When We Hit the Mental Wall

You know you’re smart. You know on any given day you’re able to figure it out. But today, just for today, your brain is going on strike. Can’t process another piece of information. Can’t look at one more spread-sheet. Can’t listen to one more scintillating idea.

Mental fatigue. Shut-down. Brain-dead.

In an article titled “The Science of Fitness,” Gretchen Reynolds distills some compelling research on the mechanics of mental fatigue (New York Times Health and Wellness Section, 10/02/13). 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.

The implications for our everyday work habits 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 that easy in an over-stuffed work day, is it? Consider the following mental-fatigue-busters:

  • 3-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.
  • 3-minute fitness break: Jog in place. 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 3 minutes. Activate your body. 
  • 3-minute refueling-break: Make a smoothie. 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 actually fixing a snack is a key part of the mental refueling.
  • 3-minute do-nothing-break: Doing nothing is alpha-hell. But commit to it anyway. 3 minutes in which you don’t check emails. You don’t text or tweet. You don’t make a phone call. You don’t check your voice-mail. 3 minutes in which you do not engage in any purpose-driven behavior of any sort.

My colleague and friend Walt Hampton stresses the importance of going OFF-grid at regular intervals. If your work consists of relentless mental activity, day in, day out, venture beyond our 3-minute breaks. Consider OFF-gridding for 3 days, every 3 months. Make these 3 days part of your life rhythm. It means going OFF-technology, OFF-social obligations, OFF-finding things to keep busy. It means foregoing the casino and lounging in the hammock, avoiding the mall and embracing the spa. It means resolutely going OFF.

Your mind and your body will enter nirvana. Can you think of any reason not to do so?

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Achim Nowak is an author, speaker, C-Suite coach, international authority on personal presence. His book "The Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating a Mindful Life in a Distracted World" (New Page Books) has just been published. His previous books have become prized resources for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. Achim and his work have been featured on 60 Minutes, Fox News, NPR, in The New York Times and The Miami Herald.