Doing your best work requires focus and energy. But it’s hard to stay focused for an 8-hour stretch. So how can you find the necessary energy to get your work done? How do you choose those precious moments when you think you’ll be feeling your best to do the most challenging work? And what’s the best way to ride out any lulls. Carolyn O’Hara shares a few tips on how to adapt to the inevitable slump and overcome it:
1. Tailor your tasks to your energy
“There are a few optimal windows for doing your most creative and focused work,” Barnes says. Most people are at their best in the mid-morning and late afternoon. You might match your circadian rhythm to your schedule by organizing your to-do list around these peaks and valleys. Tate recommends doing “any type of highly detailed work,” such as writing, important decision-making, or technical coding during high-energy hours. During the lulls, you can then turn to tasks that don’t require a great deal of focus: cleaning out your inbox, filling out expense reports, or returning phone calls. “That’s when to do tasks that are like muscle memory work,” she says.
2. Get up and move
Any kind of physical movement will temporarily boost your alertness and energy levels. “Do just ten minutes, and the energy and focus will be much stronger afterwards,” says Tate. You might take a brisk walk around the block, walk up and down the stairs, do some jumping jacks or push-ups, or even just stretch at your desk. The key is simply to move, which gets oxygen flowing and helps your body and mind overcome fatigue. Have a meeting scheduled? Take your colleague for a walk instead. And make a concerted effort to integrate exercise into your weekly schedule. “If you exercise regularly,” says Barnes, “then your chronic levels of energy will be higher.”
3. Meditate at your desk
Steve Jobs swore by it. Ray Dalio, head of the $165 billion Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, says it makes him feel like “a ninja in a fight.” Their secret weapon? Meditation. “Mindfulness exercises are a great way to engage in restoration” during the day, says Barnes. Research suggests that even a just a few minutes of meditation lowers stress and improves concentration and focus in a tired brain. “It’s a restful period that lets people drop some of the anxiety that further drains their energy,” says Barnes. Breathing “sounds so basic,” says Tate. But “five to seven deep belly breaths give us a lot more oxygen, which will give you a boost.”
4. Avoid relying on caffeine
Drinking coffee often feels like it mitigates the effects of a midday dip. “But it’s not actually giving you more energy,” says Barnes. “All it’s doing is masking the effects of your low energy,” by blocking a chemical that tells your body you are tired. And while this might work for awhile, caffeine, like any other drug, soon begins to have diminishing returns. “The more dependent you are, the less the benefit you gain from using it and the more you need it just to get to your normal level,” says Barnes. He recommends using caffeine rarely and strategically to feel energized, like ahead of a big monthly meeting or if you’ve gotten a particularly bad night of sleep. “Don’t make it a habit to go out for coffee at 3 o’clock,” he says.
5. Power down your device
Working on your computer or phone late into the night directly harms your energy levels the next day. That’s because blue light from a device’s screen suppresses the production of melatonin, the chemical that tells your brain that it’s time to go to sleep. “It’s critical to avoid smartphone and tablets within an hour or two of going to bed,” says Barnes. “The worst thing you can do is use your phone in bed.” Of course, if checking your email at night is non-negotiable, Barnes suggests using apps like f.lux for computers or Twilight for smartphones to shift your device’s display from more blue light to red as day turns to night.
This post was originally published on HBR.org in July 2015. TheYoungProfessionalGroup.com takes no credit for the work of the author.