Do Work Right: Reduce Mental Fatigue

Photo by Jaeyoung Geoffrey Kang on Unsplash

Whether you’re a student, business owner, or working professional, now is about the time when work starts piling up (if it hasn’t already). Stick to a task, like organizing tax information or studying for finals long enough, and you start to feel exhausted, maybe irritable, an overwhelming urge to stop doing the work comes over you. What is this feeling?

For years scientists have understood that when you stick to a task for an extended period of time, you start to feel like not doing it as time goes on. Society never quite caught up to this understanding, as you’ll hear people talk about this feeling as being “tired” or “out of it”, or maybe having “brain fog”. And scientists don’t even fully agree on a word for this, as you’ll see “tired”, “sleepy”, “bored”, and other words used, even in studies regarding this feeling. But this feeling is most commonly defined as acute (not chronic) fatigue.

How can we use what we know about Mental Fatigue to help us do work?

There’s a lot we don’t currently understand about mental fatigue, as many systems including motivation, attention and emotion all play into it. However, there are things we do know that have been well documented that we can use for our benefit.

Take Breaks

At times you may feel like powering through a study session, going full-speed ahead into a six hour marathon with a textbook open. However, time and time again, studies on mental fatigue show that it accrues as the time on a task is increased, and reduces with rest. If say, you think, “Oh, I don’t care how I feel, I’ll just power through the feeling”, it’s not only the feeling! Mental fatigue can correlate with something scientists call performance decrement, which means that your performance can get worse over time. So be mindful of this, and if you do decide to forego a break, develop a way to check if you’re just going through the motions or actually making progress. If you find you’re reading sentences over and over in hour two, maybe it’s time for a break to rejuvenate your ability to stay focused.

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, named after popular tomato-shaped timers.
Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

Pomodoro

Don’t know when to take a break? Take that out of the equation. A popular study tool for students and professionals is the Pomodoro Technique. Simply put, it entails 25 minute work sessions followed by 5 minute breaks. For every four 25 minute work sessions, the break is a longer, 15 minute break. This way, once you start the timer for 25 minutes, your focus is completely geared towards work, and in the ensuing 5 minutes, you can attend to texts or other non-work tasks.

Click through for a popular webapp for this tool here: https://pomofocus.io/

Get your Sleep

If the game is to prevent acute fatigue while doing work, don’t forget to consider reducing feelings of fatigue from your day altogether. Prioritize your sleep to ensure that you’re not going into your work sessions already tired. Studies have comprehensively shown the correlation between sleep deprivation and reduced performance, and there is good evidence that shows that mental fatigue creeps into work sessions faster when you’re sleep deprived.

Photo by Fahmi Fakhrudin on Unsplash

Coffee

It’s not a panacea, but caffeine has been shown to reduce feelings of acute fatigue and increase performance on certain information-processing activities. This comes with a few caveats. Firstly, make sure you’re having the right amount for you. Understand that once ingested, caffeine will take some time to kick in and exit the bloodstream. Also know that if consumed daily, a tolerance to caffeine builds up, which means you may have to have more for the same effects as time goes on. Lastly, have caffeine too late and it starts to interfere with your night of sleep, which can have negative effects on tomorrow’s work sessions.

So, whether tax season, finals week, or a spring buzz at work are on your mind, rest assured that there are ways to structure your work sessions to end up not only getting more work done, but feeling healthy. A solid night of sleep, ample breaks, and an occasional cup of tea or coffee are not only common-sense approaches to effective work, but now, we see, based in research for the purpose of reducing mental fatigue. Today’s article focuses on the acute, acute fatigue, but tune in next week to read about the impact of chronic stress and long term fatigue, or more precisely, burnout.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on medium and visit me next week to hear about my thoughts on preventing burnout.

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Marissa Abram, PhD

Educator, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Addiction Researcher and Founder of Strategic Wellness Management.