How to Structure Your Work Day When You Feel Mentally Drained (According to a Neurologist)

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In today’s culture of productivity, we often think we need to always be doing something to clear our to-do lists. The problem? That’s not the way the human brain works. As with our bodies, our brains can get tired, too. That's important to remember—not only when tackling tasks, but also when structuring your to-do list.

Neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, PhD—known to Instagram followers as The Brain Doctorsays the key is to structure your to-do list based on the “cognitive demand” the tasks require. Forcing yourself to do everything on your to-do list without considering your brain’s energy level can have some negative consequences.

"It is easy to work hard and do good work when your brain is feeling up to it. But it’s actually what you do when you’re not at your best that counts,” Dr. Begeti reveals on her Instagram. “Unless there’s a specific deadline that you must absolutely meet, I think it’s best to avoid doing very demanding work when your brain is not feeling up to it. Not only [is it] an ineffective strategy, but it may also lead to you creating negative associations with and hating your work.”

While our day-to-day cognitive alertness can vary, the good news is that you may be able to find a pattern, especially if you can determine your sleep and activity cycle—aka your chronotype.  “This is partly genetically determined and is governed by an internal master clock in our brain—the suprachiasmatic nucleus—which leads to the release of hormones such as cortisol or melatonin to make us feel alert or sleepy respectively,” Dr. Begeti tells Well+Good.

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Research has confirmed that chronotype has definite implications for athletic performance. In fact, late risers have a narrower window of opportunity to perform at their best during the day than early birds. If you don’t know if you’re a morning lark or night owl, however, Dr. Begeti says you likely fall somewhere in the middle and have a bit more variation.

“Some people will note a particular time of day that they are more productive, but others will not notice a discernible pattern, so it is worth being opportunistic when those times strike,” she says. “How productive we feel may also vary day-to-day based on external factors such as how much sleep we have had, our diet, or other stressful events we are dealing with.”

Knowing all of this gives us a deeper understanding of the why in structuring your to-do list into categories, but what about the how? Dr. Begeti advises breaking up tasks between those that are more demanding (writing, analyzing data, and problem solving, for example) and less demanding (such as administrative tasks, email, and social media). Even further, though, she suggests keeping a short to-do list that focuses on a single day's priorities. For anything else, keep a “brain dump” list of things that don’t need to be done right away, so you don’t overwhelm your working memory.

“It is important to have [a short] list of [prioritized] tasks that need to be done in a single day so our brain knows what to focus on and we can keep referring to this list if distractions arise,” Dr. Begeti says. “Having a very long list can feel overwhelming or make it difficult to get started." That's when it becomes all too easy to procrastinate or become distracted by unimportant tasks.

Distractions are at their highest when we try to multitask. The idea that multitasking helps us get more done is the biggest myth about productivity, according to Dr. Begeti. Because our brains are having to switch attention so frequently during multitasking, tasks actually end up taking longer. “Multitasking puts strain on a part of our brain that does our complex thinking called the prefrontal cortex; therefore, people with a strong prefrontal cortex tend to be better at multitasking,” she explains. “However, because we also use this part of the brain to focus, people who are good at multitasking actually tend to multitask less and focus more.”

Instead of trying to multitask, you should have a plan A and plan B for your to-do list. Plan A is the ideal order in which you’d like to get things done, while plan B should be the back-up of tasks that take less cognitive demand—such as admin tasks—that will still help you complete your list. “We may be naturally adverse to having a plan B because we feel that it means that we won’t complete plan A, but what it actually means is that our brain won’t revert to plan zero due to an all-or-nothing mindset,” Dr. Begeti says.

Dr. Begeti admits that her to-do list hasn’t always looked this way, but listening to your brain when managing work (versus letting your work dictate your brain’s energy output) can actually help protect your mental health and avoid burnout.

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