Top 5 Ways to Conquer Mental Fatigue

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Originally posted on August 14, 2014.

In my last post, I reviewed research that showed that Ritalin, compared with a placebo, helped research volunteers overcome mental fatigue. Now I would like to give you five healthier and safer ways to conquer your mental fatigue.

Everyone experiences mental fatigue, whether it is the 3:00 pm “slump” or extreme sleep deprivation. Two weeks ago, I was awake for 40 consecutive hours as I helped a friend complete the Badwater 135 ultramarathon. Eighteen hours later, I was back in the office working. So, I know about fatigue and how to deal with it.

1.     Increase rest. This is the easiest, safest, and cheapest way to overcome mental fatigue. Increase your sleep until you reach at least seven to eight hours each night. If you’re sleep deprived, schedule extra time to catch up on your missed sleep. Once you’re caught up, your body will find a natural groove of how much sleep you need. Some people brag about how little sleep they need. Start bragging about how much sleep you get.  

2.     Play offense against your environment. Open your windows in the morning. When we see the morning sunlight, retinal proteins trigger signals to something called the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN). The SCN, in turn, helps our bodies produce less of our body’s natural sleeping hormone melatonin. In the evening, turn off your lights. Don’t go to sleep in front of your iPad, iPhone, or other brightly lit decide. The darker your room, the faster you’ll fall asleep.

3.     Exercise. Yes, exercise excites us. But exercise also bathes our minds with neurotransmitters that settle us down and boost our happiness. Try to avoid early morning and late evening exercise. A late afternoon walk, jog, or swim works best.

4.     Work smarter, not harder. Most of us have fallen prey to the mistaken idea that working more hours means that we are doing higher quality work. Yet few among us keep track of our daily activities. For example, how many minutes per day you do write, read, and check email? I use various websites and programs to help me accomplish my daily goals. is one of my favorites. I set the clock for four hours. When time is up, that means I’m done writing. Period. I also bought the “Freedom” program. It locks me out of the Internet. Freedom helps me plan my writing sessions (Will I need that document? Do I need to copy and paste this email?) and avoid lingering distractions. You’ll work fewer hours, making you less fatigued.

5.     Take the mind out of the middle. When we’re tired, it’s tough to make decisions. Try something different: Make a contract with yourself ahead of time. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls these little contracts implementation intentions. For example, if you want to make sure you get your exercise, tell yourself, “When I get home from work, I will exercise for 20 minutes.” This way you’ve already made the decision. Instead of trying to rely on your groggy mind to make a good decision, refer to the mental contract you already drafted and signed.

So, how did I overcome the extreme mental exhaustion I experienced post-Badwater? I followed each step. I prioritized my sleep. I soaked up as much sunlight as possible. I exercised each day. I set specific work goals to accomplish. I made implementation intentions so that I knew my decisions were made ahead of time. Finally, I relaxed and took it easy.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”