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How To Curb ‘The Afternoon Crash’

The Best Hours To Boost Productivity

There are steps you can take to curb “the afternoon crash.” Getty

It’s important for employers and employees alike to recognize that there is an ideal time during the day when productivity peaks. And there are certain steps workers can take to maximize their productivity. If you’re like most American workers, you experience sudden dips in energy during your workday. These dips happen when you’ve overworked your brain, your mind wanders from your task at hand or at certain times of the day known as “the afternoon crash.”

Decision Fatigue

When you make decisions after working hours on end, chances are they’ll be different from the ones you’d make after your brain has had a rest period. Why? Scientists have discovered a phenomenon known as decision fatigue—which is what happens when your brain is worn out, depleted of mental energy. Decision fatigue is why many workers have low mental energy for the complex job tasks. After hours of nonstop working without a break, your brain gets fatigued. The longer you work and the more choices you make in those extended work hours, the more difficult it is for your strained mind to make decisions. It becomes hard to make even ordinary decisions, such as what to wear, where to eat, how much to spend or how to prioritize work projects. If you’re like many people, you start to take short cuts and your productivity and performance suffer.

The Wandering Mind: When You Stray, You Pay

Your mind could be wandering right now. You could be thinking about what you ate for lunch and what you “should” have eaten. Or you could be worried about unpaid bills or an unfinished project. Harvard University researchers have found that the human mind wanders 47% of the time, and that when you stray, you pay. When your mind wanders, you’re more stressed out and unhappy than when you stay in the here and now. The Harvard scientists found that people were happier—no matter what they were doing, even working overtime, vacuuming the house, or sitting in traffic—if they were focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else.

I refer to these out-of-the moment episodes as brownouts—tuning out the here and now, memory lapses during conversations, or momentary forgetfulness because you’re out of your present mind. But you don’t have to let a mental fog eclipse your self-attunement submerging you in your own stress juices. Your presence of mind gives you the power to flip the pattern around, landing you in the driver’s seat, putting you back in charge. When you pay attention and fully engage in each moment, you work mindfully and productively in an alert, active and calm manner.

The Afternoon Crash

If you’re like most American workers, you’ve experienced a sudden dip in your energy several hours into your workday—commonly referred to as the afternoon crash. To explore this phenomenon further, Paychex surveyed 1,000 people about their work productivity and experiences with afternoon fatigue. They found that the ideal window of productivity was between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some findings include: 

  • 81% of employees experience the afternoon crash— employees report experiencing the afternoon crash an average of 3.2 days per week, more than half of the workweek.
  • 1 in 4 employees admit they’ve fallen asleep at work; The most effective ways to combat the crash include drinking a caffeinated beverage (49%), taking a break (35%), and stretching (29%).
  • While a majority (38%) of work meetings are scheduled before 12 pm, employees that have meetings midday (12-2 pm) are more likely to say they’re extremely active participants.
  • 71% of employees tried to schedule their workday around their most productive hours, highlighting their understanding of their best operating hours.

Improving Your Productivity In 2020

  1. Power Naps. Studies at the Salk Institute show that power nappers have higher brain activity, memory and mood throughout the workday compared to the brain activity of non-nappers, which declines as the day drags on. Another study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who power nap were 34% less likely to die from heart problems. Power naps are great stress buffers. They lower stress by reducing the level of cortisol in your blood, refreshing you and refueling your engine. More companies, encourage employees to take power naps because of the benefits of alertness, reduction in errors and increased productivity. Some companies, such as Thrive Global even provide special rooms with specially designed chairs (called nap pods) for snoozing.
  2. Restorative Rest. Your brain needs restorative rest just like your body. The solution to decision fatigue and the afternoon crash is to plan certain activities such as moving and stretching away from your work station, brisk exercise, relaxing in nature, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, massage or tai chi.
  3. Scheduling Tasks. Changes in working hours or workload can affect your mood, eating habits and general wellness, impacting how effectively and efficiently you work. Research shows that morning workers are inherently more productive than employees who complete their work later in the day. It’s important to schedule complex tasks during the early morning productive hours and leave simpler tasks for later in the day. When work meetings are scheduled earlier in the workday, more employees are likely to actively participate in them.
  4. Mindful Working. Scientists say that the way you use your mind can determine how much work stress or work productivity you have. Mindful working helps you bridge the gap between “working smarter versus working longer.” Keeping your focus on the present instead of ruminating about what happened in the past or about what might happen raises job performance, productivity and satisfaction. Burgeoning evidence-based studies have demonstrated that a mindful approach to work has dramatic payoffs for employees, the workplace and corporate America. Companies such as Google, Yahoo, Time Warner and Apple have begun to integrate mindfulness principles into the training of their employees, which provides better ways to cope with stress and boost productivity.
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