Brownouts occur when work stress dims your brain power to engage and perform.

Brownouts occur when work stress dims your brain power to engage and perform. getty

“It was my boyfriend’s birthday, and I’d spent most of the day with him,” Ally told me. “We were supposed to have his birthday dinner together. He was even going to cook. But just before dinnertime, I was worried that I hadn’t done one work-related thing all day. I told him I needed to get some fresh air, run home and change clothes. But once in my car, I found myself driving toward the office. I told myself I would merely type a few paragraphs and go over tomorrow’s appointments. I don’t remember the three hours that passed. It was 9:00 p.m. when I rushed to my car and floored it back toward his apartment. I was stopped by a police officer for speeding. I tried to explain my situation to him, but to no avail. When I finally made it back, my boyfriend had already eaten his birthday dinner alone. I felt so terrible. Even worse, I didn’t know where the time went or why I did it.”

When Your Lights Go Out

Ally suffered from a brownout, a drop in mental voltage when work stress steals your brain power, dimming you in the present moment. Your brain is worn out, depleted of the energy it needs for present-moment attention. During a brownout you have memory lapses of long conversations or trips to and from a destination because you’re preoccupied with work. Your brain loses power to remain in the here and now. Driving while working—diligently focused on the next day’s work worries—can cause you to drive through stop signs or past designated points on your route.

“My wife tells me she thinks I have Alzheimer’s disease,” Ben told me. “But it’s just that my mind is on work, and nothing else is important at that moment. I might ask her a question and before she answers my mind jumps to another work thought. When I ask her again, she says ‘Do you realize you’ve asked me that three times?’ A lot of times I don’t remember asking the question, much less hearing the answer.”

A manager of a hospital home care program said her staff often tells her she has a hearing problem when she’s actually in a brownout. “They might share a concern while I’m working on something, and I don’t hear them,” she said. “Some work issue always has my attention.” She also described having brownouts when driving. “Many times I’m on autopilot when I get in my car, trying to solve a work problem and end up pulling into the parking lot of my office building, even though I meant to go to the mall. The scary part is I don’t even remember driving to the office because I was working in my head.”

Some people overindulge in mental problem solving or planning future work events while eating, driving, during conversations and even during sexual intimacy. Brownouts disconnect us from the present moment and from coworkers and family, impairing relationships, causing forgetfulness and time-costly mistakes, and leading to bad decisions that would be different from the ones we would make after our brain has a rest period. The longer we work and the more choices we make in those additional work hours, the more difficult it is for our brain circuits to make even ordinary decisions, such as what to wear, where to eat, how much to spend or how to prioritize work projects. So we start to take short cuts, permitting our newly licensed teenager to drive the car on an icy night or opting out of responsibilities and decision making at home. We’re short with coworkers and loved ones. We eat junk food instead of healthy meals—gobble, gulp and go and don’t even taste it. We tell another family member to pick what restaurant to go to because our prefrontal cortex is offline. The paradox of brownouts is that an autopilot mind is working without our awareness or consent, draining our brain power and ultimately short-circuiting our career.

How To Reset And Switch On Your Brain Power

When work stress dims your brain power, there are ways you can reset your nervous system. Here are five tips to harness brain power, switch it back on and channel it into career success.

  1. Eliminate distractions. When you need to focus on a work project, it’s important to eliminate distractions around you so you can fully concentrate on the task at hand and complete it. That way work thoughts won’t continue to circle in your head later on, and you can devote your full present-moment attention to the next item or person on your agenda.
  2. Unplug. Your brain needs restorative rest just like your body does when you’re tired. Ask yourself how much time you devote to unplugging to keep your mind and body in harmony. Get ample sleep, practice mindful eating, take power naps or spend time relaxing in nature.
  3. Come up for air. According to new research, taking short Microbreaks—time cushions of five minutes or less throughout the workday—keep the your brain voltage up and help you learn and retain new skills. You can keep the lights on by stretching, chatting with a colleague, looking out a window or walking around the office to clear your head.
  4. Engage in energetic activities. Brisk exercise, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga and Tai Chi reset your nervous system and renew your energy level.
  5. Practice mindful working. The mind has a tendency to wander into the past or future on its on. You can boost your engagement and productivity by holding your attention in the present moment and, instead of multi-tasking, focusing on one work task at a time.

Chronic brownouts create roadblocks to relaxation, job engagement and productivity. They disconnect us from ourselves and our surroundings and keep our stress needle elevated. Notice the difference in your energy level, concentration and productivity when you take a five-minute Microbreak versus when you require yourself to plow through the work pile. As you continue to reset your brain power, roadblocks subside, and your engagement and career performance will soar.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: