8 Ways to Combat an Afternoon Productivity Slump That Don't Involve Another Cup of Coffee

Here's how to predict, prevent, and push through that midday loss of motivation.

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Mid-afternoon productivity slumps aren't just in your imagination. They're a biological preset that can leave you groggy, sluggish, and stuck when you want to be focused, efficient, and motivated. And it's not just you: These midday energy declines are a common part of the human experience, caused by our natural circadian rhythms. "An afternoon slump is when you start to feel tired, your energy wanes, and you get a bit of a brain fog," says productivity expert Alexis Haselberger. "Based on your morningness or eveningness orientation, you might experience this slump at different times, but studies show that most people who experience this feel it between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m."

This drop in motivation, energy, and focus isn't an interruption you're meant to brush off—it's an innate part of the way your body functions. "Our bodies are not designed to run at a high energy pace all day long," says Martin Ford, an educational psychologist, professor of education, and senior associate dean at George Mason University. "About halfway through the day, the body's core temperature drops a bit, signaling the brain to release melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. That is an adaptive response that should be acknowledged and respected, not denied or ignored." (Many cultures—especially those in warmer climates—acknowledge and respect this downtime by incorporating mid-afternoon siestas.) Use these eight tips to predict, prevent, or push past your next downtime.

1. Prioritize Better Sleep

Your afternoon slumps can be worse if you're not getting enough sleep at night. You should aim for at least seven hours of healthy sleep a night, says Haselberger—some adults need up to nine hours.

"Lack of rejuvenating sleep at night means the body will be trying to catch up during the day," says Ford. "Most experts emphasize the importance of going to bed at about the same time each night and removing disruptive influences like cell phones, which emit blue light that inhibits melatonin production."

2. Reevaluate Breakfast and Lunch

What you eat and drink throughout the morning and at lunch can also influence your afternoon productivity: If you're dehydrated, overcaffeinated, hungry, or facing a blood sugar drop, your energy may feel even more depleted. "Perhaps switch up your lunch for something that has more protein and will sustain you through the afternoon," says Haselberger. "If that doesn't help, check your hydration—low levels of hydration often give us a headache."

Ford emphasizes the importance of making time to eat throughout the day. "Don't skip meals," he says. "Food is the primary source of energy. Failure to eat a variety of foods at a normal pace can disrupt efforts to regulate energy throughout the day."

3. Work Smarter

During a productivity slump, you have two choices: make the most of the energy you have or take a break. If you don't have time for regular breaks, Haselberger recommends accommodating your low mid-afternoon energy when you plan your day. "Modulate the work you do during your slump," she says. "Schedule your more rote work that doesn't need your full brain for this time—think: email, expenses, filing—and make sure to schedule your deep work when you know you'll have more energy."

4. Get Social

For some of us, nothing kills the potential productivity of an afternoon more than a dull meeting. "[But] if you're an extrovert, who gains energy through social interaction, schedule meetings during your slump, as this'll help you increase energy," says Haselberger.

If meetings aren't part of your routine, find other ways to socialize—in person—during the day, says Ford. "Engage a colleague—one who is not absorbed in a task—in a conversation," he recommends. "If you are socially isolated, call a friend or family member on the phone or engage in a brief video chat. Don't just text or email—that won't do it. The energy activation from social interaction requires real-time, synchronous audio and/or visual feedback."

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5. Change Your Environment

Different surroundings can help your brain reset, and incorporating time outside offers even more benefits. Ask a friend to join you for a walk to your nearest juice shop to incorporate socialization; up the pace of your solo walk to feel the energy boost of a mid-afternoon workout; or relish a few moments of fresh air while you stretch your legs. "When you feel mentally worn out, seek out a change of scenery," says Ford. "If you can't go outside, walk to an indoor place you don't normally go to, like the bathroom or break room on a different floor."

6. Avoid Quick Fixes

When you feel your energy dropping, it's tempting to turn to caffeine and sugary sweets—but these won't always help in the long run. "There are lots of things people do to combat the afternoon slump that just make it worse," says Haselberger. "They'll ignore it and try to power through, getting diminishing returns on your work product [in the process], or over-caffeinate in the late afternoon, which makes it hard for many to get to sleep, compounding the problem. Giving in to sweet cravings will [just] cause another spike and crash cycle."

7. Skip the Nap

Another bad decision, says Haselberger, is taking a too-long afternoon nap—this is hard to do in the office, but an easier mistake to make if you work from home. "Naps of longer than about 25 minutes leave us groggy, which makes it hard to return to work," she says.

If you do rely on power naps and early afternoon coffee to get through your day, Haselberger recommends Daniel Pink's "nappucino" technique. "This technique involves drinking a cup of coffee immediately before taking a power nap," she says. "It takes about 20 minutes for caffeine to kick in, and that's also the ideal length of a nap, so this technique has you revived with both sleep and caffeine at the same time."

8. Refocus

Shifting your afternoon mindset can also improve your energy levels, says Ford, as you focus on the external results of your project instead of your immediate lack of productivity. "When your energy declines and daily tasks start to feel like chores, think about the purpose of the task at hand and why it is meaningful," he says. "'I still have 1,000 words to write,' is a de-energizing thought. 'Just think how many people I might help when they read this,' is an energizing thought. Focusing less on the what and more on the why is an authentic energy-boosting strategy that can sustain motivation not just in the moment, but throughout the most difficult parts of a work day."

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