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7 Ways to Manage Daytime Fatigue

Practical tools to use when you feel like you are sleepwalking through your day.

Key points

  • Using light and caffeine strategically can target the two underlying sleep systems regulating human sleep and wakefulness.
  • Movement and novelty can stimulate dopaminergic and other physiological responses, promoting wakefulness.
  • Working with, rather than against, fatigue symptoms can increase your cognitive bandwidth to manage them.
Source: ProstockStudio/Shutterstock

Insomnia–or difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep interfering with wakefulness–can sometimes make you feel like your productivity has gone out to lunch. Associated features of insomnia—acute or chronic–vary from person to person but usually include irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, anergia, inattention, reduced concentration and processing speed, and amotivation. Not having restful deep sleep can negatively impact all areas of our lives, including keeping us from performing our best at work.

So, after a rough night (or several), how can you get through your day without sleepwalking?

Consider these evidence-based environmental, behavioral, and cognitive strategies.

Environmental Strategies

Environmental factors play a large role in entraining our circadian rhythm and course-correcting our day after a rough night.

1. Go toward the light.

Light is one such factor. A zeitgeber–German for “time giver”–light works to synchronize our circadian rhythm, or our internal clock, via a drowsiness-promoting hormone called melatonin. Blue or otherwise, light sends signals to retina photoreceptors, prompting the suprachiasmatic nucleus to stop producing melatonin. In other words, light interrupts its production; darkness promotes it. For this reason, humans sleep in darkness and remain active in daylight.

To shake off the heavy residue of a sleepless night, try to bathe your retinas in 15-30 minutes of sunlight upon waking and, ideally, as often as possible throughout your workday. If you work from home, consider working outside. Or at least try working near a window and keeping your office light and bright. And if you don't have a window, quit your job. (joking, kind of).

Consider setting alarms every 30-60 minutes or so to remind yourself to step outside for a dose of sunlight, even just 5 minutes of it.

2. Frontload your caffeine intake.

Adenosine circulates throughout our central nervous system (CNS) to regulate the homeostatic sleep drive, one of the two systems that regulate human sleep and wakefulness. This system governs the increased propensity to sleep with more time spent awake. Increased wakefulness means more accumulated “pressure” to fall asleep. Adenosine builds this sleep pressure and resets after sleeping.

Caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist. It binds to adenosine receptor sites that accumulate sleep pressure and block buildup. In most healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life between five to six hours, meaning 50 percent of the dose remains in your CNS after five to six hours.

And after a night or two of insomnia, you might feel tempted to overconsume caffeine to get through your day–but don’t. This cycle can quickly get vicious, keeping you stuck using caffeine to mitigate fatigue during the day but impairing your ability to initiate and maintain sleep at night.

Keep your caffeine handy in the morning but aim to eliminate it after 12 PM, especially if you experience insomnia.

Behavioral Strategies

What we do (or don’t) during the day can perpetuate daytime fatigue and maintain our insomnia symptoms at night.

3 and 4. Break up with prolonged sitting and move on.

Accumulating evidence links prolonged, uninterrupted sitting to metabolic parameters, including blood pressure, obesity, insulin resistance, and blood glucose dysregulation. Aside from the metabolic consequences, a whole working day sitting also impacts fatigue and cognition–potentially amplifying the effects of a bad night.

Some research, for example, has found employees report reduced fatigue across the day using sit-to-stand desks relative to seated work. Other studies comparing uninterrupted sitting with three-minute bouts of light-intensity walking every 30 minutes reveal decreases in employees’ self-reported levels of drowsiness and sluggishness.

A host of reasons may explain why including increased: 1) cerebral blood flow, 2) expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates neuronal activation, and 3) enhanced availability of performance-enhancing neurotransmitters, including epinephrine and norepinephrine.

When you arrive at the office, consider standing at your desk–at least for a few minutes to start–and gradually adding time as your stamina, tolerance, and self-efficacy increase. And if you don’t have a convertible standing desk, adding a platform or a few thick books beneath your computer will do the trick.

On rough days, also make brief bouts of movement part of your work protocol–it’ll improve your fatigue now and benefit your sleep later.

Remember: sleep pressure, or the body’s “hunger” for sleep, accumulates with increased time spent awake. Mild, moderate, or vigorous daytime energy expenditure in any form–walking, swimming, taking the stairs–can stimulate sleep-promoting adenosine. More activity during the day means more sleep pressure and, usually, quicker, deeper, and more consolidated sleep at night.

5. Do something new and slightly challenging.

Have you ever noticed yourself on the verge of dozing off when you’re doing something repetitive and boring at work? That’s your brain’s way of saying, “Thanks, but nothing to see here.”

Adaptation to a dynamic world promotes survival, and our brains have evolved to remember salient events diverging from business as usual.

Novel and slightly challenging experiences induce dopamine release in the hippocampus, promoting attention and memory. The nucleus accumbens–which receives direct projections from the hippocampus–also plays a significant role in motivation, reward, pleasure, and even slow-wave (or deep) sleep. When these brain regions go un or under-stimulated, we may feel drowsy.

In other words, novel (vs. repetitive, unchallenging, familiar) stimuli/tasks not only activate regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure, but they also keep us present and captivated. This trifecta of pleasure, presence, and captivation usually feels energizing.

This doesn’t mean shirking your work responsibilities after a sleepless night. But during those moments of intense dragging, consider briefly pivoting to a new project rather than opting for something routine or repetitive. Once your energy levels perk up, you can revisit the stale, boring stuff.

Cognitive Strategies

Our thoughts and appraisals about a bad night of sleep and its consequences for productivity can also influence how we participate in vs. sleepwalk through our workday.

6. Reframe

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) makes a few assumptions–chiefly that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have synergistic and reciprocal relationships. Our thoughts and feelings influence our behaviors, and our behaviors influence our physical health.

We can’t directly control how we feel but we can control what we do and think in response to those feelings. Similarly, while we can’t directly control our sleep on any given night, we can influence how we respond to a rough night to reduce its hold on us during the workday.

It’s easy to catastrophize, and if you find yourself doing this most nights of the week and experience associated issues falling or staying asleep, seek treatment.

In the meantime, consider this reframe: the body always attempts to achieve homeostasis. A bad night of sleep last night significantly increases the odds of having a better sleep tonight.

See each night as a new night–it doesn’t matter what happened last night. Sleep naturally unfolds when we let go of conscious activities, including deliberate efforts to make sleep happen.

7. Practice radical acceptance.

But sometimes, examining and challenging our thoughts can feel fatiguing, especially if you already feel fatigued. Radical acceptance describes seeing reality as it is, without judgment. It doesn’t mean we like, invite, or want our pain (in whatever form it takes)–it just means we stop fighting with it. Counterintuitively, radically accepting and greeting our daytime fatigue with compassion can give us the cognitive and emotional bandwidth to start changing our reality. But changing reality requires first accepting reality, not rejecting it.


Rough nights happen to everyone, but a few basic behavioral, environmental, and cognitive tools on the backend can keep you from sleepwalking through the day.

Using caffeine strategically and implementing light, movement, and novelty into your daytime routine can help. You may even consider asking for a convertible standing desk. But don’t underestimate the contribution of your thoughts to your energy levels. Reframing your thoughts and sticking to the facts, not grappling with them, can give you the emotional and cognitive bandwidth you need to get through the day.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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