It's the middle of the afternoon, you've been at work for more than five hours and you can't seem to stay awake, let alone stop yawning or focus on your current task.
For many Americans, the scenario is all too familiar.
The reasons for such afternoon lulls range from the scientific to the obvious, from clinically diagnosed conditions to simply not having had enough sleep. For whatever reasons, these symptoms also seem more pronounced in the winter.
They also can be overcome.
"It's an inherent aspect of our sleep-wake cycle," says Dr. Dominic Roca, director of the Connecticut Center for Sleep Medicine in Stamford. "If you give people a series of naps during the day, most people will fall asleep faster in the afternoon period of time. Patients tend to have a lull in their attention spans in the afternoon."
As if this wasn't enough, the natural lull is often combined with sleep deprivation, unfavorable office environments, day-to-day menial tasks and, in some cases, a condition known as seasonal affective disorder. This disorder, which typically affects people in the fall or winter, can be treated by a doctor. It is characterized by fatigue, depression, overeating and oversleeping. In many instances, workers simply didn't get enough sleep.
"Someone might say, 'I was in a boring lecture and it put me to sleep.' That doesn't put you to sleep, it just unmasks it. People who fall asleep are sleepy," says Dr. Gary Zammit, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York City.
"Kids who are bored get active and busy. They don't fall asleep. If somebody is sitting in a sedentary position and his task is routine, that's a position where the sleepiness can be unmasked.
"You can push yourself to perform well if you're sleep-deprived but you can't sustain it," Zammit says. "There are times when the sleepiness will overtake you, especially in boring or mundane situations."
Bill Anthony, a psychologist who runs a research center at Boston University, and his wife, Camille, have conducted research that showed that the majority of Americans need to nap. "Many of us can't make it through the afternoon without our work being affected because we're tired," he says. He classifies naps into the categories of preventive, preparatory and pleasurable.
Roca notes that some cultures take advantage of the dip in alertness with things such as a siesta, where a midafternoon break is taken and workers return to work and remain productive for another four hours. While the notion is far from popular among employers in the United States, the idea of napping during work hours is slowly catching on.
"The old concept of coffee breaks in the workplace was introduced by managers who wanted to get the most out of their employees," says Zammit. "A 20-minute coffee break is acceptable but a nap isn't. Some people are coming around and allowing for naps. It's a great alternative."
Employers' attitudes are changing but there is still resistance, says Anthony. "A lot of people don't see napping and productivity going hand in hand like they see coffee [and energy] going hand in hand. Your performance and mood improve after a nap. My feeling is that a nap is very different from just relaxing. A nap causes a difference in brain activity."
In the event that an afternoon doze would result in admonishment if not dismissal from your employer, there are ways to combat the post-lunch lull in sharpness.
Sunlight and fresh air are often helpful. Same goes for caffeine, although green tea is more recommended than coffee.
Some people are simply starting their day off the wrong way. A quick breakfast of bagels, cereal or toast isn't the best way to start your day, according to nutritionist Janet Woo of Stamford. Such foods contain simple carbohydrates that convert to sugar quickly, giving a quick boost but ultimately setting you up for a crash. This process is often repeated midmorning and again at lunch.
Instead she suggests proteins for breakfast. For instance, yogurt or rice protein powder can be added to a waffle or pancake and sesame tahini can be added to oatmeal. She also advises eating fruit rather than drinking fruit juice. All of these tips slow down the absorption rate of the sugar, she says.
For lunch, she finds bringing last evening's leftovers or having a sandwich on whole grain bread a better alternative to typical deli-style or cafeteria meals.
"What routines people have gotten into--it's easy to grab a prepared meal to get yourself going but it has no nutritional value and it's going to set you up for a crash later in the day. It takes time, thought and effort to eat and be healthy nowadays."
Unfortunately, the typical office space isn't the most conducive environment for staying alert. In the winter, most people are working in dry air under fluorescent lighting with the heat blasting. "All of those things conspire and there are all kinds of germs floating around airtight offices," says Judith Jackson, owner of a health spa in Westport, Conn.
She suggests a combination of eucalyptus and lavender oils. Eucalyptus helps clarify breathing and lavender has a refreshing effect. "When you smell it," she says, "it's quite a perk-up."
Roca also says that any breaks in routine can be helpful. He suggests workers reorganize their workday to make sure stimulating tasks occur in the afternoon.
But still, nothing beats a good eight hours or whatever your body requires of snooze time. "A main priority should be that people try to get a good night's sleep," he says. "Sleep deprivation is a very serious problem and people tend to just pooh-pooh it because they have so much else to do."