Reframing Your Midday Lull in Productivity Is Actually the Key to a Better Work Day

by | Leadership, Productivity, Teams

It’s the middle of the day and you’ve already been in a few meetings and crushed the first part of your to-do list. You feel a yawn coming on and immediately leap from your desk.

Up first, 50 jumping jacks. Actually, make it 100. Lunch is a quick salad — no carbs here, that will just make you sleepy. You’ll stay off camera while you squeeze in a few bites. Next, you gulp an espresso. Then another for good luck. Finally, you unscrew the cap from that bottle of peppermint essential oils you ordered in desperation from Amazon and inhale deeply before settling down in front of your laptop again.

If even one of these sounds depressingly familiar to you, you’ll know that this lunchtime ritual has nothing to do with the latest wellness craze, and everything to do with trying to beat the afternoon slump.

The battle against the afternoon slump.

You might refer to it as the afternoon slump or the post-lunch dip. Whatever you call it, many of us experience a drop in productivity around midday, stretching into the early hours of the afternoon.

Before lunch, you aced your to-do list, carried securely on a natural wave of high motivation and productivity. But your lull in productive energy is so predictable you could set your watch by it, whether it actually hits you at midday on the nose or not. We all have predictable times of day when our physiological energy dips. It’s part of being human.

Of course, we all experience these variations in physical energy differently, but the research is clear — we all have natural shifts in energy throughout the day. Just as some people will naturally gravitate towards a 5 am workout and some prefer a late afternoon or early evening trip to the gym, our preferred time for being awake will impact our peak periods for productivity.

For those who do experience that midday dip in productivity, it can pose a problem. Because most of us don’t plan our to-do lists and meeting schedules around our predictable energy variations. In fact, most of us are conditioned to power through and fight this midday energy shift. It’s an even bigger challenge if everyone on your team is attempting to power through as well.

But here’s the surprising thing: the problem is largely rooted in cultural expectations.

We’ve been taught that relentless productivity, defined as crossing items off our to-do list, should be the goal of each and every working day. We’ve been conditioned to focus on output rather than outcomes (more on that cultural phenomenon here.)

As such, the afternoon slump has become something that we have to beat at all costs. 

Productivity experts want us to fear the post-lunch dip as they talk about “regaining your sense of urgency” and “being ruthless in avoiding distraction”, and urging us to trick our bodies and invest in other productivity hacks. Even the names we’ve given this period of day — describing it as a slump or a dip — have negative connotations we want to distance ourselves from.

Before you reach for that third espresso, how about a reframe?

If you have teenage children, you’ll know how challenging it is to wake a teen before 10 am. And  this reluctance to emerge from sleep is rooted in the power of the circadian rhythm. In fact, studies like this one by M.D.R. Evans and Jonathan Kelley of the University of Nevada and Paul Kelley of the UK’s Open University looked into optimal sleep and wake times in adolescents and concluded that our teens genuinely should be allowed to sleep a little later in the morning if we want them to learn effectively in school.

But it isn’t just adolescents who are affected by the circadian rhythm — and the power of the body’s internal clock stretches beyond our sleep-wake cycles.

As adults, our brains are also primed for different activities at different times of the day.

Think again about your colleague who gets up at 5 am for a run while you favor an 8 pm workout. Or your friend who cannot stomach breakfast until 10 am while you wake up ravenous at 6 am. We all naturally gravitate toward certain behaviors or activities at different times based on our biophysical needs.

A compelling body of research suggests that, for many people, the brain at midday is not primed to be task-oriented.

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK on the effects of different times of day on group creativity concluded that variations in levels of arousal and alertness had a significant effect on performance. Quality of performance on tasks that required rapid completion dipped during the afternoon. However, while your afternoon brain might not be primed for peak productivity, it is primed for creative tasks, for learning, and for integrating new knowledge

Ongoing research suggests that for many people, this daily peak is a time that we’re more easily distracted and less able to carry out detail-oriented tasks. The flipside of this is that we have a heightened capacity for social interaction, which can enhance the creative process by facilitating an exchange of ideas and allowing us to collaborate more easily and build upon the thoughts and teachings of others. Of course, the more open we are to other ideas and the more we allow our minds to wander, the easier it becomes to make associations and generate innovative ideas.

The recognition that humans need breaks during the day is written into law in a few places, hence the introduction of California’s 5th Hour labor rule that states that an employee’s first meal break must begin before they have worked for five hours, or before 1 pm.

But while breaks are nice, and it is never a bad idea to step away from the desk to move your body, there is a greater opportunity here to uncover.

What might happen if we stop fighting the post lunch dip intask-oriented productivity? What if we allowed our brains to shift into the mode of productivity that is naturally aligned to this time of day?

What if we decided to embrace this period of the day for exactly what it offers us? An opportunity to learn, create, and reflect?

What if we turned this natural shift in energy into our biggest opportunity for growth?

Introducing The 5th Hour.

The hours around midday could be the most valuable part of the day. The time of day when we prioritize creativity, collaboration, and learning, the kind of work that we know leads to higher performance over time. Let’s get rid of the cultural baggage and negative connotations — no more slumps or dips to overcome. Instead, let’s give it a new name and a new purpose: The 5th Hour. 

If you embrace, rather than push against, this natural shift in energy, you could find The 5th Hour becomes the most valuable part of your day. Not because of how busy you are or how many tasks you manage to complete, but because it’s the time you commit to learning, creativity, and collaboration. All of these won’t just make your day feel instantly more rewarding but will also, ultimately, unlock your, your team’s, and your organization’s capacity for higher performance.

So instead of giving you four ways to fight through that midday slump, I have four ways you and your team can welcome The 5th Hour — and use it well.

  1. Use this time for 1:1 conversations.

The goal of a 1:1 meeting is to listen effectively, deepen your understanding, and create focus and alignment — all of which your brain is perfectly primed to do in the early afternoon. So if you lead a team, schedule your 1:1s in the early afternoon.

Top tip: ramp the positive effects up a notch by making it a 1:1 walk and talk.

  1. Schedule a team meeting.

If you need to brainstorm with your team, use The 5th Hour for it. It’s a time of day when most of you are likely to be struggling with tasks and complex problem solving. Instead of fighting this natural shift, use it. Because it’s also the time of day when you are more likely to be hitting peak creativity and openness to considering new information. It’s the ideal time to get together.

  1. Schedule your learning time.

A few times a week, block an hour or two around midday to catch up on articles you’ve bookmarked, the book that’s been sitting on your desk, or the replay of that webinar you didn’t make it to. Give yourself a few minutes of time to capture any actionable ideas that emerge.

  1. Join us for The 5th Hour Sessions and make this the one hour that adds value to all the rest.

The 5th Hour learning experience is designed for that midday shift in energy when your brain is ready to learn and integrate new ideas into the way you work.Every 5th Hour session is curated to go deep on practical topics that real leaders and teams have told us they’d love to explore in more depth, if only they had the time. Because we are always learning how we learn best, The 5th Hour Sessions are designed to work with your brain and the time of day when your energy is shifting. 

We want this to be the most valuable hour of your day, so each session is designed for the perfect mix of learning and practical action. We will invite you to engage with new ideas, but we won’t ask you to talk to strangers, turn your camera on, or share your feelings in a breakout session.

Check out the 2023 5th Hour Sessions, right here. And sign up to get notified when the next series is announced.

If you found this helpful, you’ll love my new book, Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work.

Order it now and discover how to design a high-performing, agile organization, improve employee retention, and stop burnout in its tracks.

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