4 Reasons You Get Nothing Done After 2 p.m.

UPDATED: April 7, 2021
PUBLISHED: April 14, 2017

Your eyes are glazing over. You’re yawning, blinking to refocus on the screen. And even though your to-do list app shows 43 unfinished tasks in eye-catching red, you’re scrolling through Facebook without actually registering anything you’re looking at. You’re falling into a blurry downward spiral that could last the entire afternoon.

Unless you snap yourself out of it.

We’re not expected to be consistently productive for the entire day because we’re humans, not machines. But that problem, the one that sets in at 2 p.m. every day, is one that affects you for more than 15 hours every week.

In short, it’s serious. If you don’t take steps to work around it, you’ll end up missing your deadlines, abandoning your projects and piling up urgent tasks that stand in the way of your long-term goals.

Here’s why your motivation and productivity take a massive hit in the afternoon, and how to avoid the slump.

Related: Why You’re Always Tired

1. You don’t want to start a demanding task you won’t be able to finish.

Different tasks take different levels of mental energy to complete. After 2 p.m., when you’re feeling tired, it only makes sense you have a natural aversion to starting tasks that will put strain on your ability to focus.

Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog, says you should do the most important, most demanding task as the first order of business: “The key to reaching high levels of performance and productivity is to develop the lifelong habit of tackling your major task first thing each morning.”

Once you have that dreaded task out of the way, it won’t matter so much if you’re too scattered to draft up a prize essay or process a few thousand rows of data—you’re already well ahead.

The solution:

Realize it’s normal that you can’t work at peak efficiency for the entire day. Instead, work on soft projects. Soft projects are robotic, rewarding tasks that don’t need insane levels of focus but do set you up properly for the next workday. For example:

  • Process your inbox. On average, workers spend 13 hours per week inside their inbox. If email isn’t managed properly, that’s a lot of exposure to a distracting environment. Use the Do, Delegate, Defer, Delete, File method to quickly take action on each email and reach blissful inbox zero in time for tomorrow morning.
  • Tidy your workspace. Surviving the afternoon is all about willpower. Researcher Kathleen Vohs found that a tidy desk is more likely to help you focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and not get distracted. So it’s worth spending time organizing your personal space because it will be reflected in your work.

2. You’re crashing from low (or high) blood sugar.

Do you work until you’re too hungry to continue and then go grab a quick lunch?

After lunchtime, the spike in blood sugar you get from eating is balanced out with a dip. The bad news is that you’re vulnerable to distractions at times when you have high or low blood sugar.

A 2009 study found that the effect of blood sugar is closely tied to self-control and affects our ability to carry out “effortful, controlled or executive processes.” Have a bad habit of succumbing to a heavy reddit session or endlessly scrolling through Facebook? You’re most likely to give in when your blood sugar is above or below normal levels.

The solution:

If you’re already feeling the 2 p.m. slump, there’s not much you can do to remedy it right now.

Tomorrow, however, you can know exactly what’s affecting your blood sugar and avoid it:

  • Keep your blood sugar levels even throughout the day. Graze, don’t feast. Have a healthy midmorning snack so you’re not tempted to get a big lunch. A big lunch will be exhausting to digest and cause your blood sugar levels to spike and dip.
  • Watch your carb intake. Avoid bread, pasta, noodles, rice, potatoes and pretty much anything with high levels of fat, carbs or sugar.

Related: Craving Sugar? Try These Substitutes Instead

3. You’re on a caffeine comedown.

Are you one of the 54 percent of U.S. adults who drink coffee every day?

As impulsive as it might be, I can’t start the day without it. I’m also prone to guzzle a second huge cup in the early afternoon if I know I have a day of focus work ahead of me. It leaves me feeling like I have a hangover or like I only got three hours of sleep.

It’s not all bad, though. In moderation, coffee is actually excellent for your productivity. YouTuber Taylor Martin explains, writing for Todoist: “Countless studies have shown that in small doses, caffeine can be incredibly effective, providing your body with a short boost of energy and alertness. It is also proven to, among other things, provide enhanced motor and cognitive performance, a short-term memory boost, and increased accuracy of reactions and the ability to focus attention.”

We’re regularly told about the dangers of drinking too much coffee or even about how it could be dangerous in any dose. But although there are plenty of alternatives out there, ditching your morning coffee might not feel like a viable option to you.

The only major problem with coffee and productivity is when you drink too much too quickly or when you use it as a replacement for a good night’s sleep. In these situations, you’ll feel scattered, lazy and might even doze off.

The solution:

  • One coffee in the morning, then water for the rest of the day. Drinking water throughout the day is vital to staying productive because the effects of dehydration on the brain can make a serious dent in your productivity.
  • No more than 200mg in one go. A surefire way to avoid the afternoon caffeine crash is to keep your intake steady instead of drinking coffee in big bursts, whether that means just one cup in the morning or two smaller cups spread throughout the day.

4. You have no concrete idea of your responsibilities or priorities.

I know it’s easy to feel like you have a million equally important tasks you should be doing at any given time. When your motivation is already dipping, you can fall into the trap of reading through your list of tasks over and over again, looking at so many different options it’s hard to decide.

Often, your to-do list (or lack of) can be to blame for your productivity.

The solution:

  • Get your tasks out of your head. Take a moment to write down everything you need to do on a piece of paper. Make it as messy as you like. The important thing is to move your responsibilities from a place where they’ll be forgotten (or cause anxiety that you might forget them) to a place where you can see them.
  • Use a simple method to prioritize. There are a ton of complex ways to prioritize work, but often the simplest approach is best: Pick the three most urgent/important tasks of the day and save them in a separate list. Don’t look at any other list for the whole day so you don’t get distracted. This hyper-focused method works best for people who feel like some of the more complicated task management methods are too daunting to learn.
  • Use a weekly review process. If you need a more complete way to get set up for the week ahead and simple prioritization isn’t cutting it, you can use this checklist that breaks down the weekly review process from the popular productivity book Getting Things Done. Using a set process is a solid way to motivate yourself and avoid errors because it’s so clear what you have to do next.

Related: 3 Productivity Habits of Successful People

Benjamin Brandall is the head of content marketing at Process Street, where he writes on startups, SaaS and workflows. In his spare time, he runs obscure entertainment blog Secret Cave.