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4 Things to Do When Your Brain Is Tired

...and how to keep it from getting that way in the first place.

Key points

  • Mental fatigue can be caused by mere work overload or certain health conditions.
  • Signs of mental fatigue include becoming snappish and not being able to concentrate.
  • Over time, mental exhaustion can lead to full-blown burnout, physical issues, and stress-related illness.
Alain Lauga/Shutterstock
Source: Alain Lauga/Shutterstock

Lately, I’ve been physically exhausted by 7 p.m. Just plain tired. Yet it’s not like I’ve run a marathon or anything: Most days I’ve just tossed in a couple of loads of laundry, between sessions of wall ball with my daughter, and between phone interviews, blog posts, magazine assignments, copy edits, and invoicing, which happens just after a short workout and before I cook dinner.

Like most people, I’ve got a full schedule. And for all the flexibility I have with how I spend my time, I wind up using it all. There are very few breaks in my day to unwind.

That’s not a good thing. In fact, the physical fatigue I feel at the end of the day has more to do with my mental exhaustion than any exercise I’m getting. And that kind of mental tiredness can sneak up on anyone.

Causes of Mental Fatigue

Mental exhaustion isn’t necessarily the result of things gone wrong, or any big upset (though it can be) but more likely an accumulation of too much: Too many decisions. Too much work (in not enough time). Too many interruptions, demands, and shifts in attention. Too many things going on without time to pause and restore.

This kind of mental tiredness knocks us back when the volume of tasks and activities we’ve taken on exceeds our capacity to comfortably handle the stress (even the positive stress) of it all.

Sometimes mental exhaustion can be a result of health issues: Depression, heart disease, chronic illness, and autoimmune disease can all lead to insomnia or trouble sleeping, which can cause mental fatigue. It may be worth checking out this angle with your doctor.

But as for me, I sleep well, feel satisfied in my life, and yet, there are times when even the good stuff becomes taxing because there is just too much going on.

The more mentally tired we become, the less capable we are of keeping up with the demands of the day. It becomes harder to make healthy decisions, stay focused on tasks, and remain calm. It can also become difficult to regulate our emotions. Over time, mental exhaustion can lead to full-blown burnout, physical issues, and stress-related illness. But, as soon as you realize why you are feeling so tired, you can take steps to restore and feel better fast.

Signs of Mental Fatigue

Mental fatigue can manifest in many ways:

  • Physical fatigue. Your body feels tired and you’d rather curl up on the lawn chair with a margarita than head for a run at the end of the day, even though you spent most of your day sitting at a desk.
  • Impatience and irritability. You become snappish with others and may be more quickly triggered to anger or upset.
  • Inability to concentrate or focus. It becomes harder to finish your work or tasks. You may find it more difficult to make decisions, find the right word, or focus on one job at a time.

Four Ways to Ease Mental Fatigue

How can we manage some of these more demanding days without letting them grind us down? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Make fewer decisions. We are faced with scores of decisions each day and by the end of all that decision-making, our mental energy and self-control can take a hit, according to research from Kathleen Vohs. Then we are more likely to make unhealthy decisions and do what feels easiest, like lay on the couch, rather than exercising or opting for a drive-through burger instead of cooking a healthy meal. One way to offset this dip in mental energy may be to limit your decisions during the day. Make the same coffee order every day. Eat the same dinner every Tuesday. By keeping some basic, routine decisions simple (or eliminating them altogether) we have more mental energy to deal with the rest of our days.
  2. Start seeing green. Take a mini-break and look out the window. Just one minute of looking at grassy rooftops reduced errors and improved concentration among students, according to research from the University of Melbourne. “It’s really important to have micro-breaks,” says Dr. Kate Lee, who led the study. “It’s something that a lot of us do naturally when we’re stressed or mentally fatigued. There’s a reason you look out the window and seek nature: It can help you concentrate on your work and to maintain performance across the workday.” So take a break and gaze out at a green space or head for a brief stroll through the park during lunch. The break will help you feel restored and better able to focus on the tasks ahead.
  3. Just get up and go. Several studies show the value of exercise in boosting concentration and mental focus. Twenty minutes can improve performance and short, intense exercise sessions can increase blood flow to the brain and improve your mood, memory, and creativity.
  4. Take time off. Whether it’s a mini-break or a week away, time off is essential to fighting mental fatigue. You can do this even on your busiest days by making sure you take a regular lunch break or set aside 15 minutes with nothing planned to take a walk—or at least a breath. Then, each week, be sure to leave some time open and unplanned. Just don’t fill in all the slots on your calendar. That open time can give you a mental reprieve but also allows room for unexpected opportunities to develop.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Potential Filmmaker/Shutterstock

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