When was the last time you got away from work?
I mean truly got away from it: didn’t think about it, didn’t worry about it, didn’t have a to-do list rattling around in your brain.
Most of us know there are benefits to getting away from work. We know we need time to recharge each day in order to be able to sustain our attention in the office. We know time away from complex problems allows us to find a fresh perspective. We know if we work too many long days in a row we’ll find ourselves doing what I affectionately call “fake work” — sitting at our desks without actually accomplishing anything.
The hard part is that while you may agree with all of these benefits of getting away from your work, you may still have trouble doing it. Even if you do go home at a decent hour in the evening, you may find yourself reading one last report. When you travel for a few days, you may still be attached to your email. When you wake up early in the morning, or lie awake at night, you might find your brain sorting through a long list of work tasks. I have even known people who have had dreams about problems they are facing at work.
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When we can’t let go of work while we’re out of the office, we don’t get to enjoy the benefits of time away. To wean yourself off work — and unwanted thoughts of work — you can use a combination of new habits and lessons from cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s how.
Focus on what you’ll do instead. Many people fail to change their behavior because they focus on what they are not going to do rather than on actions they will take instead. Setting the goal not to work (or think about work) when you are away from the office starts with the presumption that you will stop yourself every time you are tempted to do something work-related.
Negative goals like this — where you focus on actions you will no longer take — tend to fail for two reasons. First, your habit system only learns a new habit when you perform an action, not when you don’t. So you cannot create a habit to avoid an action. Second, when you set negative goals, you have to constantly be vigilant about your behavior. Otherwise, you will end up doing the thing you are trying to avoid.
Instead, you need to focus on what you are going to do instead of working. Create a plan for your time away from work — whether it is an evening out of the office or time on vacation. You need a specific plan, or you will return to your habits and re-engage with work when you should be away from it. The plan should focus on the activities you are going to perform instead of working.
For example, you might set up a personal training session for 5:30 PM at a gym near your office a couple of nights a week. Or you might tell your spouse that you’ll pick up the kids at daycare. Or start volunteering at a local charity on the weekends. You can even do some personal development. Sign up for a class to learn a new language. Take up a musical instrument. Start painting. All of these activities will limit the time you have for work, and replace work with other pursuits.
Sometimes, though, your downtime may still be interrupted by intrusive thoughts about work. In this case, you want to be prepared so that you don’t keep ruminating about upcoming work. (Ruminating is a great word, by the way; it comes from the word for cows chewing their cud.)
There are two ways to deal with intrusive thoughts. One is to have a plan to occupy your mind at the ready: Read a novel, do a crossword puzzle, or phone a friend. However, there are times when there is something about work that really is bugging you. In that case, keep a notebook handy. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down whatever is bothering you. It is often helpful to get the things that are bothering you outside of yourself. This is particularly true when the thoughts you are having about work reflect anxieties rather than simply the tasks you have to perform when you get back.
Change your environment to support your new behavior and discourage the old one. A smoker doesn’t try to quit smoking while leaving a large carton of cigarettes in their pantry. Similarly, someone trying to set healthier work-life boundaries doesn’t leave their phone and computer on all the time.
Yes, I am suggesting you actually turn your devices off. All the way off! A great way to manage the temptation to work when you are away from the office is to make it hard to do that work. If you have to switch your phone back on to check it, you might think twice before doing it.
You can also use the environment to help you if you often ruminate about work. Set up a space at home that you will never use to work. It could be a room, but it might also be a corner somewhere. Put a chair there (or a mat or a pillow). Use it as a place where you will engage in nonwork activities, like reading or yoga. The more that you associate this spot with things that do not involve work, the easier it will be to use this area to get away from work thoughts.
As part of creating this new, healthier environment, engage other people to help you. Ask your friends and family members to help you stay away from work. Give them permission to remind you to put your phone away (and don’t get annoyed with them when they do). Find activities you can do with them that prevent you from working and that distract you from work-related thoughts.
Step away from work — and watch disaster not strike. Even if you do create these plans and an environment conducive to seeing them through, you still need to be willing to disconnect from work for a period of time. That can be anxiety-provoking. After all, you might miss an important email; something could go wrong; important work might be done badly or not done at all.
This is where a lesson from cognitive behavioral therapies may help. Studies suggest that a great way to reduce anxiety is to expose yourself to the scary situation, and gradually learn that the situation is not actually threatening.
If your problem is that you’re constantly worried about missing an important email, go a night without checking your email — and discover that all of the work you need to do is still there in the morning. Then expand the amount of time you leave your email unchecked. Try to get through an entire day of the weekend without checking. Then — gasp! — an entire weekend. You may find that many people manage to answer their own questions if you don’t get back to them right away. On top of that, you will return to work with more energy and better ideas because you took some time off.