How to stop thinking about work when you're not at work

Neil Francisco/Shutterstock
Originally Published: 

As a remote freelancer whose office varies between my living room and bedroom, I’m never not thinking about work. Even when I try to take my mind off of it by scheduling in some Netflixing like it’s a medical prescription, I can’t help but glance at my to-do list or refresh my email. I’m far from the only person guilty of worrying about my career at all hours of the day; research from LinkedIn has found that 70 percent of professionals think about their jobs outside of designated working hours out of fear of falling behind — even when they're on vacation.

While our work-obsessed culture might lead you to believe that thinking about your jobs 24/7 means you're motivated, determined, and devoted, that kind of mindset actually does more harm than good. A 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people tethered to their work phones or laptops experience higher rates of burnout, more conflicts with family members, and a greater likelihood of quitting their job. Oh, the irony.

With smartphones everywhere and people working more hours than ever, the lines between our personal lives and professional ones are becoming increasingly blurred. “In recent decades, both the pace of work, the time spent at work and the relative importance it plays in our lives have continued to ratchet up, so that sometimes our work identity becomes most salient,” says Brigid Schulte, work-life balance expert and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time.

When asked to describe myself, for instance, I'm quick to say I’m a writer, rather than a wife, a friend or a runner, and while that might seem harmless, it can have a major cost. “It doesn’t mean that other parts of our lives or our identities aren’t important, but that our work identity can trump other identities […] Because of this, you see people making sacrifices with their time and other identities to put work first,” explains Schulte. “That can put enormous pressure on women, mothers and caregivers who are divided between incredibly powerful identities [like worker and caregiver] and on men who’d like to be more involved but who feel they can’t for fear of appearing less devoted to work.”

Finding a true work-life balance doesn't have to be so elusive, though. Here are a few ways to help you change how you think about work, according to Schulte.

Reduce your hours


The more you work, the more you produce, right? Nope. A large body of research supports the idea that work productivity plummets after 52 minutes in one sitting and 55 hours in a week. Thinking about work when you’re at home eating dinner or hanging with friends counts towards those weekly hours, since you’re devoting mental energy towards those responsibilities, but it's not actually beneficial. Try to cut off thoughts of work once you step over the threshold when you leave for the day. Knowing you have a hard out might even cause you to get more done when you're in the office, and keep you from dwelling on unfinished tasks back at home.

Research shows that work hours have been increasing, particularly for professional and knowledge workers and especially for men, since the 1980s. Those overwork hours are now a key factor driving the gender wage gap, because women with caregiving responsibilities simply aren’t able to put in the same number of hours,” says Schulte. “What everybody’s missing in this rush for busyness and long work hours, is that people aren’t necessarily more productive, efficient or do better work with all those hours.”

Think about nothing

Actually thinking about nothing might feel impossible, but as long as you let your mind go somewhere that’s not work-related, that's fine. When you’re always thinking about work, chances are that it's causing you stress and other negative emotions, which might end up hindering your performance. Letting your brain wander, however, can be key to creativity and innovation.

“Neuroscience shows that the brain functions in two ways — diffuse, or daydream-y, mind-wandering mode, and concentrated mode. It’s in the diffuse state that the ‘default mode network’ lights up, and begins making connections between what are considered ‘weak associations’ that you may not bring together in your conscious mind in concentrated mode,” explains Schulte. “This kind of playful, curious wandering is actually a precursor to insight and fresh ideas, or figuring out how to solve an old problem in a new way.”

In moments when I find it impossible to fall asleep because I’m thinking about that one embarrassing work thing that everyone else has definitely forgotten about, I turn to Headspace-guided meditations or the paint-by-numbers app Happy Color. Whatever your preference is, though, it doesn't matter as long as it’s a mindless, immersive way to leave the workday behind.

Give yourself more time to accomplish tasks

Creative Labs/Shutterstock

We all have that to-do list that never seems to whittle away, no matter how many weeks or months you've been hacking away at it. While prioritizing often means creating a schedule, the act of scheduling in and of itself can backfire. We often underestimate just how long a project will take us, so when we exceed our self-imposed allotted time slot, we spiral out and continue to think about work well beyond work hours. Instead of repeating this cycle, give yourself whatever amount of time it takes to finish a project without any preconceived ideas of how long it should take. And once you’re done, don’t let it occupy any more brain space.

“It becomes a matter of focusing on your top priorities, finding time in your calendar to work on them, deciding what you can let go of, and also creating slack or actual space for the emergencies that inevitably come up,” says Schulte.

Set conversation boundaries

If you frequently chat about work with friends and acquaintances, that's not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes, a pal can be the most qualified person to help you parse through challenges from an objective perspective. But work shouldn't be the only thing you talk about with friends. "If you want healthy boundaries between work and life, why don’t you make it fun to talk about things that aren’t related to work?” asks Schulte.

That doesn't mean patronizing your friend for asking about your job or sharing details about theirs — it simply means guiding the conversation to more meaningful subjects, like each person's passions, hobbies, or goals outside of work.

Get a change of scenery

Find yourself venting about work at the same bar or coffee shop over and over? Go somewhere else. If you’ve frequently spoken of work at certain locations, it’ll trigger thoughts of work going forward whenever you're there — the same way that a shared favorite restaurant with an ex might conjure negative feelings years down the line.

“Don’t just go to happy hour to bitch and moan about work,” advises Schulte. “Go create new memories. The more you do it, and the more you see how it makes work and life better, the better you’ll get at making the time for it.”