We might physically leave the office each night, but most of us are still hard at work in our minds, rehashing the day's problems or planning tomorrow's to-do list.
But that's a good way to set yourself up for exhaustion, writes Art Markman in the Harvard Business Review. Markman is an author and professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as founding director of the university's Human Dimensions of Organizations program.
According to the General Social Survey of 2016, 50% of workers experience consistent exhaustion due to work today, versus just 18% two decades ago. Exhaustion and burnout can lead you to make mistakes or take your stress out on other people.
The only way to make sure you approach each day with a fresh perspective is to stop thinking about work when you head home, Markman writes. But for many of us, that's easier said than done. Markman recommends using a few tricks from psychology (specifically, from cognitive behavioral therapy) to help yourself develop a new habit of truly disconnecting from work at the end of the day.
1: Give yourself something else to think about
There's an old joke: Tell yourself to think of anything but an elephant and, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is an elephant.
Trying to avoid thinking about work is the same way. You can't create a habit of avoiding a certain action. Instead, you have to give yourself a new action to perform in place of the habit you want to stop, Markman writes. He recommends focusing on what you plan to do when you get home or on your next vacation. It might help to pick up an engaging new hobby, like language classes or volunteering with a local charity, so you have a something specific to look forward to after work.
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If the anticipation still isn't enough to block out thoughts of work, then switch your attention to a mentally engaging task. For example, Markman suggests, consider carrying crossword puzzles or a novel with you.
2: Shake up your routine
Your environment can influence your thoughts and habits, Markman writes. The temptation to think about work or check your email will be strongest in the situations where you have found yourself doing that before. In those situations, try putting barriers between yourself and work. For example, turn your phone off—"all the way off!"—so checking your work email is much harder to do, Markman writes.
You can also create a work-free zone in your home, to serve as a retreat from stressful thoughts. Use it regularly for relaxing, non-work activities like reading or yoga, Markman suggests. "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," he writes.
3: Start small
If the thought of disconnecting from work makes you anxious that you'll miss something important, Markman recommends starting small. Start by avoiding your email for one evening and notice that nothing terrible happens. Then try one day of a weekend, then try a full weekend (Markman, Harvard Business Review, 8/25).
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