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 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.

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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.

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