7 Simple Strategies To Stop Thinking About Work All The Time
There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking about work when you’re not at work. Sometimes I come up with great ideas – and solve problems – while I’m driving somewhere (or soaking in the tub).
But when you can’t stop those work thoughts from rattling around in your head, you’ve got a problem. Because not being able to turn work OFF means you’re not able to fully enjoy the other parts of your life.
If thinking about work is keeping you awake at night, or distracting you from other things, you’re stuck in a cycle of rumination that isn’t good for your physical or mental health. It’s destructive when it comes to your relationships. And studies show it can impede your professional growth because ruminating is associated with a loss of executive function skills, like creativity and innovative thinking.
So why can’t we stop thinking about work?
The boundaries between work life and home life are increasingly blurry. Working from home, at least some of the time, has become the norm. Email, text messages, and Zoom calls, often disregard traditional office hours. And everything’s accessible 24/7. Laptops, tablets, and cell phones, make it tempting to “check on things” whenever you have a free moment.
To make matters worse, there’s a prevalent hustle-mentality telling us that we need to power through and lean in and level up. The underlying message is that thinking about work all the time is admirable – a rite of passage for successful professionals.
We live in a society obsessed with productivity. And that obsession is hard to break.
There’s no magic cure for this problem.
I’m a content strategist, business communications advisor, and writer, so I’m online ALL THE TIME. My clients are in a multitude of time zones, so they’re trying to connect with me at all hours. And I’m essentially paid to think creatively so I’ve got perpetual monkey-mind, with a zillion thoughts whizzing around. Just turning the volume down is hard for me, let alone turning work thoughts off entirely.
That said, I know I’m more creative and functional as a professional when I’ve rested my brain. And I ABSOLUTELY know that I’m a better spouse, parent, friend, and human, when I’m able to be mindfully engaged rather than distracted.
Here are some strategies that help me stop thinking about work all the time. I hope at least a few of them will help you too:
1. Develop CLEAR , REASONABLE WORK HOURS.
This is a tough one for many of us. Time zone differences, demanding employers/clients, and that hustle-mentality don’t help. But so long as you continue to overwork, you will continue to overthink about work. That’s why developing clear, reasonable work hours is essential.
Accept that you are only human. As a human, you need food, and rest, and downtime. These are not niceties. They are necessities. Create a work schedule that includes a firm START time and END time for the workday. Post it on your website. Share it with colleagues, prospects, employers, and clients. And be polite but firm about adhering to that schedule.
FYI: If you are being overworked by an employer or a large client, and they will not adhere to a reasonable work schedule, I’m genuinely sorry. That’s a hard position to be in. My best advice is to start looking for better options because overworking isn’t sustainable.
2. Make your workdays FRONTEND LOADED.
I try to put meetings and big, complicated activities in the morning and early afternoon. This lets me spend the last hour of the workday on simple tasks that aren’t as mentally engrossing. My days are frontend loaded so I can take my foot off the gas slowly and ease to a stop, instead of jamming on the brakes.
I also spend the last 15 minutes making my to-do list for the next day and writing out reminders to myself. In this way, I pull the work thoughts out of my brain and put them on the calendar for TOMORROW (where they belong), instead of taking them home with me.
3. Develop transition rituals to help you SHIFT GEARS.
I change my clothes the moment I’m finished work. Even if I’m working from home and I’ve been in sweatpants all day, I switch into a different pair of sweatpants. I also put my phone on the charger in my kitchen immediately.
The wardrobe ritual help me transition from WORK ME to HOME ME, and the phone charging ritual severs the connection to my work world for at least an hour or so. Sometimes, I go back and retrieve my phone later. But other times, I forget about it and my phone sits forlornly beside the breadbox all night. Out of sight, out of mind!
4. DON’T REHASH your workday with friends and family.
Years ago, hubby and I developed the terrible habit of “talking shop” while we made dinner. It felt supportive. But ultimately, we were reliving our work days instead of having fresh, new conversations.
We deliberately chose to stop re-hashing our workdays. Occasionally, we still vent about a particularly awful day (or do a bit of bragging about a fabulous moment), but for the most part, we’ve moved on.
When we first implemented this strategy, there were awkward silences because we’d forgotten how to chat about other things. But eventually, we got the hang of it, and now we talk about SO MANY topics!
I’m not suggesting that you bottle things up, because that’s not healthy. But it’s worth pondering whether your work trials and tribulations need to take centerstage when chatting with friends and family.
I 100% promise that the more you talk about other things, the easier it becomes to find other things to talk about. Over time, your conversations become deeper, your relationships become more rewarding, and you expand your front-of-mind thoughts to include more than just work stuff!
5. Give your brain COOL THINGS TO FOCUS ON.
I wish I was better at meditating and being Zen, but I tend to think about work while I’m supposed to be focusing on my breathing or my downward dog pose. Inhaling and exhaling, or twisting my body into a pretzel, just isn’t riveting enough to compete for space in my brain – and win.
That said, science tells us that the human brain can only focus on a few things at once. So if you want to stop thinking about work, you need to give your brain something equally stimulating to think about. New, interesting thoughts push work thoughts out of your head.
The challenge is to find mentally engrossing activities that are as energizing as your work, which is why meditation and yoga don’t work for me. They might work for you – it’s all kind of subjective.
Personally, I need to tackle something complex, like a moderately difficult recipe. Or painting a picture. My ideal activities take me slightly outside my comfort zone. And my brain responds, by deleting the work thoughts so I can concentrate on the task at hand.
Sometimes, even a quick mind challenge, like solving the daily Wordle, helps. My brain kicks out the work thoughts so I don’t fail at Wordle (which is humiliating for a writer).
6. Keep NOTEBOOKS NEARBY.
I have a notebook in my purse, in my glove compartment, on my coffee table, and beside my bed. You never know when an idea is going to pop into your head so it’s wise to capture it while it’s fresh and clear.
But I don’t just use notebooks for new ideas. When I think of something I need to do when I’m back in my office, or I have an epiphany about how to solve a work problem, I write those things down as well. My notebooks are an extension of the strategy I use at the end of the workday – when I create tomorrow’s to-do list.
The writing-it-down process lets me move transfer those work thoughts to a secured location, where I know they’re safe. Then, I can stop thinking about work and go back to living my life, confident that when I’m ready, those ideas and thoughts will be waiting for me.
If you like, you can use a phone app to keep notes, but I recommend notebooks. There’s something visceral about writing on a page. In ink.
7. SEEK HELP if you need help.
Your life and your challenges are unique. The strategies that help me stop thinking about work may, or may not, work for you.
If you’ve tried everything and nothing helps, it may be time to seek professional support. No matter how rewarding (or demanding) your career is, you deserve to enjoy other parts of your life on a regular basis. Both your professional life and your personal life will benefit from learning how to tame those work thoughts and achieve better balance.
Mental health matters! Take care of yourself.