Lately, I’ve been physically exhausted by 7 p.m. Just plain tired. Yet it’s not like I’ve run a marathon or anything: Most days I’ve just tossed in a couple of loads of laundry, between sessions of wall ball with my daughter, and between phone interviews, blog posts, magazine assignments, copy edits, and invoicing, which happens just after a short workout and before I cook dinner.
Like most people, I’ve got a full summer schedule. And for all the flexibility I have with how I spend my time, I wind up using it all. There are very few breaks in my day to unwind.
That’s not a good thing. In fact, the physical fatigue I feel at the end of the day has more to do with my mental exhaustion than any exercise I’m getting. And that kind of mental tiredness can sneak up on anyone.
Causes of Mental Fatigue
Mental exhaustion isn’t necessarily the result of things gone wrong, or any big upset (though it can be) but more likely an accumulation of too much: Too many decisions. Too much work (in not enough time). Too many interruptions, demands, and shifts in attention. Too many things going on without time to pause and restore.
This kind of mental tiredness knocks us back when the volume of tasks and activities we’ve taken on exceeds our capacity to comfortably handle the stress (even the positive stress) of it all.
Sometimes mental exhaustion can be a result of health issues: Depression, heart disease, chronic illness, and autoimmune disease can all lead to insomnia or trouble sleeping, which can cause mental fatigue. It may be worth checking out this angle with your doctor.
But as for me, I sleep well, feel satisfied in my life, and yet, there are times when even the good stuff becomes taxing because there is just too much going on.
The more mentally tired we become, the less capable we are of keeping up with the demands of the day. It becomes harder to make healthy decisions, stay focused on tasks, and remain calm. It can also become difficult to regulate our emotions. Over time, mental exhaustion can lead to full-blown burnout, physical issues, and stress-related illness. But, as soon as you realize why you are feeling so tired, you can take steps to restore and feel better fast.
Signs of Mental Fatigue
Mental fatigue can manifest in many ways:
- Physical fatigue. Your body feels tired and you’d rather curl up on the lawn chair with a margarita than head for a run at the end of the day, even though you spent most of your day sitting at a desk.
- Impatience and Irritability. You become snappish with others and may be more quickly triggered to anger or upset.
- Inability to concentrate or focus. It becomes harder to finish your work or tasks. You may find it more difficult to make decisions, find the right word, or focus on one job at a time.
Four Ways to Ease Mental Fatigue
How can we manage some of these more demanding days without letting them grind us down? Here are four suggestions:
- Make fewer decisions.
We are faced with scores of decisions each day and by the end of all that decision-making, our mental energy and self-control can take a hit, according to research from Kathleen Vohs. Then we are more likely to make unhealthy decisions and do what feels easiest, like lay on the couch, rather than exercising or opting for a drive-through burger instead of cooking a healthy meal. One way to offset this dip in mental energy may be to limit your decisions during the day. Make the same coffee order every day. Eat the same dinner every Tuesday. By keeping some basic, routine decisions simple (or eliminating them altogether) we have more mental energy to deal with the rest of our days.
- Start seeing green.
Take a mini-break and look out the window. Just one minute of looking at grassy rooftops reduced errors and improved concentration among students, according to research from the University of Melbourne. “It’s really important to have micro-breaks,” says Dr. Kate Lee, who led the study. “It’s something that a lot of us do naturally when we’re stressed or mentally fatigued. There’s a reason you look out the window and seek nature: It can help you concentrate on your work and to maintain performance across the workday.” So take a break and gaze out at a green space or head for a brief stroll through the park during lunch. The break will help you feel restored and better able to focus on the tasks ahead.Source: Image from freeimages.com
- Just get up and go.
Several studies show the value of exercise in boosting concentration and mental focus. Twenty minutes can improve performance and short, intense exercise sessions can increase blood flow to the brain and improve your mood, memory, and creativity.
- Take time off.
Whether it’s a mini-break or a week away, time off is essential to fighting mental fatigue. You can do this even on your busiest days by making sure you take a regular lunch break, or set aside 15 minutes with nothing planned to take a walk, or at least a breath. Then, each week, be sure to leave some time open and unplanned. Just don’t fill in all the slots on your calendar. That open time can give you a mental reprieve but also allows room for unexpected opportunities to develop.
President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.
Click here to get Time for Parents, a roundup of the week’s parenting news that doesn’t feel like homework.
We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.
Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It’s better to wait.
If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.
Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework
Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.
Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.
Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.
Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?
When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.
If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.
Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.
That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.