known as the deadly afternoon slump, it’s one of the most common productivity killers. But is there any way to avoid it?

Why does the afternoon slump happen?

To beat the afternoon slump, first you need to understand it.

A drop in energy and productivity in the afternoon is completely normal. In fact, your natural circadian rhythms are partially to blame.

The National Sleep Foundation says that our strongest urge to sleep occurs at two times of day. The first is in the middle of the night, between 2am-4am. The second is in the afternoon between 1pm-3pm. Perhaps that’s why afternoon siestas are popular in many cultures.

So it’s natural for you to feel a bit dozy in the afternoon - especially when you’ve worked hard all morning. These circadian dips are made worse by staring at the computer screen, dehydration, stress, and other exacerbating factors throughout the working day. 

But don’t lose hope! There are several scientifically backed ways to increase productivity in the afternoon. Follow these self-care tips to power through your work day and finish on a high. 

1 - Eat in modest portions 

You’ve worked hard all morning, it’s natural to feel ravenous (maybe even a little hedonistic) when lunchtime arrives. You deserve a treat, right?

But scoffing down a big plate of pasta or pizza, you’re almost guaranteed to suffer an afternoon crash. Over-eating at lunch is one of the biggest culprits of the afternoon slump.

When you consume a heavier meal than your body needs - especially one packed with carbohydrates - your body spends the afternoon trying to digest it. This diverts blood away from your brain and drains your energy. Many of us fondly refer to this as a ‘food coma’.

So watch your portion size at lunch. If you’re really hungry, opt for a large salad or a protein based, low-carb meal. This article explains the effects of different food groups on your energy levels. 

2 - Practice sleep hygiene

While circadian dips in the afternoon are natural, they’re much worse if you’re sleep deprived. After a bad night’s sleep (or a big night out) the urge to close your eyes at 2pm and snooze at your desk can be pretty overwhelming.

Of course, we live in a hectic world - and getting a good night’s sleep isn’t as easy as it sounds. An estimated 1 in 3 adults suffer from at least mild insomnia.

If you struggle for decent shut-eye at night, try improving your sleep hygiene. Here’s a few pointers: 

  • Avoid caffeine at least 5 hours before bedtime, and nicotine an hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid TV, your laptop and smartphone at least an hour before bed.
  • If you must work at night, install an app to reduce bluelight. I use f.lux, which automatically reduces laptop glare during evening hours.
  • Keep your bed separate from other activities. Try not to eat in bed, watch TV or work in bed. This helps your brain to associate it with sleep.

3 - Avoid sugary drinks & snacks

Did you knock back a sugary coffee or a big Redbull this morning? Yep, that will wake you up...temporarily. 

Too much sugar in the mornings is a big culprit of the afternoon slump. Sugary drinks or snacks will give you a short-term high, but a few hours later you’ll crash and feel worse than before.

Opt for black coffees instead, and avoid those indulgent morning teas (I know it’s hard when your colleagues bring in cookies and cake - it can feel like a daily battle of willpower!).

If you find yourself tempted often, keep a stash of slow-burning, healthy snacks in your desk. Nuts, seeds, oatmeal and dark chocolate are great energy foods which help to prevent cravings. 

4 - Treat your eyes well

We’ve said it before - highly productive people look after their eyes. This is especially important in the afternoon when you’ve already done 4-5 hours of screen work. Failing to care for your eyes is a big cause of the afternoon crash. 

Experts recommend following the 20-20-20 rule if you work at a computer. For every 20 minutes of work, look away from your screen at an object about 20 feet away, and hold this gaze for 20 seconds. This lets your eye muscles relax, and helps to prevent eye strain and mental fatigue. 

Do you wear glasses and suffer regular headaches at your computer? You could be wearing the wrong prescription for screen work. Talk to your optometrist - you may be able to get specialised computer glasses to help prevent afternoon fatigue.

5 - Strive for good posture

Your posture has a massive impact on brain activity. When the afternoon crash hits it’s tempting to slouch over your desk, or recline lazily on a bean bag. But sitting upright actually boosts your memory and brain power. 

If you struggle with posture it’s a good idea to purchase an ergonomic chair. They’re specifically designed to prevent back and neck pain, while supporting your spine and encouraging you to sit upright. It’s a good investment for your brain and body! 

6 - Get up and move

Studies have also shown the health dangers of sitting too much, which is a real problem for many of us during the 40+ hour working week. Some have even dubbed sitting “the new smoking”. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain, depression, anxiety, high cholesterol, and even heart disease.

Do standing desks solve this issue? Partially, but they also come with problems. Standing in a fixed position too long can have similar damaging, physiological effects. It can also put serious pressure on your joints and legs.

So what’s the solution? Whether you’re sitting or standing at work, it’s wise to break up your afternoon with quick bursts of exercise. Buffer recommend moving every 20 minutes. Set an alarm and incorporate stretches and short walks into your daily afternoon routine.

Movement tells your brain you’re awake, helps digest lunch and gets your blood flowing. It’s the perfect cure for an afternoon slump. 

7 - Take your meetings outside

Nothing brings on a worse afternoon slump than sitting in a stuffy boardroom. If the latter half of your day is packed with meetings, why not take them outside?

Go with your colleagues for a stroll round the block, or take your meeting to the local park. The fresh air and movement will help you fight off your own afternoon crash, while also stimulating the creativity of those around you.

Plus let’s face it, it’s way more fun than being in the office. 

8 - Stay hydrated

Dehydration is one of the biggest causes of fatigue. Make a mental note to drink water regularly throughout the day. A large water bottle on your desk serves as a good reminder. If you hate the taste of ‘nothing’ add a little lemon zest, lime juice or mint. 

Still have trouble remembering? There are many awesome apps to help track your hydration levels. Try Waterlogged, iDrated or Hydrate.

Drinking plenty of water not only fights off the afternoon slump, it also aids digestion, improves skin complexion, and helps you maintain a healthy weight. What’s not to love about the magic liquid?

9 - Schedule work strategically

Despite your best efforts, sometimes the afternoon crash will be unavoidable. It’s natural to feel tired halfway through a shift, and not think 100% clearly as you did in the morning.

The good news is that by acknowledging your productivity patterns, you can schedule your daily tasks to match your brain, mood and energy levels.

Try to use your mornings for individual, demanding and analytical work. Our brains are more alert and focused during this time (although this ‘peak concentration’ period will occur slightly later for night owls). We’re better at blocking out distractions and getting into a deep state of focus during the first half of the day.

Use your afternoons for creative and group work. Being tired actually has two beneficial effects. Firstly, it can reduce our social inhibitions, making us better at working with others and voicing our opinions. Secondly, when we’re tired it’s difficult to filter out distractions - and this can be good for creative thinking! You’re more likely to grab random ideas from the air and think outside the box. 

While these recommendations are a good starting point, we’re still individuals. It’s best to measure your own productivity metrics and identify your peak times. Then you can build a schedule that truly works for you.

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The afternoon slump is a natural nuisance, but it doesn’t have to ruin your working week. By following proven techniques to increase productivity you can still be efficient every day. In the next article we’ll offer some tips for surviving Thursdays, and even finishing the working week early! Sound like a dream? It doesn’t have to be.