Why You Have an Afternoon Slump and How to Deal With It

Macgill Davis

In a world where productive, focused work is how you get ahead, the "afternoon slump" is a dreaded enemy. This is how many people refer to low energy levels commonly experienced in the early afternoon on a workday. 

The common logic is to try and combat that feeling of tiredness so you can get back to work.

We're told that constant high energy is the only way to be productive. But that's not how the human body operates. Working with the afternoon slump rather than against it is an underrated strategy to improve your work performance.

We’ll review the reasons behind that energy dip, how to not only make it less acute, and what you can do when you need a quick boost of energy.

The Afternoon Slump Is a Natural Body Response

While prolonged feelings of exhaustion can signal a medical condition, the afternoon slump is often about something else. Depending on how acute it is, it may either be a part of your body’s natural rhythm, or it may indicate that some aspect of your lifestyle isn't as balanced as it could be.

First off, natural rhythm dictates that you're bound to have more energy during certain parts of the day. In the morning, you're likely to feel energized and alert. Science shows that most people feel at their best in the morning hours, and that often means more energy to tackle challenging tasks.

In the scientific world, this phenomenon is due to your circadian rhythms. The Sleep Foundation defines them as "24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes." Most people's circadian rhythms mean that they're likely to crave sleep from 2-4 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. That second time interval is when the afternoon slump occurs.

Besides this natural energy dip, there are many factors in our modern lifestyle that contribute to even more tiredness:

  • Sleep debt (i.e., lack of sleep over prolonged period of time)
  • Not enough physical activity
  • High stress levels and anxiety
  • Diet full of simple carbs (e.g., processed sugars) that leads to rapid drops in blood sugar
  • Dehydration.

Combined with the body's circadian rhythms, these factors may contribute to acute energy slumps that prevent you from getting the most out of your day. So, what can you do?

Energy Slumps Can Prompt You to Improve Work Habits

Afternoon slump: woman falling asleep on top of her laptop while holding a cup of coffee

To some extent, the afternoon tiredness can be helpful. It's a myth that you should feel equally energized throughout the whole day. True productivity is about taking full advantage of your energy highs but also making sure you give yourself a break when you need to.

Low energy may often signal that your body needs something. It can be as simple as a power nap or a healthy snack. The afternoon slump may be a good reminder to do those things and then come back to your workday recharged.

It's no secret that our mental health suffers when we neglect our physical and emotional needs. Without sufficient breaks, it's easy to overwork yourself and reach burnout. That’s why engaging in a calming, restful activity during your afternoon slump may be a great productivity strategy in the long run. It forces you to take breaks, which prevents crossing the critical threshold of exhaustion.

Lastly, you can think of the post-lunch energy low as motivation to plan your workday better. When you come to terms with the afternoon slump, it may encourage you to prioritize important tasks early in the day. That means less time wasting in the morning and a more relaxed pace in the afternoon.

How to Keep Your Energy Levels Balanced Throughout the Day

Lower energy in the afternoon is, to some extent, normal. Your circadian rhythm dictates that your body usually needs downtime in the middle of the day. However, it's worth taking a look at your lifestyle to check if your energy levels are dropping lower than they need to.

Examine Your Diet

First off, examine your diet. It should include a fair amount of complex carbohydrates and protein, as these are the macronutrients that help you maintain steady blood sugar levels. Eating whole grains, for example, is proven to stabilize your blood sugar. This means smaller spikes but also not so dramatic lows in your energy levels.

Drink Enough Water

Drinking enough water matters as much as a healthy diet. One U.K. study found that dehydration is the cause of tiredness in one out of 10 cases. This might mean that 10% of the population could make things better just by drinking more water!

Increase Physical Activity

The next area to look at is your habits around physical activity. It may be that your lack of energy is connected to not moving enough. Now, we understand that after a long day of work you may not be up for an hour-long CrossFit session or training for a marathon. However, studies show that even low-intensity exercises — such as a quick walk or gentle yoga — can reduce fatigue by as much as 65%.

With low-key exercise, your heart rate increases, which helps your blood flow and oxygenation. At the same time, it doesn't put additional stress on your nervous system. That’s definitely not what you want when you already feel stressed and overworked!

Look at Your Sleep Patterns

Last but not least, make sure you get enough sleep. Many people don’t notice how missing an hour or two of sleep here and there impacts their energy levels. They think they can make up for the lost sleep with coffee, sugar, or other stimulants. Or, they simply brush off their tiredness as “having a bad day.”

If that sounds like you, try getting those recommended eight hours of sleep consistently for a couple of weeks. You may find out that it makes all the difference!

An “Emergency Kit” for When You Need an Extra Energy Boost

Man happily stretching

Of course, it would be ideal if you could always maintain a balanced lifestyle and avoid dramatic energy swings. But real life doesn't always work like that. Deadlines, work emergencies, and rapid life changes happen. That's when it's easiest to fall out of balance, neglecting sleep, diet, and exercise.

These are often periods when the afternoon energy slump becomes worse. Ideally, this is also when you take a break. It may mean calling in for a mental health day off or just taking an extra half-hour after lunchtime, so that you can relax.

However long your break, make sure what you do in that time is a pleasant, low-key activity. Read a book, go on a walk, meditate, take a nap — whatever does the trick for you! Also, remember that the key to a restful break is detaching from work mentally.

That said, we understand that there are situations when taking a break doesn’t seem like an option. You just need to power through that afternoon slump to meet a deadline or deal with an emergency. In those times, it's useful to have an "emergency kit" — a list of ideas that can give you a quick energy boost. 

Remember, these aren’t substitutes for a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Rather, they can help you power through the tough period so you can then take a deserved rest.

  1. Drink a cup of coffee: The caffeine in coffee promotes alertness by blocking adenosine (the “sleepiness substance”) receptors in the body. On top of that, it acts very fast, reaching a peak level in your blood even 30-60 minutes after consumption. This makes coffee one of the most popular and potent remedies for tiredness. But remember not to overdo it.
  2. Take a power walk or do a few squats to increase blood flow: With exercise, you'll feel the energy boost instantly. The trick is to not overdo it, as this can make you even more tired than you are. Ideally, aim for a five-minute workout that will raise your heart rate and bring more oxygen into your body. You should feel refreshed and energized.
  3. Open the window: Speaking of oxygen, even some extra fresh air in the room may do the trick. If you're so busy you can't even go out for a short walk, let some air into your workspace. This can not only help you feel more energized but also improve cognitive abilities.
  4. Chew gum: This may sound funny at first, but research shows that chewing gum can impact how alert you feel. The longer you've been involved in a task, the better the effect chewing gum will have on your attention. This means it may do the trick to help you stay focused during particularly daunting, complex work.
  5. Rely on teamwork: If nothing else works and you need to work during your afternoon slump, ask a friend or co-worker to collaborate. Teamwork means your brain must find a way to stay engaged and alert because there's another person prompting interaction. Get creative! Plus, doing the work together may mean you finish in less time.

Track Your Performance to Understand Your Energy Patterns

As with most things, understanding where you're at helps you decide what you need to change. This also applies to managing your energy throughout the workday. When you know when your energy slumps occur and how they impact your performance, you're better equipped to do something about it.

One way you can get insight into that is by tracking how you spend your time. At Rize, we decided everyone should be able to discover how powerful this can be. Our customizable time tracker allows you to notice when your productivity tends to dip — and also, when deep work borders on effortless.

Having that sort of information means you're way ahead of the pack. It empowers you to work around afternoon slumps or even use them to your advantage.

You can now try Rize for 14 days, for free. No credit card is required to start the trial.