The Afternoon Apathy Syndrome

Updated: Sep 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
Yawn. Your body is feeling leaden, your thoughts are sluggish. Strange glazed circles are forming before your eyes. You literally have to pry your eyelids open to keep awake. All around the office, colleagues are in a similar state of passing away.

Guess what time it is

Its most likely to be three in the afternoon, better known as the post-lunch slump. For the next hour-and-a-half, welcome to the zone of the living dead. The body is present, but the brain is asleep. This afternoon apathy syndrome is very common among office workers and can leave you feeling less alert, less energetic and more apt to make mistakes. Researchers in the UK found that productivity goes down so much during this period, it can have serious financial implications.

Trainers call it the graveyard session and have to fill it with activities to keep participants interested. Seminars typically have the lowest attendance during this time. Meetings held immediately after lunch are full of dead bodies on a caffeine drip. Even daytime accidents are most likely to be caused by lapses in attention which peak mid-afternoon, especially in drivers over age 45.

What is it about 3 pm

Well, around this time several body cycles clash, sending office workersnot everyone, mind youinto a deep slump. For one, all the bodys resources are suddenly diverted into digesting a heavy meal, an act, which according to nutritionists, requires more energy than either running or swimming. Second, a heavy meal causes gastric distension in the stomach leading to a reduced flow of oxygen and energy. Third, by mid-afternoon, a natural sleep-cycle builds up which sends you crashing into a valley. And fourth, at just about this time, the body is also slipping into a boredom cycle: the morning spurt of enthusiasm is over and now, its just dull routine work.

You have two choices. You can either wait out the slump which passes naturally in about 90 minutes or so. Or you can reclaim the afternoon by some smart moves. Ive had to figure this out the hard way because I teach a class at, guess what time: 3 pm.

First, lean into your biological rhythms rather than resist them. This means identifying and planning your work around your natural highs and lows. This can significantly increase the quality of your work. For most people, morning is prime time and best for head work like planning, creative thinking, writing and editing. An executive who spends his morning checking email or doing routine correspondence is forfeiting his most creative hours. Do your toughest tasks at this time. Researchers say that 11 am is also the best time to schedule an important meeting or make a presentation because most people are at peak alertness then.

Soon after lunch, mental sharpness begins to head south and a wave of sleepiness hits most people, including those who skipped lunch. Suddenly you find your concentration fading. This period can, however, be a good time to catch up on busywork or tasks that require less mental concentration such as returning phone calls, sending emails, reading, sorting out papers.

Tweak your timings to your biology and you are likely to accomplish much more in your day. According to Dr Bob Arnot, chief medical correspondent for NBC News, the key principle of a biologically successful day lies in understanding how your body and brain chemistry changes over the day. What you are in the morning is entirely different to what you are in the afternoon or evening. Scheduling the perfect day accounts for knowing how your body functions during each period, he says.

Second, what you eat for lunch can also have a significant impact on the slump that follows. Research after research points to the same innocent-looking villain: carbohydrates. The rice, pasta, bread roll, dessert are like the archetypal tease: first they seduce you, then send you crashing.

Food is directly linked to mood and understanding this subtle connection can help you shift the energy balance to your advantage. You can buy yourself an afternoon peak simply by eating right. Both, proteins and carbohydrates trigger neurotransmitters in the brain that effect our energy levelsbut in opposite ways.

Protein is converted in the body to dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals associated with alertness. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, prompt the manufacture of serotonin, which is a natural sedative. When you have protein, you think and react more quickly. When you have carbos, you begin to space out. A power lunch isnt just about who you eat with, but also about what you eat. Stay alert: skip the pasta, have the chicken.

And finally, nothing takes care of the post-lunch slump as well as a little nap, the key word being: little. Many great leaders regularly disappeared for a quickieincluding Napolean Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and JFK. A professor in my university religiously shut his door in the afternoon, pulled out a chattai from under his deskand revived miraculously half an hour later, to bore us again.

Sleep researchers have found that our mood and performance decline mid-afternoon due to a biological need to sleep, especially in hot countries like India, where sweat and heat stress builds up, leaving you craving a siesta. Plus, many of us are anyway sleep-deprived to begin with.

A nap is the pause that refreshes. You dont have to do it in bed and you dont even need to actually sleep. Simply slouch in an easy chair, kick off your shoes, loosen your tie and switch off for about 15 to 20 minutes, trying not to think of anything at all. Avoid sleeping any longer than that, though, or youll end up feeling sapped instead. This could be one of the smartest ways to get a high-energy return in a minimum amount of time. You lose a few minutes but you gain back several hours. A friend says he disappears into his car every winter afternoon, where he keeps a cushion and a blanket handy-and returns to office feeling like a new person. After a nap, its like a new day starting, he says. I can then go on late into the night if I have to.

When the post-lunch slump strikes, forget ordering a 25th cup of coffee. A power nap can help much more. Doesnt matter if you dont fall asleep. Just shut down for a few minutes. And if anyone taps you on the shoulder, smile sweetly and say: Shop is closed for the next half hour, the owner is out.

Then remind them that its good for business.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly coloumn on the business of life. She can be contacted at