Fatigue impairs cognitive function. In the planning classes I run in the Academic Writing Studio, I talk about the importance of sleep and rest. I suggest things like taking a break away from your desk to each lunch and/or do some kind of movement activity. I talk about doing stretches or something between activities. I also encourage Studio members to decide when they will stop working for the day, when they will leave the office, and to take at least one day off a week. You do all or some of these things.
I also know that it is hard to listen to your body and respond in the moment in ways that ensure you are working effectively because you are rested. You work in a culture where taking a proper lunch break seems like an indulgence. You may convince yourself that if you work through lunch you can leave earlier. If you are working effectively in the afternoon, that’s fine. However, if you notice that your afternoons aren’t going as well as you’d like, you might want to reconsider.
Experiment with taking a lunch break
If you experience any of the following in the afternoon, experiment with taking a proper break for lunch:
- finding simple tasks more difficult
- having trouble concentrating
- feeling more anxious
- things seem to take longer
Treat it as an experiment. Block off at least 30 minutes. Leave your office so you won’t be distracted by the work that is lying around on your desk or computer desktop. Eat lunch. Read a chapter of your novel. Read a magazine. Go for a walk. Anything that is not work and enables you to recharge a little bit.
If you are an extrovert, you probably want to go somewhere where there are other people, or even arrange to meet a friend for lunch. If you are an introvert, you probably want to identify somewhere that will be relatively quiet and sparsely populated because you need solitude to recharge. You may need to make researching possibilities part of your experiment.
You could try blocking more than 30 minutes and adding in a swim, a run, going to the gym, going for a longer walk, or some other significant movement activity. Start with what seems possible. If 30 minutes seems like a lot, then leave your office for 15 minutes to go for a walk and see what effect that has.
Friday afternoons may be particularly difficult
In the Studio we talk about scheduling this as weekly slack time, where your goal is to catch up on email and other small things that came up, review what you did this week, plan next week, and so on. Most of that is activity that does not require as much cognitive capacity as, say, writing a new section of an article. However, if you are finding even this kind of activity difficult, and especially if you are then doing work on the weekend to “finish up” some of those loose ends, I recommend experimenting with finishing early on Fridays. Use Friday afternoon to rest: have a nap; read a novel; bake or make a nice meal (if you find cooking restful); go for a run; knit, sew or do some other creative activity; hang out with your kids after school doing something fun together; go to an art gallery; etc. Then plan to do the catching up work in a block of time on the weekend, perhaps while your kids play soccer or on Sunday evening as a way of setting yourself up for next week.
Rest will make you more effective
Fitting your work into a reasonable number of hours is partly about managing your energy and working effectively. Sometimes you do need to push through and work even though you are tired. Try to limit that as much as possible though, and take time to rest and recover after those crunch periods. You have enough flexibility in your schedule to include rest during the day, to do energy intensive tasks during periods when you have more energy, and to balance energy draining activities with energy boosting activities.
Try to reduce time spent neither properly working nor properly resting.
A version of this post was sent to members of the Academic Writing Studio on 24 January 2020. It has been lightly edited.