Most tasks, at least for professionals and knowledge workers, lead to some mental fatigue. After all, we are constantly engaging in activities that involve decision making and self-control. The key to limiting mental fatigue is recognizing the work that is most likely to deplete your resources in a substantial way and, when you have any say in the matter, to simply not engage in that work before you want to be at your best.
So how can you identify the tasks that lead to mental fatigue and keep you from being incredibly productive? If you feel spent after doing a task, there’s a good chance it is tapping into your self-control. The degree to which tasks take a toll on self-control, decision making, or other executive functions varies with each person.
Here are some examples of common activities that can lead to mental fatigue:
- Switching frequently between one task and another
- Networking and making small talk
- Sitting still for hours
- Making cold calls
- Identifying errors and correcting them
- Planning or scheduling projects
- Keeping track of deadlines
Avoiding these activities may seem hardly practical, since the higher our positions at work, the more likely we are to have to make decisions, plan, and collaborate with others pretty much all the time. The important thing to remember, however, is that we don’t have to completely avoid these activities. But if we strategically choose the order in which we complete the various tasks on our to-do lists, we can carve out two awesome hours when our brains are not as fatigued and get some amazing things done.
Do you hope to spend two hours mapping out a new initiative for your department? Don’t tackle the project right after mapping out a different initiative. Do you need to write an email to your boss outlining the reasons why a top-priority project is not on time and asking for more resources to complete it? Don’t even think of starting that new email after you’ve already been dealing with emails for an hour and a half. Does the human resources department want you to complete your employees’ annual review by the end of the day? If it matters to you to get it right, it would be better not to do it at the end of the day, because the odds are you will have a good amount of mental fatigue by that point.
Even some of the common ways in which we pass the time when we are taking a break–presumably for the purpose of refreshing our minds–probably fatigue us even more and should be avoided if they occur just before we have to be on top of our game. For example, if you often turn on the news or check out a news website that reports on the latest tragedy or an upsetting political development, it can require a good deal of self-control to manage a knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of stories. So avoid these activities before you have to be at your best.
Here are four things to help you avoid mental fatigue that you can try this week:
Complete your most important work first thing in the morning, before your brain has been depleted by hundreds of small decisions. Think about the most creative and interesting task on your plate right now, or the one with the biggest long-term upside, and spend one to two hours first thing in the morning on it. And when I say first thing, I mean first thing–that is, before checking your email or looking at any media, such as TV, newspapers, smartphones, or computers.
Consider the tasks on your to-do list for the day, and label each of them as “Important Decisions,” “Creative,” or “Other.” Carve out time late in the day (perhaps after your lunch, during your food coma?) to complete the tasks in the “Other” category. Knowing you’ve scheduled time for these makes it less likely that you will try tackling them earlier in the day, when your mental reserves are highest.
Try reading and responding to your email messages for only one hour in the afternoon and reflect on whether doing so improved your ability to focus more clearly on tasks that require problem solving or creativity during the rest of the day. I know this is a terrifying suggestion for some people. And it’s true that some days don’t allow for this, but try it once or twice and you might be surprised to find it more possible than you’d feared.
Make a few decisions the night before you have a big day, so you won’t have to make them on the big day. They can be small (like what to wear or have for breakfast and lunch) or they can be large (like deciding what tasks actually matter to you to accomplish on the big day). Organize your to-do list based on those large decisions.
Here are three ways to refresh yourself if you get fatigued or overly emotional and need a quick replenishment:
Breathe deeply and slowly for a bit. Breathing helps you directly change your physiology, and feelings are, in part, the experience of what’s going on in your physiology. So breathing can directly change what you feel when you have feelings. For example, heart rate is strongly tied to breathing rate. In general, the faster you breathe, the faster your heart will beat, and the slower you breathe, the slower it will beat. So breathing slowly really can help calm you down. This is one place common sense has it right.
Have a good laugh. A positive mood has been shown to help restore us when we are mentally fatigued.
Take a specifically short nap. Researchers at Flinders University in Australia found that a 10-minute nap helped reduce fatigue and improve alertness as well as a variety of cognitive tasks, with the benefits lasting for about two-and-a-half hours. And while a 20 or 30-minute nap was also restorative, it was in some ways less restorative than 10 minutes, because it took longer for people to be alert enough after the nap to start benefiting from it, without extending the benefits beyond two-and-a-half hours.
Adapted from “Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies To Harness Your Best Time And Get Your Most Important Work Done” and reprinted with permission.
Dr. Josh Davis is the director of research for at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), a neurocoach, and a certified master practitioner in neurolinguistic programming (NLP). His new book is Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies To Harness Your Best Time And Get Your Most Important Work Done (HarperOne; May 5, 2015).