Ten Tools to Stop Thinking About Work

by Lisa McKay

Teach your mind to shift gear

Do you have trouble moving your mind away from work at the end of the day?

Some thinking about work outside of the office is normal, of course. Even good. It shows that you care about your work, and that it’s challenging you.

As in many other cases, too much of a good thing can become a real problem. It’s not so healthy or productive to have work-related thoughts consistently distracting you from focusing on your family, your friends, or your creative hobbies. It’s downright destructive to wake up in the wee dark hours and be unable to get back to sleep because you’re thinking about work and you can’t change the channel in your mind.

If you find yourself frequently pre-occupied by unwanted work thoughts (or if your focus on work is leaving you without enough time and energy to give to other important people and activities in your life), then some of these suggestions might help.

  1. Create a wind-down ritual: A wind-down ritual can help you “park” work at the end of the day. For example, many people find it helpful to take 10 minutes before leaving work to take stock of what was accomplished that day, identify priorities and next steps, and create a to-do list of 3-5 items for the next day.
  2. Create a transition ritual: Do something to signal the switch between work and home. Call a friend on the way home, play music, check Facebook, walk around the block, etc. Do something tangible to signal that your brain is off-duty. If you are away from home on a work trip (or living and working in the same space during deployment) this can be challenging, but becomes even more important.
  3. Write down things you need to do, or things that you are worrying about: Write things down as they come to you outside of work, and plan time the next day to deal with your list. This tells your brain that there is time to work through these issues, but that time is not now.
  4. Disconnect: Limit your email and phone access (or, rather, their access to you) out side of working hours. If you check your email multiple times an evening or reach for your phone every time a text arrives, create some e-free time. For example, many people (especially those with young children) report that delaying checking their phone and email in the morning until they reach the office allows them to be much more fully present with family during the morning.
  5. Give your brain a different challenge to meet : We humans can only really focus effectively on one or two things at once. If you find yourself repeatedly distracted by work problems, give your brain a different problem to solve—something that requires you to focus. Try Sudoku, crosswords, planning your next holiday, outlining projects that need to be completed around the house, etc.
  6. Get creative : Similarly, when you’re busy being creative in ways that are unrelated to work, it doesn’t leave a lot of bandwidth for work-related thoughts to dominate. So identify several go-to activities you enjoy doing that have nothing to do with work (dancing, writing, playing with the kids, cooking, graphic design, etc). Make sure you are doing these things on a regular basis.
  7. Focus on others: If you’re stuck in your own head — and particularly if talking about your work is just serving to wind you up more — shift the focus off of yourself. Ask your partner, your children, or a friend about their day and their life. Then practice listening. This will help you step outside your own cares and mental clutter.
  8. Embrace entertainment: Another way to step outside your own cares and concerns is to embrace some good old-fashioned entertainment. Watch TV, read a novel, listen to a good podcast. Even better, do this with your partner or a group of friends, or watch TV and listen to a podcast while also getting some exercise.
  9. Focus on the bigger picture : At the end of the day, your job is your job, not the sum total of your life. You can only do so much. Especially in this line of work, you will never be able to solve all the problems that you would like see solved. Your personal life is very important, too, and giving that part of your life solid time and focus should also be a priority. Identify things that help you keep these truths in mind, and revisit those touchstones regularly. Prayer, quotes, images, gratitude practices, and clarifying your values are all good for this purpose.
  10. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises help calm your mind and focus your attention on the immediate. So read up on mindfulness practices and try something that appeals to you. No time to read up? Try stepping outside for five minutes right now. Stand still and concentrate on what you can hear, smell, see, and feel.

Practice!

If changing the channel in your mind is something you really struggle with, don’t expect a quick and easy fix. Instead, take these suggestions for what they are — strategies that can help you. The more you do these things, the easier they become to do and the better they will work.

Practice them by picking two or three of these things to experiment with this month. Decide whether they are helping you gain skill at detaching from work. Then, bit by bit, pick something else to incorporate into your repertoire.

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