Mental Fatigue – What you need to know and how you can manage it better

by Abigail Jane
Life Coach, Abi Unwin, writes a blog post on how to avoid burnout

Mental Fatigue: Executive Brain VS Autopilot brain

A tiring day involves dealing with multiple challenges and these compound meaning that the executive brain can become fatigued.  In this state, our executive brain tries to conserve energy and it delegates decisions to the other parts of our brain such as the ‘autopilot brain’.  This part of our brain doesn’t have the same power to make long term decisions and is more likely to make short term ones.  In this mode we may build conflicting habits.  (Like reaching for our phone, drinking more caffeine or eating sugary foods we know aren’t good for us for example.)

Our executive brain (prefrontal cortex) is the area that controls self discipline, motivation, willpower and keeps your long term goals in focus.  It is also responsible for managing strong and negative emotions, and our attention, working memory and ability to plan ahead all depend on this part of the brain. When we experience mental fatigue, these challenges are not effectively managed or controlled.

Sleep is a powerful way of recharging, yet, when mental fatigue sets in, we may be procrastinating going to sleep despite feeling tired.  The best way to prevent this is knowing why and remaining mindful.  We do not have UNLIMITED mental energy!  Sleep and restorative breaks are important to recharge our executive brain.  

At work, if you are using your executive brain pretty much all day, and then it’s required again in the evening to deal with the challenges of homelife it can be easy to see how the executive brain can become fatigued and ‘switch off.’

What can help us to activate executive brain function and recharge?

‘Brain Idle’ time

My number one tip for boosting creativity and regaining the space to think clearly is simple. I call it brain idle time. The precious moments when we are driving the car, having a shower, washing up with no interruptions, taking a walk or even sitting on the loo! I call these moments precious because, in our busy days, these moments can be rare. They are also often moments we feel guilty to savour. There seems to be a feeling of needing to be productive all the time. That we can’t waste time doing nothing. So we fill each moment with intaking information in some way. Listening to a podcast while we go for a walk. Taking a call on our walk to work. Logging onto emails whilst on the bus, or scrolling the internet at any opportunity.

The time we are in what I describe as ‘brain idle mode’ seems to be getting less frequent and in some cases, non existent.

But, I’m sure you know the feeling of when you’re enjoying a shower and a great idea pops into your mind. Or you’re lying in bed with the lights switched off ready to go to sleep when you suddenly remember the name of the book you were desperately trying to recall earlier.  The more we can go into this resting mode, the more we can benefit.

Blonde woman using iphone sitting on a chair

How can I make a change?

As a coach, I am always encouraging change in small steps. This is so you don’t get overwhelmed and it increases the chances of repetition. There is little point in making one big change and then never doing it again. So small steps are key to success and building new habits.

  1. Turn off your devices! Allow yourself the moments on the train, bus (or even the loo!) to just zone out without reading or listening to anything.
  2. Give yourself permission to be brain idle. Start off with just one or two minutes, and once you begin to feel the positive effects. It will be easier to allow longer times because you’ll reap the rewards.
  3. Leave your phone at home. Take off your Smart watch….. I know it’s not always possible, but are there some walks you can do without taking the devices with you?
  4. Do something physical which can be done on autopilot. When we are physically active doing a simple task like washing up, hoovering or driving (if you are experienced,) it’s possible to find moments of brain idle time easier to handle. When we get bored, we are more likely to want to engage our brains but when we physically busy, we can allow our thoughts to wander or switch off into a different way of operating.
  5. Coaching can be really helpful in managing mental fatigue and exploring the changes needed – either in your working life or personal life (or both!) Read more about coaching with me here: https://abigailjanecoaching.com/life-coach-bristol-bath-uk/

Further Reading

This is an interesting article here which discusses autopilot brain and how it contrasts with our reflective brain function. 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/anger-in-the-age-of-entitlement/202203/well-being-in-the-autopilot-brain

Abigail-jane-coaching-life-coach-bristol

Hi I’m Abi

professional life coach and career coach in Bristol. I work remotely anywhere in the UK and in person for locally based clients.

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