I’ve been at the desk for hours now, reading journal articles, gathering research about optimism and resilience, structuring a new book. Writing. Up for only coffee then back down at the desk. I've hardly moved my body, yet after four hours of this, I feel like I’ve run a marathon.
How can this be?
Intense cognitive effort, says Kristy Martin of the University of Canberra, changes our biochemistry, altering the levels of adenosine and dopamine. The result? Life feels harder after we’ve done work that requires deep thought. Activities that tax us cognitively wear us out, leaving us feeling physically fatigued and less motivated. And, though the research fails to mention it, we may even be more likely to loaf on the couch watching Food Network at the end of the day (though maybe that’s just me).
I have found some ways, other than the Food Network, to counteract those low energy levels, though. After a long day of deep thought, I get outside, go for a light walk or other exercise, or take in the view of the trees on the back deck. And I also use that time to spark the next creative project.
While most of us can identify a time of day where we feel most connected, creative, and productive—mine is generally between 9:30 and 1 p.m.—we can use the off times when we are less sharp and more fatigued to enhance innovation and problem-solving.
According to research by psychologist Mareike Wieth, associate professor of psychology at Albion College, we are more creative in the afternoons or other times when we are a little tired or groggy and unable to hone our focus. This diffuse attention allows us to think more creatively, Wieth writes.
I’ve noticed this in my work. At the top of the day, I have a long to-do list. I’m very focused and alert. I’m clued into what I need to get done and to how I’m going to do it. I’m focused on my task and almost nothing else.
But, if I’m working on a new idea, looking for a way to package material, or experimenting with a different tone, approach, or complicated problem, the best ideas usually emerge in the afternoon, during my walk, or while in the shower, when my thinking is a bit fuzzier. That fuzziness or inability to focus as intently allows room for mind wandering and associations that can lead to original ideas and unique solutions.
Short Breaks to Process
Taking short breaks—like 10 seconds between tasks—rather than pushing through, may also improve our performance and enhance our learning. In a small study, people were asked to tap out a repetitive number sequence. After a 10-second break, their performance radically improved compared to those who got no break at all.
Taking a brief pause and allowing the brain to rest may help us to consolidate and process the information we have learned. Other research indicates that sleep is essential to installing and remembering the information we have learned for use during the day.
Even the smallest breaks may help us catch the information we need to perform better in the moment. And, perhaps, instead of filling up on caffeine to fight through the midday slump, we should just pay attention. Our tired brains and bodies might just yield the most creative ideas of all.