Are you Mentally Fatigued?
The demands of work can be overwhelming. There are always deadlines to meet, projects to finish, and meetings to attend. Juggling multiple tasks and trying to stay on top of a never-ending to-do list can be tiring and can take a toll on our mental energy.
Mental energy is just as important as physical energy; like our body, our mind needs regular care and attention.
Let's take a closer look at mental fatigue and how we can manage our mental energy levels.
What is mental energy?
This is our capacity to participate in cognitive work. Mental energy is a finite resource that can get depleted through tasks that require a lot of cognitive effort. Unsurprisingly, stress can impact mental energy levels.
When we experience prolonged stress or cognitive activity, our mental energy becomes low, causing mental fatigue. The triggers of mental fatigue vary from person to person but can include anything that requires our cognitive resources.
The effects of mental fatigue (low mental energy)
If we are finding it hard to give our full attention to tasks or are completing them mindlessly, this could be a sign that we are reaching our capacity.
Mental fatigue causes an overstimulated brain which impacts cognitive abilities. The effects can include reduced productivity, poor sleep habits, lower decision-making skills, motivation and creativity.
When you are mentally fatigued, you may notice a reduced drive to start or complete tasks either at home (household chores) or at work (e.g. meetings or projects). You may find yourself taking longer breaks or more frequently getting distracted.
Managing our mental energy
When we are running low on mental energy, reducing contributors to stress and engaging in behaviours that build stress resistance can allow us to put more mental effort into what we do.
To effectively manage our mental energy, we can either:
Reduce the demands on our mental energy.
Boost the capacity to use our mental energy
We can reduce the demands on our mental energy by
One of the most important skills we can learn is how to prioritize work effectively. This helps us manage our time well, meet deadlines and feel prepared. When we prioritize effectively, we free our brain from becoming overwhelmed with thoughts about everything we need to do. Identify the most important task you need to complete every morning and prioritize getting it done. Also, allocate adequate time in your calendar for tasks as soon as possible so that you don’t have to waste time thinking about them.
Our brains can become cluttered with tasks to complete, people to speak to, and ideas to work on. This creates too many choices battling for our attention and can drain mental energy; our brain ends up like a browser with twenty tabs open. An alternative is to offload information and ideas from your brain as soon as possible; we can use technology to do a lot of the heavy lifting (notes, reminders and calendars). For example, if you have a great idea for the next project you want to work on, add it to your projects list right away so you no longer have to remember it. This helps us to avoid overload, keeping as much as we can outside our brain.
“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” — David Allen
Humans are not good at focusing on two tasks at the same time. When we “multi-task”, we are essentially jumping back and forth between tasks, creating interruption rather than enhancing our output. It takes energy and effort for our brain to switch focus from task to task. Instead, try focusing on one task at a time and batching similar tasks together. Also, try eliminating notifications by moving your phone away from you or putting it on do-not-disturb for a set period of time. You can also silence laptop sounds and notifications such as emails or slack messages whilst you engage in deep work.
Working with your rhythm of energy:
We all have times when we find it easier to engage in more demanding work. Over the next few weeks, take note of when this is for you, then plan your most challenging tasks during those periods. When you have high energy levels, focus on “deep work” tasks that require a lot of focus and cognitive energy. When your energy is low, consider completing your admin, responding to emails or doing tasks you naturally find more enjoyable.
We can boost our mental energy by
Doing activities we enjoy:
Make time for activities you enjoy and be present in the moment. Pay attention to your senses and savour the experience- what do you see, feel and hear? The enjoyable activity will be different for everyone but might include getting a massage, reading a book or enjoying a meal with loved ones. The main thing is to detach yourself from the pressures of work or home and simply enjoy the experience.
Exercise is a great way to improve mental energy because it releases endorphins which help reduce stress. Even just 30 minutes of exercise per day can improve focus, mood, and memory. So the next time you’re feeling sluggish, try getting up from your desk, stretching your legs, and taking a short, brisk walk.
Whether it’s a 15-minute break or a weekend getaway, taking breaks helps refresh our perspective and boost our energy. We often do not take enough intermittent breaks at work. Although it might seem counterintuitive, taking breaks throughout the day can help with productivity and creativity. Ideally, aim to get up from your desk every hour or so. The important thing is to shift your brain state, a change in location can help with that.
A research study found that the most productive employees worked for 52 minutes and then had a 17-minute break. - The Muse, 2014
Creating a pleasant working environment:
A clean and tidy environment can make you feel more relaxed and in control. This is because when our physical environment is clean, we feel more mentally organized. Get rid of things that are not relevant to the task at hand, for example, any documents that are not related to the current task. Try enhancing your environment by adding plants, diffusing essential oils or adding background music. See what makes you feel more focused and relaxed. If you have been experiencing negative effects of mental fatigue for a prolonged period of time or are struggling to manage, it is worth speaking to a professional about it; consider contacting your GP or therapist.
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