How to survive your work day when you’re tired

Some days feel like you should have stayed in bed. Maybe it was insomnia, your baby or that party that kept you awake. The result is the same: your bed seems the place to be. Still, you get up and drag yourself to work.

From a psychological point of view, it might have been the best decision to creep back under the blankets. A lack of sleep can quickly turn you into a kind of zombie. However, often life doesn’t care about what’s psychologically advisable. Most probably, you still have to go to work. So, let’s have a look at that zombie inside of you and find out how you can survive your work day when you’re tired.

What you’re worse at when you’re tired

Being tired impairs very different abilities — mentally, physically and socially. Here are some of them:

1. Complex thinking

A lack of sleep especially affects your higher cognitive processes. You will find it difficult to focus on tasks that are mentally challenging. Logical reasoning, understanding difficult texts and doing calculations are among them. So are making complex plans and decision.

Since your working memory is impaired, things just ‘slip your mind’. You lose the line of thought you were just contemplating, for example, or can’t recall what’s been written on the page you’ve just read.

Being somewhat flexible about how you organize your workload makes tired days easier. If you can avoid mentally challenging tasks, you should today. If not, it would at least make sense to have your work checked by an awake person — either a colleague or a future, well-rested version of yourself.

2. Motor skills

You probably don’t have to look at work accident statistics to understand: When you’re sleepy, a potentially dangerous task shouldn’t be your number one choice. The same applies to jobs that require sophisticated motor skills. Being tired has a similar effect on you as being slightly drunk.

3. Dealing with stress

Of course, how much stress you have is often beyond your area of influence. However, if you can avoid some on your tired days, it would do you good. A lack of sleep is bad for your so-called emotional regulation. This means you find it harder to control your own feelings — you get emotionally unstable. Something that might be a waltz on a normal day, can drive you to the edge of insanity when you are really tired.

4. Being a delight for the world around you

Quite understandably, this makes you not the easiest person to be around. Even worse: being tired can make you moody and less emotionally intelligent. Therefore, tackling sensitive talks and conflicts shouldn’t be your number one priority for tired days, either.

5. Paying attention and avoiding procrastination

We’ve ruled out a lot by now. Doesn’t that only leave mindless, dumb work for when you’re tired? No, that can actually be problematic, too. Since your sleepy zombie version is not only bad at challenging tasks but also has the attention span of a puppy, it can only endure small portions of dull, dumb work before daydreams and Facebook become more urgent. To make it even worse: Sleepiness affects your self-control. This combination of concentration problems and a weak will screams out for procrastination. So the trick is to find something that keeps the balance between being rather simple but at the same time not down-right boring.

Make an unambitious plan

So how can you handle all this? First, it makes sense to make a plan for your day. The sleepy zombie is more likely to follow a schedule. Don’t try to rely on its working moral or sense of duty. The most challenging thing you should do today? Come up with a sensible to-do list. And please: Don’t trust your sleepy memory. Write it down!

At best, the list contains tasks that

  • don’t require too much cognitive effort
  • aren’t potentially dangerous
  • don’t require sophisticated motor skills
  • aren’t too monotonous
  • bear less risk for procrastination, for example, because you do them off-screen
  • are somewhat fun or interesting
  • or are quickly done so you can enjoy some sense of achievement

Okay, it is likely that there are only a few tasks which meet all or, at least, a few of those criteria — and make some sense, at the same time. But if you find at least a few compatible tasks, it will make it already easier to survive your work day. For example, today might be a good time to clean out your mailbox or hard drive. Or even better: your workplace. The good thing about it? You’ll have to get up! Light physical activity can boost your energy. For that reason, a walk during your lunch break would also do you good today. Fresh air and light never hurt when you’re tired.

The most important task for today will be, however: Make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

Originally published at on March 21, 2016.

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