6 Science-Backed Ways to Overcome the ‘Afternoon Slump’

Photo by Katya Austin on UnsplashPhoto by Katya Austin on Unsplash

Never feel tired at 3pm again.

All Hours Are Not Created Equal

Everyone loves the 8-hour weekday. You start work at 9 or 10 in the morning and get to shut everything down by 6. And if you think about it, 8 hours is a LOT of time.

Imagine being on an 8-hour flight. When time slows down like no place in the world — where you check the time confident that at least 2 hours must’ve passed, but are shocked to see that it’s only 20 minutes. There’s really no limit to what you can get done on a flight. As a writer, I can probably draft a whole ebook.

Common sense will tell you, therefore, that a regular office day should be so productive! Yet, regular office-goers (before the pandemic, that is) will be the first ones to bring you to terms with the reality.

Because the truth is that probably only half of the time in the office is spent doing work. The rest of the time, we’re either distracted or dealing with our own energy issues.

Why? Because all hours are simply not created equal. Carson Tate, the author of [Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style](http://www.amazon.com/Work-Simply-Embracing-Personal-Productivity/dp/1491552077) says,

“It’s just not realistic to expect ourselves to be on all day. Just as you wouldn’t expect yourself to walk at a brisk pace for eight solid hours, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be focused or think strategically for that amount of time.”

For most people, one of such times is the post-lunch period when little or no work gets done. Yes, it’s the dreaded chunk of time after lunch where you can think about nothing but going to sleep but you have to toil away at something important on your plate.

You’re not alone in this predicament. This phenomenon is so common that it has a lovely name — the “Afternoon Slump.” Simply put, it’s a time when your alertness and productivity take a serious hit. Remember the time when you couldn’t stop yawning at your desk? That’s it.

All this begs the simple question — “why do we feel tired in the afternoon?” — without a simple answer. There’s obviously no single reason behind you feeling tired. Yet, tackling it is not rocket science.

First, you need to understand that the primary culprit here is our Circadian Rhythm. It’s our body’s internal sleep clock that dictates energy levels throughout the day. It’s set in such a way that most adults have a strong urge to sleep between 1–3 p.m and 2–4 a.m.

Additionally, the circadian rhythm largely depends on light. To conform with sunlight, it would be natural for us to feel awake in the morning and tired in the evening as the sunset thereby heading for a tight sleep.

But thanks to our devices and artificial lighting, that doesn’t really happen. Since we use our devices excessively, we signal our brain into thinking it’s daytime. This messes up your cycle leading to poor sleep. And when you sleep poorly, it’s not so surprising that you feel tired around mid-day.

Another common reason for this is the food you eat. A tendency to snack on sugar-treats and eat heavy lunches directly leads to tiredness. (Thus, the concept of a ‘siesta’ after a tasty pasta lunch!)

The afternoon slump sucks. Your brain gets foggy and it’s almost impossible to focus on anything. But don’t worry — the first step to fixing the problem is to be aware of it. Awareness always precedes progress.

I know many of my friends who waste the early morning hours catching up on coffee thinking they can push their deadlines in the afternoon not knowing what awaits them! Since they’re not aware of the problem, they can’t solve it. But now that I’ve brought this to your attention, dear reader, let’s see what we can do to fix this.

Manage Your Energy, Not Time


Since we’ve learned that all hours are not created equal, it doesn’t make sense to plan our days using time as an anchor. Instead, plan your days using your energy as the anchor.

Because of our circadian rhythms, which are different for everyone, we all have an energy curve. We’re more productive at certain times of the day. For most people, energy starts to rise in the morning.

10 am is usually the time for peak concentration that tunes down around lunch. After 3–4 pm, our energy levels start to rise a little again before going to sleep, say around 9 pm.

Understanding your energy cycle is key to productive work life. When you work with your rhythms and not against them, you can sail through your work easily.

The argument is simple — schedule your most demanding tasks when you have the most energy. I do most of my writing and other creative tasks by 11 am. I rarely prefer having meetings before then, or at least have no calls before 10 am.

When you find your energy levels coming down, try to focus on tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding. I like to schedule meetings in the afternoon or in the evening when I don’t really like to work. If you’re in the office, working with others is a great way to take your mind off fatigue and focus on shallow tasks that need to get done — cleaning out your inbox, filling reports, replying to messages, etc.

Just Move

Movement is energy. Even a five-minute stretching session can get the blood and oxygen flowing to all parts of your body, making you more alert. So when you feel fatigued the next time, try to take a brisk walk around the office or your house or do some light exercise like pushups or jumping jacks.

If your schedule allows for it, you can even head for a light workout to the gym. 20–30 mins is enough to make you forget all about how tired you are.

One of the best ways to inculcate this in your schedule is to take walking meetings. Steve Jobs almost always took his meetings walking, especially important ones — like brainstorming the design of Apple products along with Jony Ive.

Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Weiner too seem to have similar routines. Dorsey walks five miles every day to his office. He told Fortune, “If I’m with a friend we have our best conversations while walking.” Jeff always prefers an outdoor view and will take “walking 1:1 over office meetings any day.”

Walking not only is a great form of exercise for busy individuals but in a lot of cases, a crucial reason behind their creativity and success.

To boost the benefit of this trick a little more, try to walk outdoors. Nature heals most problems if you allow it to, making you instantly more productive. The bright light of the sun helps to increase alertness and cognitive flexibility.

Many studies have urged companies to create environments for employees to easily walk in. Some companies have put park benches and picnic tables in grassy, sun-filled areas to encourage people to set up temporary workspaces outdoors. Others have built a travelator mapping the circumference of the office floor. The point is simple — walk and say goodbye to the afternoon slump.


Another way to get more oxygen flowing in your body without leaving your desk is to breathe — but not in the way you’ve trained yourself to breathe.

Most of us have forgotten the proper way to breathe. Whether out of habit or to look slim, we don’t allow our stomachs to expand fully. If the stomach doesn’t expand, the lungs don’t get proper space to expand and take in enough air.

Whenever you feel tired, take 6–10 deep breaths. Expand the belly when you inhale and contract it when you exhale. Learn breathing exercises like box breathing, “even count breathing” (an even count for all three phases of breathing — inhalation, retention, and exhalation), etc.

Then, meditate if you like. Ray Dalio, head of the $165 billion Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, says it makes him feel like “a ninja in a fight.” Even a few minutes of mindfulness can reduce stress and increase focus by literally changing your brain over time.

Taking deep breaths to reduce fatigue is almost a cliche advice — because it works! The anxiety and stress we carry all-day add to our physical fatigue. Learn to drop them off to feel lighter and relaxed.

Watch What You Eat

When you eat, a lot of energy and blood flow to the digestive system. As a result, the rest of the body’s systems (including the brain) can start to feel a slowdown.

Another reason that we feel tired after a heavy meal is it increases glucose levels in the bloodstream. This plays havoc on your blood sugar levels causing the highs after you eat a meal (for a few minutes) and a subsequent crash.

When I first started intermittent fasting, I used to have my first meal around 1 pm. It used to be a big one too since I was down from 4–5 meals a day to only 2 meals. Yet, that made me more lethargic in the afternoon. So I changed my schedule a bit. To maintain my fasting window, I had my dinner at 7 and my first meal at 11 am the next day. This helped me break the heavy lunch into two smaller meals.

I also made sure to have a protein-rich breakfast so I don’t feel as hungry in the afternoon. If what you’re eating makes you tired and hungry in the next 2 hours, you ate something wrong.

Keeping your lunch light is one of the sure-short ways to avoid the 3 p.m slump. After making these changes, 3–5 pm have been quite productive, if not the most productive hours of my day.

Don’t Tackle Lack of Sleep With Caffeine

Coffee doesn’t give you energy, it just masks the fact that you’re tired. And it comes with its own crash. Further, the more you use, the less benefit you derive from it, just like any other drug. I’ve recently quit coffee and found other ways to have just as much energy throughout the day.

If you run towards a cup of coffee every afternoon, it will 1) not really give you the energy boost you need, and 2) mess with your sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of almost 5 hours. Every 5 hours, the amount of caffeine in your body halves. And so it’s generally recommended to not consume any caffeine 10 hours before your bedtime.

I used to love coffee. But my energy is more important. Think about it deeply and cut back on your consumption over time. Soon you’ll have more natural energy you know what to do with.

Use Music the Right Way

Music goes straight to the heart. When you listen to a motivational song, you tend to forget all your problems and somehow tend to believe you can achieve your goals!

Just like you can rev up your workout using music, you can pull yourself out of fatigue by listening to the right music. For quick energization, I listen to music while taking a walk or doing some pushups — two in one! Alternatively, you can put on instrumental music if you want to focus on the task and get your mind off your tiredness. It’s a life-saver to get out of cognitive lulls.

To Sum Up

Here are the six different ways you can tackle the afternoon slump the next time you start to yawn at your desk:

  1. Manage your energy not your time: Schedule important tasks when you have the most energy; when you feel tired try to go for meetings and collaborative/shallow work.

  2. Start moving: Movement of any kind gets more blood flowing in your body. To get even more benefits, walk in nature — it has a magical ability to soothe our sorrows.

  3. **Breathe: **Re-train yourself to breathe the right way and you’ll find yourself with a freem, portable stress-reliever at all times!

  4. Watch your meals: Eat lighter meals for lunch and make sure they’re protein-rich.

  5. Use caffeine with caution: Coffee just hides your fatigue. It’s a short-term high with even a stronger crash. Avoid it if you can.

  6. Listen to music: Music can give you the little extra boost to sail through your cognitive lulls

Written on March 3, 2021