Shedding the Afternoon Office Rut

If you’re like many people, shortly after lunch, your head begins buzzing, your concentration plummets, your eyes droop, and the

If you’re like many people, shortly after lunch, your head begins buzzing, your concentration plummets, your eyes droop, and the top of your desk begins to look as cozy as a feather

No one knows exactly why some people get the midday dips, but there are many plausible theories: the morning surge of hormones has petered out; you’ve used up a goodly part of your stored energy from last night’s sleep; and perhaps most obviously, some degree of “brain tedium,” i.e., boredom, has set in. The afternoon doldrums also may have something to do with what you ate for lunch. Not only does the midday meal divert blood from your brain to your gut, but, depending on what you ate, also bumps up levels of the soporific serotonin hormone.

While the midday doldrums are common, they’re not inevitable. In fact, if your current daytime program includes such a post-lunch torpor, it’s time to
write a new program with the tips in this article.

1. Head outside and sit in the daylight for 10 minutes. Better still, have your lunch outside, and divide your break between eating and a walk. Here’s why: Your office probably has about 500 luxes of light, which is equal to about 500 candles. That compares with 10,000 luxes at sunrise and 100,000 at noon on a July day. So when the afternoon doldrums hit, go outside and sit in the sunlight. It will help reset your chronological clock, kick down the amount of melatonin (the sleep hormone) your body produces during this circadian dip, and give you a valuable boost of beneficial vitamin D, reducing your risk of osteoporosis as well as various cancers.

2. Take a brief mid-morning break for tea, coffee, and/or a snack. Use this time to relax and refocus, but more important, to consume a few calories that you might otherwise eat at lunchtime. Shrink lunch accordingly, which in turn will allow for a smaller, less stupefying midday meal.

3. Snack all day long. Simply snack on nutritious foods whenever you get hungry, rather than eating lunch per se. Then use your lunch break for some kind of exercise, whether it’s in the company gym, walking around the campus, or running up and down the stairs.

4. Choose activating protein vs. energy-sapping carbs. So a tuna salad without the bread is a better choice than a tuna sandwich. A green salad sprinkled with low-fat cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and some sliced turkey wins over a pasta salad. The change can really make a difference. When researchers compared men who ate a 1,000-calorie lunch with those who ate a 300-calorie lunch or skipped the meal altogether, they found that when given a chance to nap
after lunch, nearly all the participants did so. But while the lunch-eaters slept an average of 90 minutes, those who skipped lunch slept for only 30 minutes. These were also high-carbohydrate lunches (carbs stimulate serotonin release, which increases sleepiness), which may have contributed to the napping. We’re not suggesting you skip lunch altogether, but the combination of eating less and eating fewer carbs should lead to less sleepiness.

5. Enjoy teatime. The British have it right. Every day around midafternoon they have tea, getting over the doldrums with that little bit of a caffeine burst and a few quiet minutes. Now, while we’re not suggesting scones and clotted cream, we do think you can do better than a Lipton’s tea bag plunked in your unwashed coffee mug. Keep a selection of exotic flavored teas (preferably caffeinated) in your office and an aesthetically pleasing cup just for tea. When the doldrums hit, brew yourself a cup of tea and sit somewhere quiet (not your office) to sip and reflect. The meditative time will soothe your frenzied brain, while the caffeine will give you just enough of a kick start to get through the rest of your day.

6. Make an “I was thinking of you” phone call. To your wife, your kid, your siblings, your parents, a friend, a retired coworker. A five-minute keep-in-touch call will lift your spirits for hours and reinvigorate you to get your work done so you can go home a little early.

7. Clean your desk off and clean out your e-mail in-box. Both are relatively mindless tasks that don’t require great gobs of concentration or clear thinking, and both will leave you feeling more energized because you’ll have accomplished something visible as well as reduced energy-sapping clutter.

8. Defer the work you most want to do to the time of day when you least want to work. Get through the grunt work in the early a.m. so it’s behind you, then stave off the midday doldrums by turning to the work you care most about or enjoy the most. Nothing stifles sleepiness like genuine enthusiasm.

9. Have an afternoon snack designed to get the blood flowing. That would not be a candy bar. The high glycemic index (i.e., jolts your blood sugar up) in the candy bar might give you a temporary boost, but once that jolt of sugar is gone, you’ll sink faster than the stock market after an interest-rate hike. Instead, you want a snack that combines protein, fiber, and complex carbs (like whole grain crackers or raw veggies) to steadily raise your blood sugar levels and keep them up. Snacks like:

  • Low-fat milk and high-fiber cereal. Milk provides the protein as well as valuable fluid (tiredness is an early sign of dehydration), while the high-fiber cereal will curtail any sudden blood sugar rushes.
  • Peanut butter spread on whole wheat crackers. Again, good source of protein in peanut butter, a bit of fat for staying power (healthy fat, as well), coupled with the fiber and complex carbs in the whole grain crackers.
  • Cut-up vegetables dipped into hummus. These days, you can buy both these ingredients at any food store. Eaten together, you get the high fiber, antioxidants, and valuable vitamins of the vegetables, coupled with the fiber and protein of the hummus.
  • Low-sodium tomato or vegetable juice with soy nuts or peanuts. The nuts provide a healthy dose of protein and monounsaturated fat, while the tomato juice provides not only the lycopene and other phytonutrients found in tomatoes, but energy-sustaining liquid as well.
  • A piece of string cheese and an apple. Portable, easy, and a great pair. The cheese, with its fat and protein, cushions the fruit sugars from the apple, while the apple provides you with one of those all-important fruit servings for the day, along with a healthy dollop of antioxidants and fiber (make sure you eat the skin).
  • 10. Go for a 10-minute walk and resist that candy bar. When researchers at California State University in Long Beach compared study participants who ate a candy bar or who walked briskly for 10 minutes, they found the candy bar subjects felt tenser in the hour afterward, while those who walked not only had higher energy levels for one to two hours afterward, but reduced their tension.

    11. Drink a cup of caffeinated coffee or tea. The caffeine will perk you up; studies also find it will enhance your memory and make you more productive on tasks requiring concentration.

    12. Put a drop of peppermint oil in your hand and briskly rub your hands together, then rub them over your face (avoid your eyes). Peppermint is a known energy-enhancing scent.

    13. Roll your shoulders forward, then backward, timing each roll with a deep breath in and out. Repeat for 2 minutes.

    14. Put on some high-energy music and dance for five minutes. If you have an office, great. Just close the door. If not, bring a Walkman, head to the bathroom or an unused conference room, and let ‘er rip! Get pumped, rather than pooped!

    15. Consider a morsel of dark chocolate. We’re not encouraging overindulging, but dark chocolate at midday has some unique advantages. Unlike milk chocolate, it is truly a “healthful” food that is more in the category of nuts than candies, given the high levels of healthful fat and antioxidants it contains. Plus, it has abundant fiber and magnesium. Additionally, it provides a bit of caffeine, as well as a decadent feeling. Stick to one piece, though.

    16. Chew some “spicy” gum such as Dentyne Wintermint Ice Chewing Gum — or MintABurst Mint Chewing gum. Strong minty flavors are stimulating, and the mere act of chewing is something of a tonic to a brain succumbing to lethargy. Plus, the act of chewing stimulates saliva, which helps clear out cavity and gum disease-causing bacteria from lunch. Just make sure to go sugarless.

    17. Plan group activities for midday. If you often work on your own, try to cluster work involving others at the time of day when your concentration might otherwise be waning. We are social animals, and interactions always rev us up. Just make sure it’s an interesting, interactive activity. Sitting in a room listening to someone else drone on and on will just send you snoozing.

    18. Do your filing. It’s a physical activity that gets you up from your desk, bending and stooping and pulling and stretching. Plus, it’s something you can lose yourself in, and any activity that enables you to get into a “flow” will pull you through those doldrums as easily as an 18-wheeler could pull a MINI Cooper.

    19. Take 10 minutes for isometric exercises. Isometric exercises involve nothing more than tensing a muscle and holding it. For instance, with your arm held out, tense your biceps and triceps at the same time and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. You can do this with your calf muscles, thigh muscles (front and back), chest, abdomen, buttocks, shoulders, and back. In fact, if you wanted to, you could work a rotation, or cycle, of isometric exercises involving almost your entire body into your desk job every day. The total workout would be quite significant, despite never interrupting your work, and never breaking a sweat. Plus, you’re not only toning your body, you’re toning your mind.

    20. Weave variety into your workday. Tedium taxes the mind, and induces somnolence. Most studies suggest concentration for anything wanes after an hour, and is pretty near to pitiful at 90 minutes. So divide your tasks to maximize a balance between variety and productivity. For instance, if you have a large report to get out, work on it for 30 minutes, switch to something else for 30 minutes, then return to the report.

    21. Get up whenever reasonable and possible. Just because you have an intercom and e-mail doesn’t mean you always have to use them. Try darting down the hall or up the stairs even for simple questions or messages. Studies find that short bursts of even very modest activity burn calories, help tone muscles, and keep your mind brisk and alert.

    22. Keep a rosemary plant in your office. Not only will sharing your space with a live, growing thing provide its own mood boost, but studies find the scent of rosemary to be energizing. Whenever you need a boost, just rub one of the sprigs between your fingers to release the fragrance into the air. Or, if you’re really wiped out, clip off a sprig and rub it on your hands, face, and neck to saturate yourself in the scent.

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