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This is why you can’t get anything done at the end of the workday

The brain science behind the 3 p.m. slump.

This is why you can’t get anything done at the end of the workday
[Photo: Hutomo Abrianto/Unsplash]

Chances are, you start each workday with high hopes and energy. You get to the office ready to take on the world. Your energy may ebb and flow, but you reach a point (often an hour or two before the day ends) where you’re just tapped out. You are physically there at work, but your brain has taken a holiday. You may find yourself doing “fake work” searching the internet (maybe reading articles like this one) or shuffling papers.

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Why is the end of the day so hard?

There are two big reasons for it that have to do with the way your motivational system is set up. As I wrote in my book Smart Change, your motivational system has two primary subcomponents. The Go System engages your goals and drives you to act. Your Stop System stops you from doing things your Go System engages in that you don’t actually want to do. Both of these systems function less well as the day goes on.

Sustained attention to a task requires energizing the Go System. As the day goes forward and you have worked hard on a variety of tasks, it can be difficult to generate the energy internally to focus on the next task on your to-do list. As a result, enticing things in your environment can play a big role in determining what you focus on. You may be more likely to get distracted by your email or your Slack feed later in the day than earlier.

On top of that, the Stop System requires effort to engage. You will have less energy available to stop behaviors as well. If you are tempted to do something that is not central to the tasks that need to be accomplish, you’ll be better at pushing that temptation aside early in the day than late.

What can you do?

Just because it is hard to focus late in the day doesn’t mean that you can’t be productive. You just need to be productive in a different way.

When you look at your to-do list, there are probably two kinds of tasks on it. Some are ones that require an internal motivational commitment to make progress like working on a report, researching a sales lead, or reading the specs of a new product. Other tasks can engage you from the outside. Having a one-on-one meeting with a colleague or client, touring a new work facility, or checking your email are all things where the motivation to work on them comes from the outside rather than having to be generated internally.

Structure your day so that the tasks that require the most internal commitment are done early in the day, while the ones that will provide you with motivation themselves happen late. For example, I often schedule blocks of time to work on my writing early in the day, and put my meetings with colleagues and graduate students in the afternoon. And for my worst work times of the week (like late on Friday afternoon) I schedule productive events that are fun, like my lab group meeting.

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Setting up your day in this way allows you to work with the ebb and flow of your motivational system rather than creating a constant fight against your energy level.

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