When the Brain Rebels

You know you’re smart. You know on any given day you’d be able to figure it out. But today, just for today, your brain is going on strike.

Can’t process another piece of information. Can’t look at one more spread-sheet. Can’t listen to one more scintillating idea.


Let’s simply call it mental fatigue.

In her article “The Science of Fitness,” Gretchen Reynolds distills some compelling research on the mechanics of mental fatigue (New York Times Health and Wellness Section, 10/02/2013).

Common wisdom has it that bouts of short exercise improve cognition. Long, strenuous exercise will temporarily inhibit cognition – it simply leaves us too tired to think. But recent research, conducted by the University of Kent in conjunction with the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, clearly shows that mental fatigue, in turn, impairs our body’s ability to function.

Yes, the brain-body correlation is powerful. And it’s synchronous. Whew.

The implications for our everyday work habits are tremendous. When our brain is tired of thinking, we need to stop thinking. Otherwise our body will start to shut down. And suddenly we’re in double-shut-down-mode.

How do we stop thinking? How do we re-fuel a fatigued brain? Not that easy in an over-stuffed work day, is it?

Consider the following mental-fatigue-busters:

1.    5-minute mental break: Shut your eyes. Put on your noise-canceling head-phones. Listen to your favorite mood-mellowing-music. And set a timer so your brain isn’t obsessing about how much time you have left before you go back on task.

2.    5-minute fitness break: Stretch. Jog in place. Free-flow dance. You decide what kind of movement you do. It doesn’t need to be strenuous. But move, really truly move for an entire 5 minutes.

3.    5-minute refueling-break: Make a smoothie. Fix a fruit salad. Pour a bowl of cereal and milk. Venture beyond merely un-wrapping an energy bar and feeding yourself while you continue to work. Your devotion to the act of fixing a snack is part of the mental refueling.

4.    5-minute do-nothing-break: Doing nothing is alpha-hell. But commit to it anyway. 5 minutes in which you don’t check emails. You don’t text or tweet. You don’t make a phone call. You don’t check your voice-mail. 5 minutes in which you do not engage in any purpose-driven task of any sort.

When we stop we notice other stuff. The tree outside of the window. The picture of our loved ones. The sudden memory of something we nearly forgotten. Consider these little notices the juice of life. The juice that revitalizes you.

This week, notice when you hit the mental-fatigue-wall. Instead of pushing through, remember there’s always time for a 5-minute-break.

Select the kind of break you desire. Surrender to it without guilt. And know that you have just saved yourself from a double-shut-down. Enjoy!