You know you’re smart. On any given day you can figure it out. But today, just for today, your brain is going on strike. Shut down.
Can’t process another piece of information. Can’t look at one more spread-sheet. Can’t listen to one more scintillating idea.
Let’s simply call it mental fatigue.
In her article “The Science of Fitness,” Gretchen Reynolds distills some compelling research on the mechanics of mental fatigue (New York Times Health and Wellness Section, 10/02/2013). Common wisdom has it that bouts of short exercise improve cognition. Long, strenuous exercise will temporarily inhibit cognition – it simply leaves us too tired to think. But recent research, conducted by the University of Kent in conjunction with the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, clearly shows that mental fatigue, in turn, impairs our body’s ability to function. Yes, the brain-body correlation is powerful. And it’s synchronous. Whew.
I watch British diving star Tom Daley miss qualifying for the finals in Rio after setting an Olympic record in his preliminary dives. Daley finishes last in his semi-final group. British Diving performance director Alexei Evangulov affirms that Daley was “in the best shape and best form of his career” before the Olympics. Mental stress? Too tired to think?
You and I are not training for the Olympics. The implications for our everyday work habits, however, are tremendous. When our brain is tired of thinking, we need to stop thinking. Otherwise our body will start to shut down. And suddenly we’re in double-shut-down-mode.
How do we stop thinking? How do we re-fuel a fatigued brain? Not so easy in an over-stuffed work day, is it? Consider the following mental-fatigue-busters:
- 5-minute mental break: Shut your eyes. Put on your noise-canceling head-phones. Listen to your favorite mood-mellowing-music. And set a timer so your brain isn’t obsessing about how much time you have left before you go back on task.
- 5-minute fitness break: Jog in place. Do yoga stretches. Free-flow dance. You decide what kind of movement you do. It doesn’t need to be strenuous. But move, really truly move for an entire 5 minutes. Your body AND your brain will be refreshed.
- 5-minute refueling break: Make a smoothie. Fix a fruit salad. Pour a bowl of cereal and milk. Venture beyond merely un-wrapping an energy bar and feeding yourself while you continue to work. Your devotion to the act of fixing a snack is part of the mental refueling.
- 5-minute do-nothing-break: It ought to be such a welcome relief – but doing nothing is acute alpha-hell. Commit to it anyway. 5 minutes in which you don’t check emails. Don’t text or tweet. Don’t make a phone call, don’t listen to your voice-mail. 5 minutes in which you do not engage in any purpose-driven task of any sort. 5 minutes in which you close your eyes, breathe, sit still. And observe yourself, with nothing to change, adjust, fix. Just sit. Breathe. 5 minutes.
When we stop we suddenly notice stuff. The tree outside the window. The picture of our loved ones. The memory of something we had nearly forgotten. There all along, but we were too busy and shut down to notice. These little notices are the juice of life. The juice that revitalizes our brain and soul.
Revitalizing feels good. Stop. Feel good.