We all know that feeling when 3 p.m rolls around, and it becomes indescribably difficult to finish the day’s work. Our eyes start glazing over, our bodies begin to get fidgety in our chairs, and our minds can’t help but tune out any notification. Kindly put, all hell breaks loose.
This feeling of depletion as the afternoon approaches and the day winds up actually has a scientific basis. We are constantly switching gears between different tasks during the day, which engages multiple stimuli in our brain and can lead to overwhelm. Our brain’s neurotransmitters, like the ones that signal pleasure and reward, are also at their lowest point around 3 p.m., Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and chief science officer at Heights, tells Fortune. (We actually feel sleepiest between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. based on our circadian rhythm, along with between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.) Imagine starting the day with a mug filled to the brim with coffee or tea. As the day rolls on, the more energy we exert, the more we begin to drain that cup.
“Every time you make a decision, every time you feel an emotion, every time you recall a memory, when you focus on a task, you’re sipping from that mug,” she says.
Depletion can make even simple tasks seem that much harder, leading to physical and mental exhaustion and irritability. In some cases, the body can even get “run down” and physically sick, says Jessica Stern, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
Depletion is a “drained, empty feeling of ‘Why am I doing all of this?’” Swart says, which is exacerbated by the infinite ways we are technologically connected to one another at all hours of the day and the blurred boundaries between home and work.
So while we drink from our mugs slowly throughout the day, the constant stimulation of our everyday lives simultaneously drains our mugs.
“Imagine that there’s a crack at the bottom of the mug, and some of the water’s just seeping out anyway, not because I’m making a decision, but just because life is so stressful,” Swart says.
For Ross Dawson, author of Thriving on Overload: The 5 Powers for Success in a World of Exponential Information, it’s thankfully not our fault that we feel depleted. We are being overrun with content that drains us rather than energizes us at every waking hour.
“The whole world is almost designed to make us feel like we can’t keep up,” he says, adding that if we try to keep up, we may spend our whole lives doing so.
When we are constantly chasing to keep up, we look forward to the morning when we will have more energy. But like clockwork, we feel depleted again the next day.
My dad has always emphasized that there’s beauty in the journey over the destination. So maybe one way we can feel less depleted is by giving ourselves the grace to pause, be mindful of where we are, instead of trying always to keep up and chase the future.
To follow, experts in neuroscience, productivity, and futurism share how to feel more energized and less depleted by the end of the day:
Remember, we are only human
The first step in managing feelings of depletion is to “acknowledge that it isn’t possible to keep up with the world,” Dawson says. “At a certain point, we need to let go.”
If we know our energy tends to decrease throughout the day, we have to listen to ourselves and the capacity we have to keep up, and ultimately accept that there may be certain things we have to forgo. Is it letting go of the desire to get through every missed text, email, or call before the day ends? Or is it letting go of the pressure to cook the most elaborate dinner when we get home? It can help to rank priorities and think about the things that you really want to get done, and make a section for other, less urgent things that are okay to not check off the list.
“We do have to have this grace of being able to say, ‘Look, I’m human’” Dawson says. “There is almost a state of grace, of letting go, of saying, ‘I can achieve an enormous amount, and that is enough.’”
Allow yourself to feel
Frankly, our idea that productivity starts right when we wake up and should manifest throughout the day doesn’t allow us to, well, feel anything. It actually causes a “backlog of unexpressed emotions and unacknowledged experiences” that perpetuate depletion, says Gertrude Lyons, a senior life coach and director of family programs for the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential.
“We have wiring and cultural beliefs that mistakenly warn us that we don’t have time to acknowledge or express our feelings, because they will distract us from the work at hand, so they build up,” she says.
Take a pause throughout your day to check in with yourself, noticing if you feel fear, hurt, anger, sadness or joy, Lyons says, and consider sharing those feelings with a close friend or jotting them down.
“Rest is a requirement not a reward,” says Michelle Welch, a productivity coach, who stresses taking breaks during the day alongside getting adequate sleep every night.
Even taking 10 minutes to get up from your chair and walk around, take a deep breath or rest your head down can help center yourself, and even help you come to an idea or memory that will make you more productive throughout the rest of your day.
“There’s so much maturity in slowing down and then picking back up again, because what you’re able to do is identify where those missing links are,” she says. “If you find yourself to be extremely exhausted at the end of the day, you may need to figure out a different way to do a ‘to-do’ list that might be a little bit easier for you to understand how to follow.”
Whether that’s working in 20-minute intervals with five-minute breaks or taking a 10-minute break every hour, find a routine that allows you to rest your mind.
“You can achieve far, far more by spending time focused [and then] taking breaks, than you would if you just power through,” Dawson says. When you can take a break and limit your attention to the patterns of your own breathing, you actually train yourself to be more mindful and therefore more focused on your next task.
Set aside time to ‘dive deep’
If you limit your true focused time—or deep-dive time as Dawson puts it—you’re able to maximize the time you do have. The key is to schedule that deep-dive time alongside breaks, so you’re not distracted by social media or scrolling through a site that pops up on-screen. With constant notifications, diving deep is more challenging but can prove effective.
To master the deep dive, it’s important to limit the time we scan—or mindlessly end up distracted by things that aren’t giving us energy, something that can lead to the doom scrolling we know all too well. When one scroll leads to a plunge into your cousin’s best friend’s wedding photos, we know we may strayed too far. It’s not about eliminating our brain’s random half-focused attention, but setting limits for when we will engage in mindless phone time and when we won’t.
Because our willpower decreases during the day, Swart says it’s harder to be aware of the passage of time the more we are depleted. Consider setting limits on your phone or other potentially distracting tasks in the morning.
Prioritize relationships that give you energy
The way people make us feel matters.
Who are the people who check in on you? Who ask you how you’re doing and if you’re okay? Whom do you enjoy having a conversation with, bringing you back to life after a long day versus contributing to the stress? Try to foster the relationships that help you calm down and make you feel supported. Recent research even shows that taking time to share a meal with those we care for can reduce our stress levels, and people report that their stress levels would decrease if they had a lunch break to eat with a coworker.
“We need each other. We need community, and we need genuine community,” Welch says.
What can we learn
If you’re like me, it can feel like second nature to wake up and check your phone. I’m usually bombarded with news alerts on the state of the world and texts or calendar reminders of what’s to come that day. But starting the day off ankle deep in the phone doesn’t set you up for success: Emails are “rarely inspiring,” Dawson says. While news is part of my job, experts remind me to think about what I can incorporate—and get rid of—in my day that will allow me to engage and learn rather than contribute to my depletion. Making time for an interesting investigative article, a book chapter, or a seminar can engage us, boost our energy, and give us the chance to see creativity and optimism instead of overload.
Starting in the morning with just 10 minutes of learning can help, and that looks as simple as being present. This doesn’t need to be the most intellectual activity, but can be a short podcast or even phone call with someone. It can even be sitting on a park bench and observing the people who walk by—learning about what’s around you and limiting that mindless “scan.”
Practice choice reduction
The more energy we exert being indecisive about our upcoming responsibilities, the more easily we can get depleted, Swart says. Choice reduction, or limiting the tasks you have to make active decisions on, like when we are in a rush in the morning, can help set you up for a more calming day, and save your energy for the choices that are more meaningful. Maybe this looks like packing your work bag or lunch or setting out your outfit for the morning the night before.
The feelings of depletion—exhaustion, stress, and burnout—are so common. Finding ways to combat the dreaded feeling not only feels timely but imperative to help improve productivity and enable us to enjoy our days without the pressure of getting everything done. The clock is hitting 5 p.m. as I wrap this piece up, and I can feel my eyes starting to wander across the page. If I take my own advice, a true break is calling my name.