Coffee, candy, diet-coke – yes, please! Anything to help perk me up in the afternoon at work. Of course, there are healthier alternatives such as taking brisk walk, doing breathing exercises and meditation. But, let’s be honest. The healthy alternatives require a level of motivation that sometimes I just don’t have. Why is it that I feel like I have run into a wall by late afternoon? And why do I wish I could just take a nap (not generally a great idea at work)? Turns out, science is to blame.
I never actually gave the afternoon slump much thought. I kind of accepted it for what it was or chalked it up to not getting enough sleep the night before. But recently, I came across an article that spoke to this issue and explained there is science behind it.
Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Following is my simplified take on Dr. Markman’s scientific explanation for the afternoon slump:
Your brain’s motivational system has two primary subcomponents – the Go System and the Stop System. The Go System engages your goals and drives you to act. Your Stop System stops you from doing things that you don’t actually want to do. Both of these systems function less well as the day goes on.
To stay on task, you need to energize the Go System. But, as the day progresses and you have already been working hard, it can be difficult to generate the energy you need to focus on your next task. Therefore, you are more likely to get distracted later in the day as opposed to earlier in the day.
To make matters worse, your Stop System requires effort to engage. So, you will also have less energy available to resist the temptation of distractions at the end of the day.
So what is a person to do? Accept the fact that you’re not going to get as much work done in the afternoon? I suspect that employers are not really on board with that work philosophy. Fortunately, there is a way to work with your brain’s motivational system rather than fighting against it. Here’s how:
- Assess your to-do list and categorize your tasks into two groups – tasks requiring internal motivation (writing, researching, reading for comprehension) and tasks where motivation comes from external factors (meetings, tours, checking email).
- Plan your day so that tasks requiring internal motivation, which are more difficult, are completed earlier in the day. Save the tasks that are motivated by outside sources for later in the day.
Knowledge is power. Somehow, just knowing the science behind the afternoon blahs has perked me up already. There is so much more to be said about how your brain functions and how that relates to your job performance. But, that is for another morning to tackle.