Which Tasks Are Best When You’re Tired … and How to Wake Up


We’ve all been there. A late night, a busy weekend, a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm—your alarm goes off all too soon and suddenly you’re at work … but you’re dragging. Your to-do list looms and you press on, starting with the most mindless, routine tasks. But maybe you should rethink your groggy-day plan of attack.

Fatigue actually helps creative thinking and problem solving, according to Smithsonian.com.

When we’re rested, we’re less likely to zone out or drift off. We’re better at focusing—at blocking extraneous thoughts.

But when we’re a little tired, our brains aren’t working at their most efficient. And it’s those inefficiencies that allow unrelated ideas to sneak in and unique connections to form. Both creative thinking and problem solving often benefit from this openness and clutter … when we’re a little tired.

“There are actually more and more studies out there that show that’s kind of how creativity happens—it’s where you just let your mind be open because you’re tired,” says Dr. Mareike Wieth, associate professor in the department of psychological science at Albion College in Michigan.

Wieth’s research looked at how rest affects our ability to solve different types of problems. “The study found that we tend to solve so-called incremental problems, ones that require analytic thinking (think algebra), much better when we are well rested,” reports theglobeandmail.com. But being tired is a huge advantage (20 to 30 percent better) when the task requires insight.

In addition to a random tired day at the office here or there, most of us have peaks in our productivity. Alertness, memory, focus, emotional control, … even our muscle strength all fluctuate during any given day. For some of these things, how much sleep we got, what we ate or drank, and how much we’re moving come into play.

That dip in mental energy you feel when you head back to work after lunch is one common fluctuation most people feel. Many people also experience mood changes as the day progresses.

Understanding your own mind and body fluctuations enables you to organize your work and activities for peak performance. Fastcompany.com takes it a step further by suggesting that morning people get their most demanding, analytical work done early, when they’re fresh. Night owls might want to wait to attack those analytical challenges. Save the creative, out-of-the-box thinking for when you’re more fatigued.

No options for putting analytical tasks off? Here are nine ways to deal with mental fatigue or rev your energy level:

  1. Make fewer decisions. Stick to some easy, established routines. Don’t make this the day you try the new route to work. Stick to your usual Tuesday night dinner, suggests psychologytoday.com.
  2. Take mini-breaks. Look out the window or, better yet, take a quick stroll outside to help you feel restored and focused.
  3. Get some exercise. “Twenty minutes can improve performance and short, intense exercise sessions can increase blood flow to the brain and improve your mood, memory and creativity.”
  4. Have a single cup of coffee, a healthy snack and plenty of water. Nuts, fruit or yogurt are good choices. Overloading on caffeine may give you a headache, so drink it slowly suggests wikihow.com. Also cut the sugar or milk you normally use. Staying hydrated will also help keep you awake.
  5. Keep your mind actively engaged. Discuss a work-related task with a colleague. Switch tasks often to help keep your mind active.
  6. Laugh. Laughing helps wake you up, so watch a funny YouTube video.
  7. Cool off. Take off those extra clothing layers. Point the fan at your face.
  8. Have a mint or chew gum. “Peppermint oil is a natural stimulant that offers a great pick-me-up for work induced coma,” suggests Jennie Ann Freiman, MD. Give your senses a little jolt.
  9. Eat fiber-rich foods for lunch. Fiber slows your digestion—offering a more time-released food absorption into your blood stream.

Good sleep is vital to your health and career. But, when that doesn’t happen, or it’s just a mid-afternoon slump, consider which tasks might be best suited for your sleepy mind. Or try some of the wake-up hacks to get you re-energized.

Related article: The a-ha Moment — Your Brain at Work Problem Solving

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