How to create a productive afternoon routine

/ 7 min read
Kat Boogaard

When it comes to setting yourself up for a productive day, the morning hours seem to get all of the attention and finessing. Make your bed. Drink water. Exercise. Indulge in a little self-care. There's a lot of chatter about morning habits and how to get your day started on the right foot.

But even if you do all of those things—all of the journaling, meditating, and list-making you can stomach—you might still hit an afternoon slump.

You feel groggy and stiff. Your tasks take you five times longer than they should. You keep snacking or clicking random YouTube videos without making any real progress on the rest of your to-do list.

Been there? We all have. And while information about morning routines is a dime a dozen, it's harder to find tips for creating an afternoon routine that gives you a much-needed energy boost. Until now. We're spilling what you need to know to take your afternoon hours from a slog to a success.

Is your afternoon slump normal?

First things first, why do you feel so depleted in the early afternoon? You can blame your body.

As humans, we're regulated by circadian rhythms, or cycles that essentially make up our internal clock. They're what tell you to wake up in the morning and get sleepy at night.

Unfortunately, these natural cycles can also make you feel a little drained and unfocused in the late afternoon—when your brain and body have already been firing on all cylinders for a few hours and feel like they're due for a well-deserved afternoon nap.

How to craft an afternoon routine (and get an energy boost)

Of course, while it's tempting to point the finger entirely at biology, that's not the only factor at play when it comes to the midday drag. Everything from your diet to your location can have an impact on how much energy you can muster post-lunch.

With that in mind, here are a few tips you can implement to prioritize your physical health and mental health— and reinvigorate yourself for the remainder of your workday.

1. Understand your energy levels

Your body is driven by circadian rhythms, but you also have to consider your ultradian rhythms. We'll spare you the major anatomy lesson, but your ultradian rhythms are shorter cycles that repeat many times within 24 hours and are responsible for periodic dips in our energy levels.

While circadian rhythms are fairly standard (you wake up in the morning and feel sleepy at night), your ultradian rhythms could be more individualized.

For that reason, it's helpful to pay attention to your own energy levels at certain times of day. When do you feel your most focused and energized? When do you feel like you're trudging through wet cement? Keep a simple journal or log for a few days or weeks to see if you can spot any patterns.

Knowing your peak times can help you plan tasks throughout your workday accordingly. For example, if your afternoons are always a challenge, you might want to save them for more mindless or routine tasks as opposed to having to try to buckle down and make it through your more complex or creative work.

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2. Fuel your body

Diet advice probably isn't quite what you signed up for when you decided to research afternoon routines. But the reality is that what you put into your body has a significant effect on how you feel. For that reason, it's best to:

  • Curb your caffeine intake: When you feel sluggish, reaching for another cup of coffee seems like a no-brainer. However, once the caffeine leaves your system, you might actually feel more tired. Plus, caffeine has a decent half-life, which means an afternoon coffee could impact your ability to get a good night's sleep.
  • Drink some water: What should you have if a cup of joe is out of the question? Water. An estimated 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated, and fatigue is one of the classic symptoms. So rather than making another stop at the coffee pot, chug a big glass of good ol' H20. You can follow that up with an afternoon tea if you're really craving a hot beverage.
  • Eat a solid lunch: Gobbling down a deep-dish pizza or an entire pot pie for lunch is bound to slow you down. Processed foods, added and refined sugars, and fried foods will also make you feel sluggish. Rather than opting for a big feast, try a yogurt parfait, a salad, or some quinoa with lean protein. We aren't here to give you a firm menu—just pay attention to what foods make you feel good and what ones make you want to nap on your desk.

Of course, these healthy habits always sound good in practice but they're harder to implement in reality. Keep things manageable by starting with just one thing. Even small steps can make a big difference.

3. Change your location

Sometimes there's nothing like a change of scenery to re-energize you. Rather than heading back to your usual workspace, try moving to a new spot in the office. Or working in a coffee shop for a few hours. Or sitting on your patio for your afternoon call.

Switching up your environment can nudge you toward more focus and productivity because your brain loves novelty. When presented with something new, your brain releases dopamine which not only makes you feel good but also gives your motivation levels a good kick in the pants.

4. Get some movement and fresh air

If you're really feeling lethargic, try to incorporate some light exercise and some outside time into your afternoon—even if it's only for 10 minutes or so. Getting outdoors and moving your body offers a slew of benefits:

  • Fresh air inspires you to take deeper breaths which increases your oxygen and boosts your energy
  • Exercise also delivers more oxygen to your tissues which gives you more energy
  • Natural light improves cognition and focus

Something as simple as getting outside for an hour for a quick walk or stretch break gives you the chance to reap the rewards of all of the above: fresh air, exercise, and natural light.

5. Set smaller goals

Does it feel like you'll need every last ounce of willpower to simply make it to the end of the workday? That's daunting—and that's without even trying to tackle the remainder of your to-do list.

You can make the rest of your afternoon feel more doable by setting some smaller goals. Maybe you want to clean out half your inbox by 3pm. Or perhaps you'll aim to get the outline of a presentation done rather than trying to conquer the whole thing. After all, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

You can do something similar by using a time management method like the 1-3-5 rule. This system instills a sense of urgency while also minimizing the stress and intimidation of an entire afternoon stretching out before you.

6. Establish a wind down ritual

When you've finally almost made it to the finish line of your afternoon, here's the best way to cap off your routine: a wind down ritual. It's a short and simple routine that you'll use to end your workday.

You can clear the mugs off of your desk, make a list of your top priorities for the next day, water your desk plant, or all of the above (or something else, of course).

This little ritual will not only become a consistent custom that signals to your brain that it's the perfect time to switch out of “work mode,” but will also help you set yourself up for success the next day.

Take your afternoons from drowsy to determined

If your afternoons are a constant struggle, it can be helpful to think about habits and routines that make you feel more focused and energized.

But keep in mind that there's no hack around humanity. You're a person—not a productivity machine. That means no system or routine will spare you from the occasional roadblock, drowsy period, or unproductive day. Those are part of the human condition.

So by all means, craft an afternoon routine that makes you feel good (at least, most of the time). And if that's not working? Tomorrow is a new day—and remember there's nothin' wrong with a classic power nap.

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About the author
Kat Boogaard
Paperform Contributor
Kat is a freelance writer focused on our working world. When she’s not at her computer, you’ll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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