Why Your Brain Can't Handle An All-Day Schedule

Never taking a break is the surest way to get ahead, right? Not if you need to do anything creative, says science.

Why do we work so many hours? You could say it's because you need facetime with the boss. Or it's a prison passed down from the Industrial Revolution. Or it's because of a badge-of-honor-martyr-complex.

Yet not everybody works all these hours: six of the world's 10 most competitive countries—Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—have bans on working more than 48 hours a week, to the point that the European Union passed policy to mandate such. So let's ask some productive questions: What problems does the working-all-the-time mentality create—and how could we get around them?

You might be terrible (or awesome) first thing in the morning

Showing up to the office tired is a lot like showing up to work drunk: research (and common sense) suggests that poor-quality sleep leads to fatigue, decreased alertness, and impaired cognitive performance. When you're tired upon waking, even super simple tasks like turning on a lightswitch become complicated.

The workaround: Get more sleep. Even an hour can make a big difference. But if that's really impossible, use your tiredness to get in a creative flow. The disinhibition that comes from working in a half-dreamed state can allow for greater creativity. Just ask Salvador Dali.

Your energy levels peak in mid-morning, early evening

A Wall Street Journal article found that our working memory, alertness, and concentration all improve with our body temperatures, which increase throughout the day. The link between body temp and cognition shows us that we have all sorts of biological rhythms within us throughout the day.

What we might want to warm up to, then, is that it makes sense to match our tasks to our physiology: our bodies are warmest around midday, meaning that our concentration is awesome then. Plus our lung capacity—another indicator of mental ability—is highest around 5 p.m., so it makes sense to leave some deep work for the end of the day.

You run out of brain fuel

When we talked to Tim Ferriss, the 4 Hour Work Week author emphasized that while office workers may treat themselves like their work is purely mental, it's also physical. We should treat our workdays like weightlifters treat their workouts: with a rhythm of intensity and rest, he says:


When people think of mental activity, they tend to think of it as an ethereal zapping of electricity that has no cost to the body. That's not true, the brain is a massive blood and oxygen sink. You need stimulus and recovery in mental work in the same way that you need stimulus and recovery for sports.

If you're at your keyboard for eight hours or more solid, then you're not getting the rest you need for your brain-muscles to recover, meaning that your mind will soon be wandering.

The workaround? Re-learning how to rest.

Hat tip: the Atlantic

[Image: Flickr user John McLinden]

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2 Comments

  • Dennis James Deegan

    So where does the 8 hour work day come from? Industrial America? Is the concept due for a makeover? Got to keep your nose to the grindstone..........Productivity? It would be interesting to see some solid research on modified work schedules and compare productivity. Great subject. A parallel question: How many hours should our kids be in school, pouring over the books and listening to their teachers direct their thinking? What is the latest research on how we learn?

  • Bin Teo

    The part about energy levels peaking in mid mornings and early evenings is really true for me. I do my creative work eg blogging then. Thanks for sharing Drake!