6 ways to beat the afternoon slump and stay productive all day

Note from the editor: Wellness is a big issue among professionals, especially those in stressful sectors like the law. At One Legal we’re lucky to have an in-house wellness guru, Lili Daniel, who also leads our Customer Success team. In this latest wellness blog (check out the full series here), she shares her tips on beating the afternoon slump and staying productive all day long. -Richard

We all know what afternoon slump feels like. Our body and mind decide to crash, it becomes difficult to concentrate on tasks requiring deep focus, and even staying awake or motivated is hard.

It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, albeit one with a couple of causes.

First off, 40% of Americans don’t get enough sleep. If you’re not sufficiently rested, you’ll inevitably get tired as the day goes on.

Second, even if you’re sleeping between 6 and 8 hours a night, it’s still natural to slump after lunch as your body redirects its energy away from your brain and towards the important task of getting nutrients from your food.

I know how tempting it is to try and beat this feeling by grabbing another cup of coffee, or sneaking a sugary snack like the leftover donuts in the kitchen. The fact is, though, that these sugars will only give you a very temporary boost. Fortunately, there are research-backed ways to beat the afternoon slump. Here are six of my favorite.

#1 Take mini breaks

When you’re busy or you have a deadline approaching it seems counter-intuitive to start taking short breaks. However, the longer you spend intensively concentrating on a single task the less focused you’ll become and the more your mind will wander.

You can beat this fatigue by taking “microbreaks” — short 2-5 minute gaps between intensive 30, 45, or 60-minute bursts of work. Use these microbreaks to stand up, stretch, fetch a drink, listen to some music.

Do anything really, but the evidence suggests that you must stop what you’re working on a for just a minute or two. Professor Alejandro Llera, of the University of Illinois, concluded of a recent study of his that “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”

#2 Do some “deskercise”

When you feel the afternoon slump beginning to hit and your mind starting to feel cloudy, one of the best solutions is to get up and get moving. Why’s that? Researchers have shown a clear correlation between regular light exercise and improved memory and thinking skills.

If you have time and space, go for a short walk around the block. Don’t worry if you’re tied to your desk, though — there’s always “deskercise.” Try a few simple desk-based stretches:

  • First, stand up straight, reach your hands up over your head, tilt your head to look up at your hands, and then lean forward from the waist towards your toes. Repeat a few times.
  • Second, sitting in your chair with your back straight place your hand over the outside edge of your opposite knee. Then twist your body towards your hand as far as feels comfortable. Repeat a few times before swapping to stretch the opposite side.
  • Finally, sit towards the front edge of your chair and join your hands behind your back. Push your shoulders and chest forward and hold for a few moments taking deep breaths.

You’d be amazed how much good you can do with just a few simple, desk-based exercises. I’ve previously written up a full desk-based yoga session that you can complete in just 10 mins. Check it out.

#3 Snack on things that wake you up

Some snack food and drink — coffee, donuts, candy bars, etc. — will give you a short jolt of caffeine and/or sugar, but they won’t provide the long-term fuel you need to keep going all day long.

Fortunately, there are plenty of readily available snack items that work far better than glucose (the sugar in candy and the like) and caffeine. Fresh fruits (which contain fructose, a sugar that releases energy more slowly than glucose) and protein-rich nuts work far better and give stable, long-lasting energy.

Try a pack of dried fruit and nuts (making sure there is no added sugar), an apple, some naturally sweetened cereal or granola bars, or you could try mixing up some peanut butter with a banana.

#4 Mix up your routine

Your body’s ebbs and flows of energy are determined by your circadian rhythm. If you’ve had a good night’s sleep, you’ll be at peak performance for most the morning, but as you approach between eight and 10 hours of wakefulness you’ll start to tire — it is a fact of human life.

While you can battle through and, to some extent, beat the slump with food and exercise at some point you need to consider changing your daily schedule to put less focus-intensive tasks in the early afternoon. So far as you can, put meetings in this slot, or schedule time for printing, organizing your desk, and so on during these parts of the day.

Check out our ultimate to-do list for more tips on organizing your day for maximum productivity.

#5 Choose your lunch wisely

Our bodies metabolize food slowly, so what you eat for your lunch (and your breakfast, for that matter) will directly affect your energy levels throughout the day. It might sound odd, but the key at lunchtime is to not only eat certain types of food, but also to eat less.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Dr Sally Norton, says “One of the main reasons that many of us feel that afternoon slump after lunch is because our bodies are busy digesting our meal. And the more we eat, the longer our bodies may take to digest it.”

Large, carbohydrate-heavy lunches, like pasta or sandwiches, actually contain much more energy that your body really needs if you’re working in an office, she says. Instead, focus on lighter lunches that focus on protein, salad and vegetables and keep the carbs to a minimum.  Turkey, fish, chicken, tofu, and legumes are energizing choices.

#6 Ditch highly-caffeinated drinks

Staying hydrated is vital for beating the afternoon slump. While it’s a bit of a myth that coffee and other caffeinated drinks cause dehydration, they will mess with your energy levels and can cause headaches in some people.

It may be better to replace your coffee breaks with a water break — keep a bottle of water at your desk and try to drink at least eight glasses worth of water throughout the day. If you’re still craving a hot drink, then try tea or hot water with lemon (there’s even some evidence that the citrus might give you an extra boost!).

Want more practical advice on staying happy and healthy at work? Download our free wellness guide for legal professionals:

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About the Author

Lili Daniel leads the Customer Success team at One Legal. She has a decade of legal support service experience and is a member of a number of legal professional associations. She was a board member of the San Gabriel Valley Legal Secretaries Association from 2012 to 2014. When Lili isn’t running around in the legal community, she is teaching yoga to the masses as a yoga instructor in Pasadena.

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