Is your energy flagging as the workday wears on? By 2 p.m. you’re moving through your tasks in slow motion, your attention is flagging in meetings, and the effort to focus is more than you can summon.
Obviously, you want to get regular sleep and pay attention to the times of day when you work best. You might also want to check your diet and rethink how and when you exercise. But if you’re doing all that and still find it impossible to stay focused and productive at work, your state of mind might be more to blame than your environment or anything physiological. Here are three things your brain might be trying to tell you.
1. You’re Living In Avoidance Mode
There may be items on your to-do list that you keep procrastinating on, or daily crises you’re constantly trying to stave off. Perhaps your boss is always on your back, or annoying clients and customers are dragging you down. Maybe your whole organization is struggling, and each feels more like you’re bailing out a sinking ship than sailing ahead with the wind at your back.
In other words, you’re stressed. Psychologically speaking, stress is the emotion you experience when you haven’t successfully avoided something negative out there in the world. Short-term stress can be energizing (it engages your fight-or-flight reaction and motivates you to act), but long-term stress just saps your energy.
You need to find a way out of this avoidance cycle. In the short term, that means figuring out how to calm yourself when the stress gets bad. An easy thing to do is find a quiet space to sit for five minutes. Close your eyes and focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Slow breathing can calm you down, and paying attention to those breaths can keep you from focusing all your mental energy on the things that are stressing you out.
In the long term, though, you need to find some aspects of work that are actually desirable: What can you spend some time on that might lead to an exciting outcome? If you can’t find anything, you ought to sit down with your supervisor and find at least one project that will bring you some joy to work on. There should be something that makes you want to work rather than stay in bed every day.
2. You Have No Agency
In some situations you may feel like you have a lot of control over what’s happening. In others, external factors are controlling you. The more you feel like the author of your own destiny, the greater agency you possess.
A lot of this is situational–most people’s work lives include a mix of both types of situation–but if you’re mostly just being swept along with the tides, it can feel demoralizing. Eventually that lack of agency can leave you feeling dejected or even depressed, and your body’s constant physical fatigue can become seemingly unshakable.
Your brain is telling you it’s desperate to find some corner of your work you can seize control of. Start with the problem areas: Which parts of your job make you feel like you have the least autonomy, or as though the tasks you’re doing have no impact in the world? Then set up a time to talk with your supervisor about those responsibilities. You might not be able to eliminate them, but you may be able to build in more work that puts you in the driver’s seat.
While you’re at it, have a discussion about your career path. You may be in a situation now where most of your work is governed by someone else, but you might also be on the road to a job that will give you more agency in the near future. If so, start getting mentoring about how to start preparing for that work now.
3. This Just Isn’t Your Calling
Finally, it might be that you just don’t see the point of what you’re doing overall. The day-to-day tasks may be perfectly fine, but you don’t feel like they add up to anything meaningful. Your work is just a job, and your eight-hour workday feels like an eternity. So take a step back and think about your values: What are a few causes, principles, or ideals that energize and motivate you? What type of work might make you feel connected to a broader community? Humans are social creatures, and our brains need to experience these bonds in order to function well.
Maybe you still believe in your organization’s mission, but your role just doesn’t seem to serve it. Is there a stepping-stone opportunity you might be able to locate without having to quit? If you can’t find a good answer to that question, it might be time to look for another job–or even reconsider your career. What kind of work would help you feel like you’re contributing to something meaningful? It may not relate to the specific tasks involved but really the purpose of the work itself. Any set of tasks can be exciting as long as you feel them adding up to something you believe in.
Everyone’s energy flags at work every now and then–and for lots of reasons. But if you’re constantly running on fumes and aren’t sure why, it could be your brain’s way of signaling that you’re spending time in the wrong place.