The Best Way to Stay Awake: Brain Hack to Stay Alert and Focused to Increase Effective Productivity

Disclaimer: To get this out of the way, yes things like exercise, diet, keeping a tidy workspace and getting enough sleep at night are integral for a productive work sesh. So we’ll go ahead and assume you’ve got that all down. But hey even if you don’t, this will help.

Scroll down to OK COOL if you want to know the hack now, keep reading if you’re a nerd like us.

Let’s approach our problem by relating it to something like this: The feeling of falling asleep at the wheel on a long, monotonous drive. It might even feel similar to staring at the computer screen and trying to stay focused. This feeling is caused by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, (the SCN). The SCN is the part of your brain responsible for your sleep-wake cycle, and tends to take over whenever you’re not being stimulated enough to avoid boredom.1

You’ll know when the SCN has taken over when you start to yawn or become slow, as it starts to close down daytime functions like attention and memory to prepare you for sleep. Super useful at night, not so much when you’ve got a meeting in an hour. Enter the norepinephrine and the locus coeruleus! Norepinephrine is one of a handful of neurotransmitters that helps us stay attentive. The locus coeruleus, (we’ll call this one LC) is the brain’s biological mechanism responsible for transporting that norepinephrine through the brain.2

G Aston Jones found that any time we are exposed to something that has the potential for reward or danger ‒ so anything exciting or frightening ‒ the LC spreads norepinephrine through the brain almost immediately, within a few hundred thousandths of a second.3 This makes the LC an effective tool for alerting us and holding our attention. We may not be living under the conditions where seeing a tiger set off our LC to spread norepinephrine but the LC is responsible for startling you when the let’s say you come to the edge of a steep cliff and similarly keeping you up at night with your grandiose ideas.


Alright dear reader, this is as easy as saying to yourself “focus!” only a lot more effective because you’re chemically getting your brain to release norepinephrine into your bloodstream to alert you rather than guilt over your lack of progress.

What startles you? Cliff edges are pretty scary, let’s use that. I need you to imagine standing at a cliff edge right now. You don’t need to close your eyes just really try to imagine the feeling you get when suddenly a very high, scary cliff is right in front of you. It’s ALARMING. Now really feel that feeling! This is your body reacting to the sudden stimulus, (even that which is imagined) and spreading the excitatory norepinephrine through your brain. If you’re able to take control of this feeling and “trigger” yourself, you’ll be able to use it whenever you’re feeling slow to alert yourself, be more present, and increase your mental capacity enough to push through that boredom or mental fatigue.

You can call up this alertness with a trigger word. Pick a word and attach this alarming feeling to that word so that every time you say it you feel like that cliff edge is right on in front of you. As for which trigger word to choose I might suggest using the word focus but if you already say that to yourself when you’re trying to and it doesn’t work, I suggest picking something else like alarm or alert. This mental hack comes from a study published in Neuropsychologia in which it was found that people suffering loss of executive function from stroke could focus on complex tasks using auditory alerts.4 These executive functions include working memory, mental flexibility and self control.

Hope this helps you better understand mental fatigue and how to get around it.

Have a productive day!



  1. Saper, C. B., Scammell, T. E., & Lu, J. (2005). Hypothalamic regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms. Nature, 437(7063), 1257–1263.
  2. Sara, S. J. (2009). The locus coeruleus and noradrenergic modulation of cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(3), 211–223.
  3. Aston-Jones, G., Chen, S., Zhu, Y., & Oshinsky, M. L. (2001). A neural circuit for circadian regulation of arousal. Nature Neuroscience, 4(7), 732–738.
  4. Manly, T., Hawkins, K., Evans, J., Woldt, K., & Robertson, I. H. (2002). Rehabilitation of executive function: facilitation of effective goal management on complex tasks using periodic auditory alerts. Neuropsychologia, 40(3), 271–281.

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