The dreaded afternoon slump. We all recognize the symptoms—drowsiness, foggy thoughts, and a total, utter lack of ambition—but can rarely fathom solutions beyond an IV drip of coffee. Maybe you’ve resigned yourself to accomplishing your best work in the mornings and drudging through your less important tasks at 1 p.m. and perhaps resenting anything new that comes up after 3 p.m.
Some of this trouble is explained by circadian rhythms: Your body’s internal clock gives you a natural dip in energy in the afternoon (hence the culture of siestas, which hasn’t made it to the typical American workplace). But if you use your lunch break well, the afternoon can be downright delightful. And while what you eat matters, it’s not the whole story. “Lunch is about not just refueling, but also re-energizing for the afternoon,” explains Blake Ashforth, Ph.D., a professor at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business.
Like batteries, we need recharging to complete the day. “Recovery” is a term used to describe the process that reduces exhaustion, improves energy and concentration abilities, and increases job satisfaction. It happens during all kinds of breaks—vacations, weekends, and evenings—even when they’re as short as a lunch break, explains Emily Hunter, Ph.D., a professor in the management department at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. Here’s how you can make the most of whatever time you can spare.
Eat your omegas
If you’ve been eating the same sandwiches every day (or perhaps peanut butter off a spoon), reconsider your midday menu. High-carbohydrate, low-protein lunches often worsen sleepiness and concentration trouble—as can larger portions and calorie-dense meals.
Instead, layer diverse ingredients, including those with omega fatty acids— particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which may help with cognitive function. Omega fatty acids are found in foods such as flaxseeds, English walnuts, and DHA-rich fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel. So try a generous green salad topped with small amounts of salmon, walnuts, seeds, cheese, and avocado. Or go for some Greek yogurt mixed with flaxseed and chia, whole-grain granola, and blueberries. “More variety and volume will sustain you and give your muscles and brain fuel,” suggests nutritionist Monica Laudermilk, Ph.D., a University of Arizona adjunct faculty member and vice president of research at Exos, a human-performance company.
Drink water or tea
Mental fatigue is associated with dehydration, Laudermilk points out. “Two glasses of water can help you make good choices at lunch,” she says. Try to have 8 oz right before lunch, then 8 oz after lunch.
If you’re already well hydrated, “teas, such as matcha, green, and black tea, can give you a boost of energy that lasts,” Laudermilk says, without coffee’s harsh spikes. According to one study, green tea increases energy and relaxation, which can help you pay sustained attention and avoid distractions.
Walk around the block
Strolling during your lunch break can improve your enthusiasm, relaxation, and creative thinking, research indicates. A post-meal walk helps digestion and provides sunshine- derived vitamin D, Laudermilk points out. Eating and then just sitting around (vs. walking) may lead to a sluggish afternoon. You can do it indoors, but if you have the option to get out, do it.
Get nature any way you can
You might concentrate better, find more creative solutions, and improve your all-around cognitive function after spending time in natural settings or viewing scenes of nature, indicates research from around the world. A 20-minute urban park visit increased well-being, according to one recent University of Alabama study. German researchers found that participants concentrated better, had increased energy, and felt better at day’s end on days when they took 15-minute park strolls compared with non-park days. Walking in a forest might even improve perception, thinking, reasoning, and remembering along with mood, per a Korean study.
If you can’t get outside, a study showed that viewing something like a computer image of a rooftop with a robustly flowering green meadow for just 40 seconds increased task attention and decreased errors compared with viewing a concrete roof. Try adding a wallpaper or screen saver with a green scene to your computer, the researchers suggest.
Watch something funny
If you must untangle a difficult problem in the afternoon, get yourself laughing at lunch. In one study, 124 Australian students were assigned a truly dull task—crossing out the letter “E” on two pages of writing. Then they watched an eight-minute humor clip, a relaxation video, or a straightforward video on management. Funny-clip viewers showed increased persistence on the next assignment—an unsolvable human resources task. Sound like your life? Cue up a chuckle.
Grab a game
All work and no play makes you…ineffective, it turns out. In a recent study, 26 employees in South Africa were divided into two groups: one that played games at lunchtime and another that took their regular lunch break. Those who played games were more likely to successfully “detach” from their work during lunch than those who didn’t play. In the afternoon, they performed better as a team, and participants reported feeling more focused and more positive. So do a puzzle, brain game, start a round of Words With Friends, or bust out the cards for an old-fashioned game of Solitaire.
Go ahead, lie down
Scientists say it’s OK. Napping can recharge your brain for an afternoon of productivity, particularly if you’ve spent the morning learning a new skill. As you learn, your brain is like a room that gets cluttered with pieces of paper. If you can enter deep-wave sleep, your brain organizes the papers so you’re starting fresh when you wake. “Even a power nap of 10 to 15 minutes can restore learning capability,” says M. Felice Ghilardi, M.D., a medical professor at the CUNY School of Medicine.
Of course, napping is possible only if you have a place to snooze uninterrupted, such as your car or a quiet corner in your home office. You could also try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), in which you slowly tense a muscle group as you breathe in, then relax it as you breathe out. One study found that a 20-minute PMR lunchtime break reduced afternoon strain compared with making small talk at lunch.
Brighten your workspace
If napping isn’t possible, fire up the lights. In a study, subjects napped, were exposed to bright light enhanced with energizing blue light, or did whatever they wanted just after eating lunch. The blue-light group experienced decreased fatigue and had better accuracy when switching tasks, as if they’d napped. Try increasing your laptop’s brightness right around lunchtime, or get natural blue light by sitting outside or near a window.
Choose something you love
The simple act of choosing your own lunchtime activity may be more important than what you choose to do. Experiencing having control over your lunch break in a way that maximizes relaxation and relating to others can help you feel more engaged, reenergized, and confident, according to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
What gets you revved for the afternoon might not work for someone else, and vice versa. “Feel free to experiment,” Ashforth says. “Different people need different things. Try mixing it up, because it gets stale to do the same thing at the same time every day.”
Before you go! Take another break at 3 p.m.
Afternoons get long, right? “Breaks taken later in the day may be especially useful to counteract dips in employees’ alertness and performance,” says Jessica de Bloom, a researcher at Tampere University in Finland. But it’s too easy to let the day’s stresses—especially now that your lunch break has reenergized you!—push you along until you’re depleted by dinnertime. If you can choose your break time, aim for midafternoon, but even if the time isn’t up to you, you can still avoid burnout if you choose how to spend your 15 minutes away from responsibilities.