When We Need a Break From Thinking

Aug 18, 2022 | Leadership, Stress

Tired of thinking

Do you ever feel like you’re sick of trying to solve a problem or make a decision?

Not only might you be tired of thinking about it, you might also feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or have brain fog.

That’s not a weakness in you – that’s cognitive fatigue.

And when it hits, our cognitive control and decision-making capacities are impaired.

Energy needs of the brain

We know the body needs energy to function properly, but so does the brain.

In fact, even when the cognitive mind is at rest, the brain is said to use about 20 percent of our body’s energy.

As I once heard Lisa Feldman Barrett describe it, the brain’s body budget is like a food budget at the grocery store. Some items will take priority, and others may need to drop off the list in order to keep within the budget.

Because the level of energy in the body is not unlimited, the brain needs to prioritize. And the energy we need to keep us alive and safe is going to take priority over cognitive energy for making decisions, processing information, and focusing attention.

Effects of cognitive fatigue on decision-making

When we are tired or overwhelmed, the brain becomes what some researchers call a “cognitive miser” where in order to conserve energy, we simplify a complex decision or task or just put it off.

For instance, in a study of parole board decisions, researchers found that when hearings officers made decisions later in the day or before a food break when the body’s energy was lower, the likelihood of granting parole dropped from 65% to nearly zero (other case factors being equal). In denying parole, they effectively deferred the possibility of parole to a later hearing date.

And in a more recent study that looked at the effects of cognitive fatigue through MRIs, researchers found that hard cognitive work leads to an accumulation of a neurotransmitter (glutamate) in the lateral prefrontal cortex. The effect of this is to reduce control over decision-making and make us more likely to choose low-effort actions with short-term rewards.

When to take a break from thinking (4 tips)

Often we blame ourselves when we can’t make a decision or think our way out of a problem, or we make a bad decision at the end of a long day.

My clients do it all the time. I have done it. But that’s not helpful.

Instead, when you notice fatigue, overwhelm, foggy thinking, or a desire to skip over information or choose a shortcut:

PAUSE. Recognize the brain’s energy needs and:

  1. Do complex thinking and decision-making early in the day, and/or after a meal;
  2. Take a break when you notice you feel tired, are resisting further information or thinking;
  3. Put off important or complex decisions for when you have more energy;
  4. Above all else, be compassionate with yourself.

It doesn’t actually help to beat yourself up for being tired or overwhelmed! Your brain is doing the best it can, and so are you.

Photo by Alaeddin Hallak on Unsplash



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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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