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How To Stop Thinking About Work (Even When The Workday Is Over)

how to stop thinking about work

You’re finished with work for the day. You shut down your computer, grab the used coffee cups from your desk, and head home. You’re done.

But are you...really?

If you’re like me, you’re anything but checked out. You’ll mentally run through your pending tasks while you walk your dog. You’ll check your emails when you’re in line at your favorite takeout restaurant. You’ll brainstorm while you shampoo your hair in the shower.

Sure, your body might have left the office right on schedule. But your brain? It’s the hardest working employee there is—it’s always clocked in.

Work On The Brain: Why It’s A Problem

First of all, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone. In today’s society where the “hustle” is so glorified and “busy” is a badge of honor, most of us are obsessed with work. One CareerBuilder survey shows that 45% of us work outside of normal office hours, and another 49% of us answer emails when we leave work.

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Those statistics are alarming enough. But what’s even scarier is that it’s not even capturing the psychological aspect—it doesn’t touch on the people who might not be actively working, but whose thoughts are still consumed by their career obligations.

That’s probably why the tales of persistent burnout are so prevalent. A 2018 Gallup study of almost 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of respondents felt burned out at work very often or always. Another 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

This level of exhaustion can have some dangerous consequences. From stagnant productivity levels to increased depression, these workaholic tendencies are bad for all of us. If we really want to dig into the scare tactics, another study showed that people who are overworked actually die at a younger age 😱 (as a result of coronary heart disease and stroke).

But surely, just thinking about work outside of normal office hours isn’t the same thing, right? It has to be relatively harmless compared to actually toiling away on your computer into the wee hours of the morning...doesn’t it?

Well, not quite. As it turns out, you need more than to physically remove yourself from your work—you need to mentally unplug as well.

One study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined the impact of psychological detachment from work during time off. As you’ll likely guess, the study concluded that “psychological detachment from work during off-job time is an important factor that helps to protect employee well-being and work engagement.”

Plus, remaining mentally tethered to your day job isn’t helping your cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress) either.

In addition, a 2016 study found that cortisol of people who were “on call” rose faster in the mornings than those of people who weren’t required to be available. Get this—those cortisol levels spiked even if the “on call” employees didn’t end up working that day, proving that even dedicating only mental energy to your work majorly boosts your stress levels.

4 Tactics To Mentally Shift Out Of 'Work Mode'

You get it—that brain of yours really does deserve a break to recharge. But figuring out how to actually give it one is challenging.

Work is a huge part of your life, and unfortunately there isn’t a switch you can flip in your brain to signal that it’s time to decompress (although, if you find one, do us a favor and let us know).

So how can you manage to mentally disconnect from your job responsibilities and ever-growing to-do list? Here are four different tactics to try starting, well, today.

1. Channel Your Energy Into Something Else

Anyone who has ever tried to meditate knows firsthand how hard it is to not think about anything. That means telling yourself, “Alright, don’t think about work anymore…” isn’t going to be all that effective. Instead, it’s better to give yourself something that you can think about.

Take a challenging yoga class. Sketch or paint. Play a board game with your kids. Personally, I sit down to play some music at the piano or crochet a row or two of that scarf I’ve been working on for a while (okay, over a year).

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Choose whatever you like. The point is to channel your attention into some sort of task that’s demanding of your mental energy, but isn’t at all related to your work.

This is effective for a couple of reasons. First is that it gets you into the habit of switching your brain away from your career demands. “Your habit system only learns a new habit when you perform an action, not when you don’t,” explains Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology, in a piece for Harvard Business Review, “So you cannot create a habit to avoid an action.”

Secondly, our brains aren’t that great at multitasking. And, while research has shown that the human brain actually can keep two goals or tasks in mind at one time, if one inspires too many unrelated thoughts, your frontal lobe will lose track of one of them (which in this case, is hopefully your work to-do list).

2. Create A Plan For Tomorrow

What does the end of your typical workday look like? You close out the dozens of browser tabs you’ve accumulated, glance at your unfinished to-do list and instantly feel discouraged, and then trudge out the door.

But there’s a better way to cap off your day that can help you give your brain the break it needs. It’s simple: Write down a plan for how you’ll finish any incomplete tasks tomorrow.

I know—this seems counterintuitive and like it’ll only add to your already disheartened emotions. But science proves that it’s actually effective.

In a Ball State University study of just over 100 people, participants were asked to indicate how central a role their job played in their life. After that, for about three days, these participants then filled out two surveys:

  • One that asked which work goals they’d completed that day, which remained incomplete, and how meaningful those goals were to them
  • One that asked how much time they’d spent thinking about those goals and about their work in general

At that time, half of the study participants were directed to create a plan for exactly when, where, and how they’d achieve each of their unfinished goals. The other half didn’t receive that same direction.

The results? Sure enough—that simple, end-of-day planning exercise helped those participants prevent obsessive thoughts about tasks that were left unchecked on their to-do lists.

Does that mean this is a surefire trick to stop thinking about work altogether? Not exactly.

The study also found that this exercise didn’t necessarily stop people from thinking about their work in general. But if you’re someone whose thoughts are constantly consumed by those lingering tasks hanging over your head, jotting down your plans for tomorrow certainly can’t hurt.

3. Set Screen Time Limits For Yourself

The fact that we’re all constantly connected definitely doesn’t help our work obsession. We’re able to stay attached to our work—whether we’re at the pharmacy or out to eat with our family. In fact, the average American checks their phone once every 12 minutes (even when they’re actually supposed to be on vacation).

You’ve probably heard the warnings that this excessive amount of screen time negatively impacts your psychological well-being.

Many of these types of screen time studies have been focused on children and adolescents, but the same premise likely holds true for all of us—which you’ll know firsthand if your own mood has ever been sent into a nosedive by taking a “quick” peek at your work emails.

Needless to say, setting limits on your own screen time can not only give your mental health a boost, but also give you some more psychological distance between your personal time and your work time.

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Constantly thinking about work (even when the workday is over) is a #productivity problem. Follow these 4 tactics to mentally disconnect from your tasks & responsibilities.

This requires more than just telling yourself you’ll limit your time on your phone. You need to actually put measures in place to stick to those restrictions.

Personally, I recently used the “Screen Time” feature on my iPhone to reduce my usage of certain apps and even schedule “downtime” when only set features are available. Not only does this issue friendly reminders and block apps when my time is up, but I’ve found that even just knowing the limits are there makes me far more conscious about when I’m picking up my phone or checking in on work.

Of course, if you really want to take this to the extreme, you can actually eliminate your email and other work-related apps from your phone entirely. However, I haven’t quite worked up the courage to do that myself yet.

4. Limit Your Venting

For many of us, the first few minutes—or maybe even hour—away from work probably looks the same. We ramble about our frustrations and air our grievances about every annoying or discouraging thing that happened that day.

You’re stuck on this challenging project and your boss hasn’t been any help at all. You feel like the only one on your team who’s actually producing anything. And to top it all off, Kenny in marketing can’t seem to figure out that he doesn’t need to hit “reply all” to every single email.

But here’s the thing you probably aren’t realizing: Even complaining about work requires you to be actively thinking about it.

And even worse, those vent sessions aren’t actually as therapeutic as you think they are. On the contrary, plenty of research conducted in a variety of circumstances (like this study or this one) shows that verbalizing your anger or frustration in this way doesn’t make you feel better—it really only makes you feel worse.

I know what you’re thinking now: Won’t zipping your lips and keeping those thoughts to yourself only cause you to churn on them more?

It’s a valid concern. So here’s a better alternative for you: Write them all down. It’s called expressive writing and it has been scientifically proven to help people process (and as a result, move on from) stressful or traumatic events—you know, like an awful day at work.

Take this up a notch by writing down your thoughts and then crumpling up the paper and throwing it away. One study indicates that this process helps people not only physically, but mentally, discard those thoughts that are plaguing them. Give it a try. At the very least, it’s bound to be more therapeutic than your go-to venting rampages.

Your Brain Deserves a Break (So Give It One)

Even if your body clocks out and leaves your desk, your brain has a way of working some serious overtime.

Rest assured that you aren’t alone and pretty much all of us deal with our minds white-knuckling our career obligations when we want nothing more than to disconnect and relax.

The even better news is that you can do something about it. Give these four tactics a try, and you’ll hopefully have a much easier time mentally unplugging from the demands of your day job. After all, you (and your hard-workin’ brain) deserve a little time off.


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Next: Why We’re Hardwired To Love The Hustle (Hint: It's Complicated)