We all know the feeling. It’s late in the afternoon, and we're entering into a trance of sorts. We’ve been staring at the same screen for 4+ hours and we just can’t take it anymore.
Irritable, fatigued and stressed, the tension builds; it seems that in a matter of moments we will arrive at a crescendo of lethargy and rage.
Though, against our better judgement, we will ourselves to continue on. One more email we tell ourselves. Just a few more minutes. “The quicker I finish, the quicker I can leave.”
What we are experiencing is what any normal human being experiences when propped in front of a screen for hours on end. It’s a phenomenon known as Mental Fatigue.
Mental fatigue, scientifically known as Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF), results from continually overriding the brain’s inhibitory attention mechanisms. Put in English, mental fatigue results from continually focusing our attention on a specific set of tasks, even when our brain tells us that it’s time for a break.
There are a myriad of symptoms that can help us identify when we are experiencing mental fatigue. Some include: missing social cues, an inability to plan or make decisions, a heightened sense of impulsivity, restlessness and irritability, and a decline of energy.
With much of our work being mentally demanding, DAF can feel like an inherent byproduct of our lifestyle. But, the good news is that once we become aware that we are experiencing DAF, we can take steps to replenish our mental energy.
The most powerful research shows nature’s ability to restore our attention and return our baseline to a more peaceful state of existence. Though, as many don’t have dense forests adjacent to their office, going to the nearest green space isn’t always an option. But, even from the confines of our desks and the surrounding areas of our offices we can derive similar effects.
To restore our state of wellbeing, it’s not so much about what we do, rather how we do it. That is, it depends on the type of attention and presence we bring to our tasks.
To understand this, we must first understand some of the psychological process that lead to mental fatigue.
- Too Much thinking. Often mental fatigue arises from simply using our minds too much. We weren’t wired to be able to calculate and analyze for hours on end. Since most, if not all, of our work requires some investment of our mental energy, it’s only common sense that over time we get mentally tired from doing it so much. Thus, to help restore our attention and sense of wellbeing we need to be able to give our minds a rest. This could include taking a short nap, engaging in creative processes, or connecting with the sensory modalities of life. When we place an emphasis on interacting with the world through our senses — what we can touch, hear, taste, smell and see — we start to feel more and think less. And the more able we are to give our minds a rest, the more able we are to restore ourselves from mental fatigue.
- Goal oriented behavior. Most of the tasks associated with our professional lives are to arrive at some end product. Constantly striving for distant goals can become draining, as in the process of reaching for the future, we may lose touch with our enjoyment and appreciation of the present. Think back to moments when you felt most in the flow, most grateful for life, most present with your surroundings, did you feel fatigued in those moments? Probably not, maybe even the contrary: you felt energetic, vibrant and alive. Thus, any task with the intention of restoring attention should be done with minimal goals in mind (yes, even reducing our desire to feel better and restored after.) Put in a different way, we are able to replenish our mental energy when we do a task just for the sake of doing it, when we derive fulfillment and satiation from present existence.
- Directed attention. It’s not just thinking too much, its the type of attention we exert. Generally speaking, we can categorize our attention within two forms: directed and non-directed attention. Directed attention is the type of attention which requires rigid focus and concentration. Non-directed attention is when our minds wander, day-dream and more broadly investigate the world. Mental fatigue arises from continually channeling our directed attention, even when our brains tell us it’s time for a break. To stay on the ball for most of our work tasks, we need to filter out all unrelated stimuli, and continually direct our focus on to a singular task. As it becomes more burdensome to maintain our directed attention, our mental energy starts to fade. In these moments, if we wish to replenish our mental energy, we can take a wider gaze, observing and absorbing the world around us, instead of channeling our attention into narrow tasks.
These are things that intuitively we already know: we need a balance between thinking and feeling, between goal-driven behavior and present enjoyment, between calculative attention and broad range exploration. But how?
While there are many potential suitors — listening to music, drawing, free- stream journaling, exercise — here I will highlight two: becoming aware of our breath and mindful walking.
One of the most profound yet simple practices we can do — anywhere, at anytime — is bringing a light attention to our breath. Breathing is something we are always doing, yet scarcely aware of. By placing our attention on our breath, it allows us to engage with what our body is currently doing rather than what our mind is thinking; becoming aware of our breath give us a chance to break the chain of mental rumination. This isn’t a task of cognitive will, but rather of sensory exploration. We can simply inquire: “How does my body move when air enters? How does my body move when air leaves? What physical sensation do I feel associated with my breathing?” There are no goals or tasks, no right or wrongs, and regardless of experience no practitioner is any better or worse than another.
It is simply a practice to see how we feel with each and every inhalation and exhalation. And since there are many different areas we can focus on within the chain of breathing (shoulder, nasal and oral passages, diaphragm, chests, lungs, rib cages, etc.) it doesn’t require a rigid attention, rather a gentle openness and awareness to all bodily sensations. The scientific support is only growing when it comes to the profound benefits breath awareness has on our health, some recent studies have shown: heightened ability for emotional regulation, reduced anxiety, better sleep, and increased energy.
Sometimes we need a moment away from our desks and offices, completely. Regardless of how much we tune into our breath, the associations of stress and fatigue, which we correlate with the office space, may weigh too heavy. In these times, taking moments to immerse in new scenery can have profound effects on attention restoration.
Taking a mindful walk is a great way to get outside the confines of our offices and minds. During these strolls, there are no destinations to arrive at, and no right or wrong way to do them. We can simply attune our attention to the sensations associated with walking and being outside. For example, we may feel our feet lightly padding against the ground, we may feel the sunlight warming our skin, or a cool breeze against our body, we may hear the hum of the city sounds or the sounds of birds chirping. The more we immerse into our sensory environment, the more we are able to give our minds a rest. Scientific research is now showing the calming effects which result from mindful walking.
As with any other skill we cultivate in life, it takes practice, patience and most of all consistency. At first, it may feel laborious and weird, but the more we practice, the more natural it will feel and the more restorative the practices will become.