Whenever I ask someone “How many hours do you work a week?”, I follow up with the question “How many hours do you think about work a week?”.
The answer to the second question is almost always noticeably higher than the answer to the first.
As someone in a thinking profession – engineering, product, management – we do half our job when we’re taking a shower or washing dishes. Or even sometimes when we’re trying relax and read a book in the evenings.
This is especially true when work is more hectic and stressful, or when work feels unsafe due to toxic coworkers or unrealistic expectations.
In these situations, it can be difficult to ever truly stop thinking about work.
On the drive home you might think about an unpleasant conversation you had. When you get home and are trying to make dinner, you keep thinking you need to get back to your computer to finish up a task. After dinner, you might go spend an hour or two and finish the task, but as you go to bed you start questioning the decisions you made for that task or start worrying about your next task.
If you’re anxious like me, you might start imagining how unhappy your boss will be with you if you don’t finish your task on time. Or you might dread the next day when you have to talk to that nasty coworker again. (Just in case any of my coworkers read this, this is not about you. I am blessed to have wonderful coworkers). Or you might continue thinking about the task you were doing at the end of the day and wondering if you should get up and change it.
All this thinking leads to stressful evenings and weekends and bad sleep.
What you think is temporary stress and bad sleep – it’ll all get better after this one project finishes – gets worse instead of better and you end up in a cycle of exhaustion, stress, and dread about work. This will most likely hurt your workday productivity, but much more importantly it can lead to job unhappiness, general misery, and eventual burnout.
What I’m happy to tell you is that there are things you can do to avoid this cycle and end it if you’re already in it.
In this article, I want to pass along some tricks for practicing actually leaving work at work and getting a true break in the evenings and weekends.
These practices will help you go back to work the next day rejuvenated and significantly more productive than you would’ve been if you’d lost sleep worrying about work.
Benefits of leaving work at work
If you can successfully take some or most of your evenings / weekends back, the benefits will be huge. You may have:
- Improved sleep quantity and quality
- More energy
- More creativity
- Improved productivity when you’re at work
- More time to do things you enjoy instead of always thinking about work
Some Habits to Help You Out
If you struggle to actually relax and take a break from work when you get home, try adding one or more of these habits into your schedule to make the boundary between work and home a little more solid.
Add a ritual to the start and end of your workday
A few years ago when I was struggling to leave work at work, my life coach suggested that I light a candle at the start of the workday and blow it out at the end of the workday.
Until the candle is lit in the morning, you are not at work. You are at home, making breakfast and talking to your partner, family, or pets. You are setting yourself up for success by prioritizing your health and wellbeing first thing after you wake up with whatever your preferred morning ritual is.
As you light the candle, envision how you want to feel during the workday and what it will take to get there. What do you need to get done to feel like you’ve accomplished what you needed to accomplish? Do you need to plan to take a 15 minute walk after a meeting you know will be frustrating? Take a deep breath in and out, light the candle, and start your workday prepared to make it as healthy and productive as possible.
At the end of the day (and this is the hard one), before you blow out your candle, think about what needs to happen for you to be truly done with work today. If the answer will take another 3 hours, can it wait until tomorrow? If so, write it down on a to-do list for tomorrow so you don’t have to think about it anymore today.
When you’re ready to truly stop for the day, take a deep breath and blow out your candle. Walk away from your computer.
If you’re reading this and asking yourself if it’s safe to leave the candle burning the entire workday (this was my partner’s response when I first suggested this to him), you don’t have to leave the candle burning the whole day.
In the morning, the ritual is about lighting the candle, but you can blow it out whenever you want to. At the end of the day, light the candle, write down a to-do list for the next day, then blow it out.
If you work in the office and candles aren’t allowed, there are other ways to add a ritual into your day.
- As you step into your car, close your eyes and meditate for a few minutes before driving away.
- Put your favorite poem by your desk and read it to yourself at the start and end of the day.
- Drink an entire glass of water (assuming you don’t have a long drive home 🙂 )
- Start a list of accomplishments. At the start of each day, read them to yourself. At the end of the day, add to it.
- Change something physical in the room where you work – this could be putting your laptop away in a drawer or cabinet, turning your computer around, or moving your chair to a different desk where you typically do non-work work.
Adding a ritual will help your brain start to delineate when it needs to think about work – during the workday – and when it should think about other things, like connecting with your partner or the drawing you’ve been adding to in your free time – when you’re not at work.
Schedule something relaxing to do at the end of the workday, to transition into the evening.
If you’re still having trouble ending work on time, schedule an activity that forces you away from your computer. Here are some suggestions:
- Take your dog on a long walk
- Go to an exercise class
- Go for a run
- Make a phone call to a friend or family member you love to talk to
- Take a walk in your favorite park
- Promise your kid at the start of the day that at 5:30pm you’ll take them to the playground
Make concrete plans for the evening that get you away from your computer
Similar to my last tip, once you’re off work make sure you have a planned activity for the evening that will take your brain off work.
Personally, I try to always have a personal project set up for me when I get off work. Sometimes that’s a sewing project, or an addictive book.
I’ve also pre-planned to watch tv with a friend – I don’t like cancelling so that’s a pretty good motivator – or I ask my partner to walk to a nearby restaurant with me for dinner.
Pick something that it not too difficult to do, but is also pleasant enough that you want to do it.
Don’t check your phone before bed 📲
I cannot emphasize this enough. Bedtime is sacred. If work is stressful and you want to sleep well, do not insert work into your head directly before bed by checking your email or messages. That is a not at all delicious recipe for thinking about work and dreaming about work instead of sleeping well.
Personally, I sleep with my phone plugged in in a different room. I plug it in before I start my bedtime routine.
If you don’t have that option, set your phone to automatically turn off notifications from your work apps starting at a certain time. I do this using my phone’s Do Not Disturb functionality. I’ve set it so phone calls and texts from important people in my life get through, but nothing else.
Warning – This May Be Hard
Stepping away from work in the evenings – both mentally and physically – can be really hard, even with these habits.
When first starting, I highly recommend aiming for 3 days a week. That way when something urgent comes up at work near the end of the day, you can work late one day to handle that and then actually take the next evening for yourself.
Even one evening that is a true break from work will have noticeable benefits.
You can do it, I believe in you.
Wishing you more peaceful evenings and a wonderful career,