Feel sluggish? Like a car trying to move forward with the brakes on? You may be experiencing mental fatigue. Four simple steps will get you energized and focused in short order.
What if your friend told you that his car under-performs? Whenever he ventures up a hill, it slows to a crawl and threatens to quit. Sometimes it stalls. Occasionally it overheats. And the rest of the time, it feels like something is dragging on the engine.
Before telling your friend to ditch his clunker for a newer model, you ask a few questions. And you learn that your friend fills the tank with low-grade gas and has forgotten to get an oil change for over two years. As if that’s not bad enough, he’s been driving with the emergency brake on the whole time.
While mistreating a car to this extent and still expecting it to perform properly sounds absurd, many of us treat our brains the same way – and with similar results. Fortunately, as with the car, there are a few easy fixes that will rev up your mental energy, which in turn will improve your performance in every area of your life.
Hacking Your Brain
Your brain consumes energy. If you’re not giving it what it needs, or you’re consuming the energy inefficiently, your brain will feel like your friend’s car. You’ll experience brain fog. You’ll lack staying power. You’ll get easily distracted. And you’ll wonder why you can’t get stuff done.
These four steps will move your brain into high gear:
1. Ruthlessly remove unproductive thoughts. Neuroscientists believe that we think thousands of thoughts each day (estimates vary from around 6,000 to over 70,000), and the vast majority of them are repetitive and negative. This is the equivalent of driving your car with the brake on. Every one of those negative or repetitive thoughts consumes mental energy, which you now no longer have for the things you actually want to accomplish. Many of those thoughts also create stress, which almost always is a drag on your mental energy.
If you can become aware of even a small portion of those negative or repetitive thoughts and remove or redirect them, you can greatly diminish fatigue and reclaim your mental energy.
Often, these unproductive thoughts go through our heads so frequently that we’re not even aware of them. But every time you think about the person who made you angry or what someone might think about your upcoming presentation or the last restaurant meal you ordered that wasn’t so great, you’re expending precious mental energy that goes absolutely nowhere. If you could remove some of those thoughts and use that same mental energy efficiently, your productivity would soar.
So how do you remove these thoughts? How do you even become aware of them in the first place? Although many techniques will get you there, I’ve found the easiest is to simply observe your thoughts periodically throughout the day. If you're prone to forget this step, you can set phone reminders for certain times.
Just check in and ask yourself what you are thinking at that moment. Observe for a couple of minutes what thoughts are passing through. Note the thoughts that are repetitive, the thoughts that are negative or stressful, the thoughts that are irrelevant to anything you’re trying to do.
This doesn't take much time, but if you do it consistently, you’ll discover that you’re much more aware of your thoughts. And once you become aware of unhelpful thoughts, it’s much easier to let them go and turn toward more productive and relevant thoughts. You can also try this three-minute exercise for becoming aware of and controlling your thoughts.
2. Remove distractions. This is a far larger topic that could fill a book rather than a few paragraphs. But in essence, every time you stop what you are doing to check social media, or anything else that takes you away from your task, your task-switching consumes mental energy. And once you return to your task, it can take you over 20 minutes to become fully focused again.
Our brains were built for uni-tasking, not multi-tasking. If you want to accomplish your task as easily as possible, using your mind as efficiently as possible, you’ll need to work on the task for a period of time without distractions. To create blocks of uninterrupted time for your task, you can set a timer, or use the Pomodoro Method.
To ensure that your time is distraction-free, make your phone difficult to access (i.e. not within arms reach) and remove any other potential sources of distractions. For more information about how to remove distractions and even make them work for you, check out these articles on the surprising lessons about distractions from studies on marshmallows and Hershey's Kisses.
3. Sleep on it. So many people get too little sleep that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider sleep deprivation to be a health epidemic. Let’s face it – when you’re running on too little sleep, you can’t function properly. It’s like not having enough gas in the tank. You don’t focus well. You don’t regulate your emotions well. You become easily stressed. And the quality of your work suffers.
Try getting a proper night’s sleep (most people need 7-9 hours) and your mind will function much better. You may feel you’re too busy to get enough sleep, but it is your lack of sleep that is contributing to your feeling of overwhelm. That extra hour of sleep will result in several hours of increased productivity (as well as better health) throughout the day. 4. A healthy mind requires a healthy body. When clients complain of mental fatigue, I advise (insist, actually) that they get a full medical check-up to make sure there isn’t an underlying health issue. Beyond that, a balanced diet and regular exercise are the foundation of a well-functioning mind.
Your brain needs proper fuel. It consumes a vastly disproportionate share of the body's nutrients, including over half the body’s glucose. And so cutting corners on a proper diet has a disproportionately negative impact on your brain's performance.
If you eat inconsistently, consume a lot of junk food and processed food, and can’t remember the last time you put on gym clothes, your health is not the only thing that will suffer – you’re not giving your brain what it needs to do its job. Just 20 minutes a day of walking and a balanced diet relatively free of junk food can take you far.