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How to switch off properly

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life

by Psychologies

The project

We all know it’s hard to leave work at the office. Thanks to smartphones and the web, it can be impossible to resist catching up on evenings or weekends. When you’re not working, job-related thoughts can tug at the mind, distracting you from family time, or keeping you awake. Fortunately, there are ways to switch off.

The aim

The frustrating truth about worry is that it changes nothing, yet knowing that doesn’t make the worrying stop. Worse still, tell yourself to stop thinking about something, and suddenly, it’s all you can think of. That leaves two alternatives. One is distraction: an absorbing novel or hobby will drag your attention from work. The other, less well-known approach, is to move towards the worry – to focus on it – in a fruitful way.

The theory

One major reason we worry, argues productivity coach David Allen, is that we’re subconsciously afraid of forgetting important stuff, so our minds keep poking us with reminders. The solution? Keep a really comprehensive to-do list in a notebook or on your phone. Write down every task you can think of, and your mind will gradually trust that things aren’t being overlooked, because they’re on the list, so compulsive worrying will subside.

A related principle, the Zeigarnik effect, describes how only unfinished tasks, not completed ones, prey on the mind. So it pays to consciously tie up loose ends before you leave the office. Institute a half-hour ‘shutdown ritual’: reply to emails, put files away and confirm plans for tomorrow. You can then focus on family, friends and relaxation.

Now try it out

  • Use a worry jar. Silly as it sounds, research shows that if you write your concerns on slips of paper, then put them in a screw-top jar, this symbolic ‘sealing off’ will keep them from disturbing you as much.
  • Structure your leisure time. Work thoughts flood into free time partly because we like to keep leisure unplanned. It’s ‘free time’, after all. Yet most people actually enjoy leisure more when it’s planned: a specific gym class or monthly book group, say. Such plans create mental walls that keep unwanted worries out.
  • Schedule a worry period. Psychologist Robert Leahy suggests planning a half-hour per day – maybe a stroll after dinner – to spend on worrying. Take your to-do list. Then when worries emerge at other times, write them down. With a specific time assigned for them, your brain won’t trouble you the rest of the time.

Oliver Burkeman is the author ofThe Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking(Canongate, £8.99).

Photograph: iStock