Mental Exhaustion: How To Get Rid Of Mental Fatigue For Life

As you’re reading this, you’re probably already mentally tired.

You have work, responsibilities, a long to-do list, relationships to take care of, and so on. You want to perform at your best, but what can you do? The modern world is designed to make you mentally exhausted and fatigued.

It’s hard to focus and perform at your peak when gazillions of thoughts are going in your head. When your mental energy is already sucked in by several small demands, you have no capacity to process another highly demanding task.

While it may seem that you’re stuck and there is no solution to it, I have good news for you. Just like you can train your muscles to become stronger, you can train your mind to increase its capacity to stay focused and perform better.

If you train your mind, you’ll have a distinct advantage in the age of distraction where the human attention span is shortening every decade (research).

Every day, you’re training your brain to get focused or you’re training it to get distracted. The former gives you abundant mental energy to tackle highly demanding tasks. The latter makes you more mentally fatigued and exhausted.

Being able to use your prefrontal cortex effectively is the ticket to a successful career or business. Because it boosts your creativity and problem-solving skills. If you can do that, you will thrive. You will get more done (in less time), you’ll learn faster, perform better and make more money.

Over time, your mental capacity will increase and you won’t need to use a lot of your willpower. What you find challenging now will become effortless. All because you’ll know how to manage your mental energy.

So if you’re ready to say goodbye to the dreaded mental fatigue in your everyday life while improving your performance, let’s get started.

The Science Behind Mental Exhaustion

We all have experienced our brain getting more and more tired leading to burnout. So does that mean your mind gets tired just like your muscles do when you work out?

While your brain is not a muscle, it is an organ that requires energy. Your brain uses glucose as its primary source of energy which turns into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When you use up a lot of the brain’s energy, the glucose levels drop, and it leads to the blocking of dopamine (a neurochemical needed for motivation and feeling good). According to a study published in Sports Medicine journal, this makes you less likely to stay on task.

Now you may be thinking that the solution is as simple as gulping down glucose in your body, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s true that eating food or drinking caffeine increases dopamine, but they won’t recharge your brain like your phone gets recharged when you plug it in.

According to Gary Figiel, M.D., when you’re mentally tired, the blood flow to your brain and its electrical activity decreases. He says there are four steps to your brain getting energy:

  1. Glucose must be available in the blood
  2. Glucose must be efficiently transported inside the cells
  3. Glucose must enter the mitochondria
  4. The mitochondria must produce ATP

When any of these steps don’t work properly, you experience mental exhaustion. On top of that, if you experience too many stressors (which is quite common these days), the raised cortisol level can make it worse, which may lead to burnout.

So what can you do about mental fatigue and burnout? How do you make your brain perform at its best? You can either prevent that from happening or you can manage it as you go. Here are the best ways to do it:

How To Overcome Mental Fatigue

Table Of Contents
1. Delegate To Your Basal Ganglia
2. Use Your “Peak Hours”
3. Manage Your Stress And Mental Load
4. Decrease Your Inputs
5. Put First Things First
6. Manage Your Thoughts And Emotions
7. Plan And Execute Separately
8. Keep A Healthy Lifestyle And Feel Motivated
9. Give Yourself Short Deadlines
10. Win The War Against Distractions

1. Delegate To Your Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia region of the brain stores the routines, habits and repetitive behavior in your life. It saves the prefrontal cortex from going through the effort of making small decisions as it makes us do things on autopilot. This way, your brain saves a lot of energy for doing cerebral or novel tasks.

So keep a schedule and follow routines, rituals, habits, systems, processes, and checklists (like a daily success checklist below) to preserve your brain’s energy and to make it perform better.

2. Use Your “Peak Hours”

Find your peak hours when your brain performs at its best and take advantage of that mental state. For most people, they’re in the early morning, late morning or late evening. It’s also important to not push yourself during your non-peak hours because it will only deplete more energy while decreasing your performance.

3. Manage Your Stress And Mental Load

According to Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., the author of the book The Stress Proof Brain, “we are not wired to use the ‘higher order executive function’ all the time,” she says. These tasks could be the obvious hard task your brain needs to perform or it could also be a combination of thoughts that your mind needs to process.

And when you combine increased mental load with a lot of stressors, you have the perfect recipe for burnout. The reason for this is that your prefrontal cortex (PFC) region of the brain, which processes high-level cognitive functions, can’t perform well under stress.

So the best thing you can do to preserve your mental energy is managing your stress levels. While there are so many relaxation techniques, a regular meditation practice is one of the best ways to get better at dealing with stress.

4. Decrease Your Inputs

Another thing your prefrontal cortex can’t do is multitask. It can only switch from one task to another very fast, but the more you do it, the more energy your brain has to spend.

Now it’s easy for me to say “stop multitasking, dammit!”, but you and I both know that today, we do it without even realizing it. And even when we don’t, we’re always on our tiptoes to giving up to distractions as our attention span is shortening.

So a better way to stop feeling overwhelmed is to decrease the number of inputs coming at you at once so your prefrontal cortex can do its job well. We’ll discuss more about removing distractions in the last point.

5. Put First Things First

Do the most mentally demanding task first while your brain is still fresh. If you save it for later, your brain would already be tired from all the inputs and demands it had to process before.

6. Manage Your Thoughts And Emotions

Changing your thoughts and managing your emotions are two meta-skills you can acquire to reduce mental exhaustion. Rumination can get the best of you as it keeps switching your focus towards repetitive thoughts that are often negative.

Being too hard on yourself and being a perfectionist are two such examples when you make it harder for yourself to think clearly.

Remember that there will be good days and bad days of your brain’s performance. When it’s a good day, enjoy the ride and use it for good. When it’s a bad day, don’t be too hard on yourself and let your mind rest.

7. Plan And Execute Separately

Don’t plan and execute them at the same time. Remember that your brain hates it when you have to deal with too many tasks at the same time. And when you do them separately, you do a better job at both tasks. So make it easier for your brain by keeping “planning” and “doing” separate.

You can also batch similar tasks together or create theme-based days to avoid switching from one type of task to another frequently. This will save you a lot of your brainpower.

8. Keep A Healthy Lifestyle And Feel Motivated

I know you know that living a healthy lifestyle is good for you. But in case you needed another reason to focus on your health, you’ve got it. Because exercise, healthy eating, hydrating, deep breathing, and good quality sleep can dramatically improve your brain’s function and reduce mental fatigue. They increase dopamine production to make you feel good and motivated.

Even 10 minutes of “stair walking” can be more energizing than caffeine as found in this study. So take “movement breaks” throughout the day to prevent the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting on your physical and mental energy.

And the ultimate way to eliminate mental fatigue and prevent burnout is to get a good night’s sleep, as shown in this and this study. National Sleep Foundation recommends 7–9 hours of sleep for most adults. But it’s also important to focus on the quality of your sleep. When you don’t get good sleep, you can also take a short nap to boost your performance during the day.

Related: The Life Desiger’s Toolkit – Recommended Health Tools

9. Give Yourself Short Deadlines

Every time you sit down for a daunting task (the one that requires a lot of mental effort), give yourself a deadline when you’ll take a break or when you’ll stop working on it. That way, your mind will stay alert and active as it will treat the problem as urgent.

10. Win The War Against Distractions

Not getting distracted is hands down the biggest piece of the puzzle for preserving your mental energy. Every time you get distracted, you spend extra energy to deal with the new stimulus and then to get back to the task at hand.

Distractions break the state of flow which is crucial for focused deep work. As a result, you perform poorly and feel mentally tired. So what’s the solution? You must win the battle before it even begins. That means you must prevent getting distracted. Here’s how:

A) Keep A Distraction List

Every time you have an urge to get distracted from the task at hand, write it down to deal with it later so your brain can stop processing it. Then, when it’s the right time, reward yourself by dealing with the items on the distraction list one by one.

B) Take Breaks On Purpose

You can’t ask your body to sprint at max effort for an infinite amount of time. Your body would need a break to recover for the next sprint. In the same way, you can’t ask your brain to focus or perform demanding tasks all the time. It needs short mindful breaks that are better left empty or filled with something that relaxes your mind (like watching cute puppies). A study has proven that even less than a minute long breaks help people stay focused while performing demanding tasks if they watched dog videos during the breaks. 

Another kind of break is a fun break where everything is allowed. The point is to switch off the “work mode” and get in “play mode”. It could mean spending time with friends and family, watching TV, browsing the internet, reading a book, etc. These are often long and are taken away from work so you can recover your prefrontal cortex.

C) Identify The Triggers

Identify where the distraction is coming from. As Nir Eyal explains in his book Indistractable, the triggers can be internal or external.

Ask yourself – are the distractions coming from the people around you? From your environment (digital or physical)? From your mind? Or from the mismanagement of your tasks and time?

To prevent the distractions coming from people, you can create healthy boundaries and let them know when you’re reachable and when you’re not. Avoid unnecessary meetings and learn to say no to incoming demands that you can’t commit to, so you can focus on what you are committed to (use your mental energy wisely).

Bonus tip: Wear noise-blocking headphones (even if you’re not listening to anything or better yet, listen to [email protected]). That way, people are not only less likely to bother you, but it will help you perform better as there will be no annoying speech nearby (as reported in this study).

To prevent the distractions coming from your environment, you can kill notifications, switch the “do not disturb” mode on while working, hide your phone from your eyesight, craft your surroundings to support the task at hand, etc. Also, declutter and organize both — your digital and physical life regularly to prevent the chaos from occurring in the first place.

Bonus tip: Use an app like FocusMe to block distracting websites while working.

To prevent the distractions coming from your mind, identify the source and deal with them at a pre-defined time. Open loops and mismanaged thoughts or emotions create such distractions so it’s better to carve out time for them regularly so you can give your best in the present moment. And if you’re getting distracted by random thoughts, then it’s probably because you’re associating the current task with pain, so you want to escape the situation. In that case, change your perception or make your tasks more fun.

Bonus tip: Keep a journal and practice mindfulness meditation regularly to get in touch with the source of your thoughts and emotions.

To prevent the distractions coming from mismanagement, create a productivity system that works for you. It doesn’t matter what app or tools you use for that, find what works for you and keep maintaining and improving that system.

Bonus tip: Try these planners to follow a framework that already works for others. Just pick one and get started.

Sometimes, Lose The Battle To Win The War

We’ve come a long way. Here are the last three reminders I want to leave you with:

Give in to the distractions: Yes, you read that right. Sometimes, you’ll lose a battle and get distracted. That’s okay. As long as you stay aware and prepare yourself for next time, you don’t need to beat yourself over the lost battle. Focus on winning the war by learning from your failures and making small improvements.

Take it slow: Implement one change at a time. Gradual improvement is better than trying to push your brain too much. Just like your muscles adapt to strength training to become stronger, your brain will adapt to higher demands to help you perform better and recover faster.

Out of form? Recover: Sometimes, you’ll feel that you’ve derailed. You’ll feel worse and your performance will go down. That’s a sign you need to recover hard. Go have some fun or take some time off. Take a step back so you can move two steps forward.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re a mental athlete. Your job is to unlock your mind’s potential so you can make the best use of it. As a result, you’ll perform better, feel better and show up better for your loved ones.

Prakhar Verma

Prakhar is the creator of Design Epic Life. His mission is to help ambitious people design their epic lives so more people can truly live before they die. Sign up to the DesignEpicLife newsletter to stay up to date!
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