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How to stop thinking about work when you’re not working

The global shift to remote work has left many of us wondering how to stop thinking about work all the time.

Before we get into some tips and suggestions to help you stop feeling overwhelmed by work, let’s take a look at some relevant statistics. 

Statistics show we don't know how to stop thinking about work, and it's affecting our health

Statistics show we don't know how to stop thinking about work, and it's affecting our health

  • One in four Americans say work is a source of anxiety, and work-related stress is on the rise. [1]
  • Your brain can't concentrate on two things at once, but it can quickly toggle back and forth between tasks. However, this decreases your attention span, ability to learn, short-term memory, and overall mental performance. [2]
  • Four in five workers report poor work-life balance. It's said that increased connectivity because of tech blurs the lines between home and work. [3]
  • 54% of workers say that stress from work affects their life at home. [4]
  • Over 20% of workers spend more than five hours of office time each week thinking about things that stress them. [5]
  • 828,000 workers in the U.K. suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20. [6] 
  • 17.9 million working days were lost in the U.K. due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20. [6]
  • Stress, anxiety or depression accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health in the U.K. [6]
  • Workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support are the main work factors that cause work-related stress. [6]

Wondering how to stop thinking about work? It’s an all too common scenario.

It's 2am. You're in bed after a strenuous day. You can't stop thinking about a project you were working on this morning.

It involved solving a tricky supply chain problem with a lot of moving parts. You spent hours trying to figure it out, but didn't manage to find a solution in time for the workday to end.

But now, when you're supposed to be switching off for rest, your mind is whirring. Sleep seems like a lost cause.

This is a scenario that all but the most dedicated of workaholics want to avoid. Overthinking work concerns during non-work hours can have a pretty bad impact on our lives - from our daily ability to get proper sleep, to our precious time spent with family, to being able to concentrate on leisure activities.

When work takes center stage in your mental landscape when it's not supposed to, it's time for an intervention. But how can you make it happen?

Here are a few ways to stop thinking about work, from immediate interventions to longer-term lifestyle changes.

If you’ve procrastinated, deal with the thing you're worrying about

We'll start with one that you probably didn't want to hear - work more!

Well, not quite. More like try not to leave work unfinished if you can.

This one might seem a little counterintuitive, or even controversial. But sometimes the only way to deal with the demands your brain is making of you is to give in to them.

If there's an outcome within your control - that is, something you can affect with immediate action - maybe it's time to actually grab hold of it and deal with it, rather than waiting 'til it next feels right.

This isn't necessarily the most healthy behavior long-term. Letting work intrude into your personal life more than occasionally is one way to bring on burnout, because you're not giving yourself the mental space to recharge properly. Over time, that can compound into stress and eventually burnout, so it's important to build your working life in a way that prevents these scenarios from happening.

But if you've become a victim of your own procrastination, with the weight of unfinished work hanging on your shoulders, sometimes the only remedy is to clear your desk, get a drink, put your headphones on and get down to business.

In a way, it's a simple question of efficiency. If the task you're procrastinating will take one hour of work, then you lose an hour doing it. If you put it off and it's sat at the back of your mind, occasionally coming to the front to give you a mini stab of anxiety, that can mean countless hours that you never really had in the first place. If you can promise yourself two hours of pure guilt-free relaxation after finishing your task, then it's clearly worth spending the one hour smashing through it.

Science backs this up, too. The Zeigarnik Effect is a documented psychological phenomenon where you're more likely to remember things that are left unfinished than those you finished. Named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, it identified how our brains have strong needs to see things through to completion. Without the closure of a boxed-off task, the issue remains floating around our consciousness, periodically reminding us of its importance until it gets resolved (this is why TV show cliffhangers are so powerful at getting us to return to watch the next episode).

Find other things to focus on

One way to stop think thinking about work is to give your mind something else to turn towards.

If your brain has a different problem to solve, your mental energy will be diverted away from work stuff. Try to find something that really gets you into a ‘flow state’ or ‘the zone’ - something with the right balance between being challenging but doable. 

One way to do this that's favoured by millions around the world - especially during pandemic times - is video gaming.

Jane McGonigal is a PhD game designer and neuroscientist advocating for the use of games to help build healthy brains and agile mindsets. If you're not convinced video games can be a healthy and productive use of time, her conversation at the Knowledge Project may well convince you otherwise:

"Every time you play a game, you’re choosing how to spend your time and attention. That’s a decision we are constantly making that is often operating at a subconscious level and we don’t necessarily take ownership of it. If you ask yourself, why am I playing this game? And why did I want to play it now? I think that actually can help you develop more clarity in all of the things you do."

Alongside the positive effects on your focus that gaming can have, they can also help reduce anxiety by causing you to run through multiple scenarios and map out how you might respond. Sure, you probably won't encounter dragons or wizards in your working life, but the mental models you learn by dealing with them in games can be mapped onto real-world problems.

If you prefer non-digital forms of focus, you can always try other forms of gaming, like board gaming with those you live with or other collaborative pursuits like jigsaws, quizzes and craft projects. Or pick up a fun, new hobby like learning to play an instrument. 

Anything that gives you a goal to strive towards is great for letting your mind be active in a healthy way - unlike watching TV, where you can easily drift back to work thoughts as you're passively consuming.

Talk it out

Like most issues that we tend to ruminate on, it helps to ease the burden by sharing your concerns with a trusted listener.

In the workplace, it might just be a case of getting a coffee with a colleague and explaining the pickle you find yourself in. You might just need a sympathetic ear to vent your frustrations with; a little validation for your distress can go a long way in making you feel like you're not alone. An emotional balm like this might soothe your work anxiety and let you move on to other concerns.

Your manager, of course, can help you with certain tasks or challenges you're facing, but there's a decent chance that they might be part of the problem, too.

One option is to try working with a performance coach; a neutral party outside of your company that can offer support and guidance for workplace issues that are broader in scope than technical. If you're stuck thinking on how to get ahead in your career, or how to tackle a big new project, a coach might be your best option, and will likely have useful insights into how to stop thinking about work when you need to disconnect.

Rethink your lifestyle

Your incessant out-of-hours work thinking might be triggered by other non-work factors, too. A few lifestyle tweaks might help mitigate the runaway train of work rumination in your off hours.

Firstly, caffeine, found in coffee, tea, chocolate and energy drinks, might help you boost focus during work, but you pay the price afterwards, as the withdrawal crash contributes to anxiety and difficulty sleeping. 

Lack of sleep (or poor-quality sleep) also contributes to anxiety and wandering thoughts. Dreaming is sometimes referred to as 'overnight therapy' for its ability to help us work through concerns that our daytime consciousness hasn't resolved.

So addressing these issues by cutting down on the stimulants (especially in the afternoon) and practicing healthy sleep habits can have a huge impact on your daily mental wellbeing and ability to relax properly.

And then there's exercise. Even after a busy working day when you're really not in the mood, fitting in at least a few minutes of movement that gets your heart beating will have really positive effects. As mentioned on the Harvard health blog:

"Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about. Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious. Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals."

Going for a run, hitting the gym, taking a long walk, or even dancing your way around your lounge - these can all help lower stress and take your mind away from work-related thoughts. And you don't need reminding of the benefits of doing this on a long-term basis.

There's already enough advice out there regarding meditation, so we won't go into it too much. But even a small amount of regular mindfulness can seriously help clear your mind from intrusive thoughts. Single sessions probably won't act as a magic balm that defends you from all work related thought, though. You'll probably feel better after doing it, but opening your eyes and coming back to reality might make you think "That was great, I'll do that again next time I'm thinking about work when I shouldn't... oh right, work." And then you're thinking about work again!

But the longer-term effects of a regular meditation practice can result in a calmer mind with less anxiety, which contributes to solving the problem at hand. The increased ability to focus on work means you'll also have better focus on the things that aren't work when the time is right - so it's certainly worth looking into.

Check out our guide, 9 mindfulness exercises to help you manage stress.

Schedule a 'worry time'

This idea comes from Laura Vanderkam, a time management and productivity expert. She recommends scheduling time to think about a particular problem, and giving yourself permission to procrastinate dealing with it until then.

Having a designated time for chewing over gives you the freedom to relax in the other parts of your day:

"Often, your brain just needs to know that there’s a time for thinking about that issue–and now is not that time."

It might not be the most rigorous scientific concept, but simple tricks like these often turn out to be the most effective. In this case there's no complicated system and it doesn't rely on willpower. 

So next time you're worrying about a work issue - feel free to procrastinate!

Consider a four-day work week

Seeing as how the main cause of work-related stress, anxiety and depression is an overwhelming workload (including tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support), it might be hard to imagine how you could possibly fit your current workload into a four day week.

But emerging research shows that the four day work week is more than just a pipe dream; it has been proven to drastically improve productivity and employee wellbeing.

It also appears promising for addressing gender and economic inequalities, along with crisis-provoked unemployment levels. It is also looking like a potential weapon against global warming.

If you aren’t in a leadership position, you could start a conversation with your manager by sharing our comprehensive guide (with statistics) that answers everything you’ve wanted to know about the four day work week. You could also share the statistics from this blog with them, along with our articles on job burnout statistics and work-life balance stats.

The four-day week is not viable for every single company or industry, but reports show that it’s not only viable for huge companies. In fact, small- and medium-sized companies can experience enormous benefits as well. And with entire countries currently looking at implementing it, it’s a great time to get on board, or at least start the conversation with your team.

Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can help your team to work more effectively, be more resilient and feel less stressed.

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