Avoiding Brain Fog After Deep Work in the State of Flow

Chase Raz

Chase Raz

Avoiding Brain Fog After Deep Work in the State of Flow

There’s little doubt that you’ve heard a lot about deep work, or being “in the zone”, or working in a state of flow.  Conversations around this topic are almost always positive; extolling the virtues of deep work and the creativity and productivity breakthroughs that will occur.  However, what isn’t talked about enough are the negative side effects of deep work that will leave you feeling like a zombie more than a super-productive creative genius.

The Benefits of Deep Work

It takes mere minutes searching the web to see an enormous number of benefits of deep work or being in a state of flow.  Better performance, greater accuracy, higher completion rates… these all sound like wonderful outcomes.  It’s even said that those working in a state of flow have less self-doubt and more confidence about their work.  Who wouldn’t want that?

The Negative Effects of Deep Work

The negative side effects of deep work are much less extolled. They can include the obvious, like losing track of time, and the less obvious, like burnout from overexertion.  It’s difficult to imagine a smooth state of intensely focused, and almost meditative, work leading to burnout, but all that focus depletes a massive amount of mental energy.

You’ve likely experienced side effects of deep work yourself from time to time, even if you’re not a proponent of productivity crazes or trying to maximize your performance while working in a state of flow.  If you’ve ever worked intently on something in a systematic and involved way only to feel trouble reconnecting to the world afterward or felt brain fog consistently after performing a particular task, you’ve experienced the negative effects of deep work.

Work Addiction can be Caused by Flow

Brain fog and difficulty connecting to the world, and its inhabitants, isn’t the end of the negative effects from a state of flow.  With deep work we’re seeking the productive benefits described earlier.  But as we receive them via completed tasks and projects, we receive a dopamine reward from our brains in addition.  

Dopamine doesn’t solely manifest at the end of a task or project, but all throughout.  Dopamine is directly involved in creating and maintaining the state of flow as it reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex and therefore reduces your processing of time, memory, and awareness.  It’s these reductions in alertness which let you deeply focus on one task.

We should, therefore, relabel “flow” to be more descriptive: dopamine flow.  Once the dopamine flow ends, the boosted productivity and focus also end.  We know that the inhibiting of the prefrontal cortex can result in brain fog. During the stress response, cortisol is released which inhibits the prefrontal cortex and can lead to brain fog.  Unlike dopamine, however, cortisol can lead to lower performance and lack of focus.

After dopamine helps us reach flow and accomplish desired outcomes, it then ends leaving us feeling disconnected, foggy, and down. A cycle develops where the frequent user of flow increasingly relies on deep work sessions to feel functional or even complete.  You may even suffer through the supposed enjoyment of life during off-hours, waiting for your next chance to get back to work, forgetting that you work-to-live and not live-to-work. You chase the dopamine dragon.

Techniques for Deep Work Optimization

You’ll want to optimize deep work in order to thwart the potential negative side effects, including brain fog, depression, disconnection from other people, and even workaholism.  Avoiding flow altogether isn’t a great strategy, however.  Our brains have the capability to enter this state for an evolutionary reason, and the advantage is worth the effort required to maintain its healthy operation.

When looking to utilize deep work or flow, consider following these three simple recommendations:

1) Eat, Sleep, and Exercise

Let’s put the big elements right up front.  If you eat healthy, sleep properly, and exercise appropriately, it’s likely that your mental health and fortitude will better handle the occasional temporary dopamine flow for deep work.

When it comes to eating it is suggested that protein, fatty acids, fats, and antioxidants are best for regulating dopamine.  From experience, I know that I had immense success with regulating flow while in nutritional ketosis, but I struggle immensely with dopamine-fueled work addiction while consuming carbohydrates of various types.

2) Break Out Often

The Pomodoro Technique was pioneered by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s using a tomato-shaped (a pomodoro tomato, to be exact) kitchen timer.  The general premise is that you work in interval cycles consisting of single-task focused work for 25 minutes and then a short five-minute break. After five of these 30-minute pomodoro intervals, you take an extended break which can range anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.  

The benefit of these cycles is that you accustom yourself to regular and predictable work-related dopamine bursts, but more importantly that you accustom yourself to exit flow routinely.  Relying on an external timekeeping device while your temporal awareness is diminished ensures that you don’t get lost in your work or inhibit your pre-frontal cortex to the point of brain fog or burnout.

3) Augment with Other Dopamine Sources

As you’re utilizing a dopamine release to help increase productivity on single-item tasks, be sure to find non-work sources of dopamine to avoid dependence upon work to feel focused, present, or satisfied.

Exercise helps increase dopamine and its regulation, as mentioned previously. Other activities to consider that have a similar effect include meditation, listening to music, and playing or watching sports.  Spending time with others who you enjoy, friends and family, also helps regulate dopamine. Conversations, outings, games, and the like all help, as does having sex or other intimate contact with your partner(s).  Without a partner, other types of socially acceptable intimate contact can also be very effective, whether they be a massage at the spa, a manicure or pedicure at the nail salon, or other types of grooming such as you’d get at the barber shop or hair salon.