Have you ever realized how your brain tires close to the end of your working day? Have you ever experienced the frustration that while early in the day you could digest new information quickly, later in the day you had to read everything twice to understand what it says? Have you ever wondered why decisions come easier when you are rested than when you are tired? And have you ever wondered whether you make the same high-level quality decisions throughout the day? It’s all about your cognitive abilities fluctuating during the day.
We make better decisions in the mornings, and as the day progresses, the decisions we make are getting worse. Even our biases get worse later in the day. Early in the day, our minds are fresh and alert. As the day goes by, we get tired, and our cognitive abilities deteriorate. Luckily, breaks during the day help. As Hans Henrik Sievertsen, Francesca Gino, and Marco Piovesan showed when analyzing data from Danish public schools every hour later in the day, the performance on tests decreased by 0.9%. However, a twenty to thirty minute long break improved a test performance by 1.7%. Cognitive fatigue at work.
It makes common sense that you would perform better when you are rested than when you are tired. However, it is not that simple. There is an exception called the inspiration paradox. While we do better at tasks requiring cognitive abilities in the morning, the same can’t be said about creativity. In fact, when it comes to inspiration and ideas, we are better in the afternoon when our minds are more likely to wander, are not that focused. We then come up with ideas that our vigilant mind in the morning would never allow.
If you don’t care about creativity and are after cognitive abilities even in the afternoon, don’t panic. There is a solution. Breaks. Breaks are essential as they increase performance. This is important to realize, especially when we are to make critical decisions. Researchers Kyoungmin Cho, Christopher M. Barnes, and Cristiano L. Guanara looked at how judges, who are supposed to be impartial and unbiased, behaved during the day. They found a disturbing trend. Judges ruled in favor of prisoners in 65% of cases early in the day, while almost 0% cases late in the day. It seems whether your case is being judged in the morning or evening has a massive impact on how lenient the judge will be. Unless the judge takes a break. After each break, the judges ruled in favor of the prisoner more until it again dropped as the fatigue took its toll.
Taking a break
Take a break. More importantly, take the right type of break. If you want to recharge your batteries, you need to get moving, get fresh air, and detach from your problems. Alternatively, you can take a nap. The right kind of a nap. Napping improves mood, removes fatigue, is beneficial to performance, logical reasoning, and reaction times. It even works better against sleepiness than caffeine.
For maximum effect, combine a nap and caffeine (full disclosure, I’m not a medical doctor, so don’t take this as an endorsement of caffeine). You get the best results. Similarly, napping and bright light afterward, or napping and face-washing afterward, also works better than napping alone.
The length of the nap also matters. Less than five minutes has no impact, but a ten-minute nap showed immediate benefits. A twenty to thirty minute nap already led to sleep inertia, so it took a while for a person to be back at their best.
This means that a short, ten to twenty minutes nap followed by face-washing and sitting in a brightly light room with a cup of coffee works the best in the workplace setting.
In fact, you can tinker with that formula a bit. As Daniel Pink notes in When, it takes about twenty-five minutes for caffeine to get to your bloodstream, so drinking it immediately before your twenty-minute nap will cause it to kick in immediately after you wake up. This combination is known as nappucino.
As Pink suggests, this is the plan for your perfect afternoon slump nap to renew your energy for the rest of your working day:
- Find a quiet and, if possible, a dark place
- Drink a cup of coffee of your choosing
- Set a timer for 25 minutes (it will take you a couple of minutes to fall asleep)
- When woken up, wash your face with cold water and switch the lights on
That’s it. Obviously, for this to work the best, you need to make it a habit and practice consistently so your body gets used to it. If you are not a coffee drinker, don’t despair and take a non-caffeinated nap. Your mind will appreciate the boost in cognitive abilities regardless.
What is your take on the topic? When during the day are you strongest and most creative? Have you tried afternoon naps? What strategy worked for you best?
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