What Is Mental Fatigue, and How Do You Overcome It?

Macgill Davis

Have you ever felt like everything was a struggle? Completing simple cognitive activities like reading a paper, responding to an email, or deciding what to have for dinner feel impossible and demand more energy than you seem to have.

Mental fatigue is an increasingly familiar feeling caused by chronic stress and uncertainty. Balancing work and home responsibilities bear heavily on many adults, creating mental exhaustion that impacts brain activity and well-being. 

If left unchecked for a long time, mental fatigue causes declining productivity and mental health conditions. This article shares seven tips to overcome mental fatigue and maintain productivity when you're exhausted. We'll begin with the meaning of mental fatigue and its leading causes.

What Is Mental Fatigue? 

Mental fatigue is a feeling of your brain being exhausted, wiped out, and unable to function optimally. When you get to this state, you feel drained and struggle with cognitive abilities, like thinking, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. You may find it hard to concentrate and complete tasks.

Mental fatigue happens when you have a lot on your mind that you can't resolve. It is different from physical fatigue even though they share similar signs, including trouble sleeping, extreme tiredness, and lethargy in daily life. Although mental fatigue doesn't cause pain like physical sickness, it's advisable to get medical advice and visit a healthcare provider if your symptoms continue for long periods of time.

Observe yourself for signs of mental fatigue, such as increased anxiety and lack of motivation, and use these as a cue for personal intervention and self-care.

What Causes Mental Fatigue? 

Mental fatigue can stem from one or more factors. Key among them is having too much on your plate with little support to handle them and no end to the situation. Other causes of mental fatigue include:

  1. Procrastination: Procrastinating leads to having more to do in less time. Even worse, procrastinating on a task can be as mentally taxing as doing it. This means when you procrastinate, you're piling on work for later and worrying about it now, exacerbating mental fatigue.
  2. Stress and uncertainty: Experiencing stress over a long period leads to mental fatigue. This occurs especially when you have no control over the stressors. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example. Its effects changed life as we knew it, without our control, causing great stress and mental fatigue for many people. 
  3. A demanding job: Working outside your zone of expertise or juggling too many work responsibilities can lead to stress and fatigue. If you're unable to switch off after work hours or be present with loved ones, you may be heading straight for mental exhaustion and burnout.  
  4. Health issues: Living with a mental or physical illness can take a toll on mental health and energy levels. An illness like fibromyalgia, for example, causes pain and emotional distress, making it tough to focus, sleep well, or perform at your peak. Mental illnesses, like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders, may also cause and be aggravated by mental fatigue.
  5. Difficult life events: Unexpected events can easily put a strain on mental health. In moments of doubt and uncertainty, you may enter into survival mode where you're only able to handle urgent or immediate responsibilities. You may find it hard to think about the future or see past the ongoing event.
  6. Caring for others: After a full workday, many workers come home to caring responsibilities. Without support, these responsibilities cause mental and emotional fatigue as well as burnout, which can lead to strained relationships with loved ones.
  7. Poor habits: Sleep deprivation and poor diet are a few bad habits that cause mental fatigue. While short-term lack of sleep and poor nutrition may only cause drowsiness, low energy levels, and the dreaded afternoon slump, long-term bad habits create severe effects, leading to poor reactivity, productivity, and decision-making.

7 Tips to Overcome Mental Fatigue 

Mental fatigue: woman tired after working out

Knowing the root cause of your fatigue is the first step to overcoming it. Reflect on your lifestyle and routine to discover what causes mental fatigue. You can then work with the best solution to regain clarity and energy. Remember to give yourself some time to heal and regain strength, as there is no quick-fix cure for mental fatigue. Here are seven tips to get you started.

1. Get Active

Physical and mental well-being are linked. When your body feels sluggish, your mind follows. Take regular breaks to incorporate movement into your workdays and get your heart beating faster. Stand up and stretch for a couple of minutes — neck, shoulders, waist, hips, and ankles. Move around. Try simple exercises. 

Increasing your physical activity helps to lower stress levels and increases blood circulation. You feel stronger, lighter, and more energized when you move. Try taking short walks in the morning without your phone to create an interlude for your body and mind. Walking for just 15 minutes a day can help clear your mind and lower stress.

2. Go Outside

Step outside and breathe in deeply. Sit or walk in the sunshine for a few minutes. Research shows that spending time outside increases the release of a mood-boosting hormone, serotonin, which can make you feel calm and focused. Daily exposure to sunlight can help relieve mental and emotional exhaustion. It doesn't matter what your view looks like. Look up at the sky and notice clouds, birds, bits of nature, or the city around you.

3. Work in Short Bursts

Workloads don't care whether you're mentally exhausted or not. You have to do your work so others can do theirs. The best way to work when you're low on mental energy is by sticking with a simple productivity system that works for you or trying the Pomodoro time management technique.

The Pomodoro technique is excellent for dealing with mental fatigue because it only requires you to focus on a task for a short period of time and then rest.

Start with a time that works for you in the mental state you're in. If you can focus for 10 minutes, that's a start. You feel less drained when you break your work into short bursts.

Follow these rules to use the Pomodoro technique:

  • Set a timer and work for 25 minutes.
  • Focus on one task throughout this time.
  • Take a five-minute break when the 25 minutes ends.
  • Do this four times, i.e., for two hours.
  • Then, take a break for 15-30 minutes.
  • Repeat the cycle until your task is complete. 

4. Play Your Favorite Music

Listening to music soothes and perks up your brain, temporarily providing a reprieve from feelings of mental fatigue. A study published in the Neuroscience journal suggests that listening to your favorite music has a positive effect similar to exercising.

Turn on some good music to set the ambiance for work. Choose tracks that make you feel good, get into a flow state, and forget about surrounding worries. While many prefer lo-fi music when studying or working, you may go for something different. Play music that lifts your mood, helps generate positive thoughts, and isn’t distracting.

5. Clear Your Mind

Person writing in a journal

Mental fatigue is often a result of having too much on your mind. Clear your mind by writing down all that's bothering you. This may include tasks, responsibilities, ideas, and plans. Note your stressors in all aspects and also some possible solutions. Do this as a systematic review of your state of mind as you try to unwrap all it's trying to resolve.

Practice gratitude and mindfulness, reminding yourself of all you have accomplished, even if you have a lot more to do. You can also try short meditation breaks where you sit quietly, close your eyes, and focus on breathing. These practices help you feel more settled, positive, and able to carry on.  

6. Eat Well

Mental fatigue can be the result of poor nutrition. Whether your fatigue is caused by a vitamin deficiency or an unhealthy diet, there are certain "brain" foods you can eat to combat mental exhaustion. Add foods like avocado, eggs, and yogurt to your diet to stay mentally healthy.  

7. Connect With a Friend

Connecting with a good friend may provide a fresh perspective on your work or life and the things causing you stress. Plan a catch-up session — either in person or over the phone – with someone you trust. As you talk about what you have going on, actively listen to their take on the situation. Maintaining connections and good friendships helps develop work-life balance and objectivity to overcome mental fatigue.

Use Rize to Ward off Mental Fatigue

Mental fatigue slows down cognitive functions as your brain's energy levels deplete due to prolonged exposure to stress. The effects of mental fatigue can interfere with decision-making, problem-solving, and productivity at work. However, overcoming fatigue is possible if you build good habits like staying active, being mindful, and eating well.

Tracking your time while you work helps you allocate your productive time better. Instead of wasting precious mental energy on low-value tasks, you can channel your peak hours to more useful activities. Rize is a time-tracking app that helps to keep track of the time you spend working, while ensuring that you take regular breaks and give your brain a rest. 

Automatically running in the background, Rize app alerts you when it’s time to rest and shares weekly reports showing how you spend productive hours. Are you ready to work better to overcome cognitive overload and mental fatigue? Get started with a free trial of Rize.