The Trick to Worrying Less About Work

stressed man
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Is work-related stress following you home from the office? There could be an easy solution to clearing your mind and detaching from work, a study has found.

Dr. Brandon Smit at Indiana’s Ball State University surveyed 103 employees and found that those who had incomplete tasks on their plate when they left the office had difficulty detaching from work during their off-hours. The more important the person thought the task was, they harder it was for them to leave work at work.

“If you have an important deadline looming on the horizon, for example, your brain will keep nudging you with reminders, which makes it difficult to get a break from work demands,” Smit said.

That finding won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s found himself lying awake at night thinking about unfinished projects or succumbed to checking email over the weekend in an attempt to catch up. But if you think the only way to banish those nagging thoughts is to leave the office with no more to-dos on your desk, you’re wrong. Something as simple as making a plan for how you’ll complete unfinished tasks can help you shut off the work part of your brain before you leave the office.

“It seems like we have the ability to ‘turn off’, or at least ‘turn down’, these cognitive processes by planning out where, when, and how goals will be accomplished,” Smit explained. “This is primarily true for people that already have a difficult time forgetting about work during leisure because their job plays a central role in their life. For them, a simple change to their work routine like task planning near the end of the workday would likely make a real difference.”

to-do list
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Work is a leading source of stress for American adults, according to the American Institute of Stress, and a heavy workload was the major source of anxiety, with 46% of people surveyed saying that having too much to do stressed them out. Encouraging employees to develop a specific plan for managing their unfinished work before they leave for the day might reduce that stress and make for happier, healthier, and more productive workers, suggests the study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

“Given how often employees transition between work and home roles, this simple, low-cost method has the potential to improve occupational health while preserving, or even improving, job performance on a daily basis,” Smit wrote.

Setting reasonable goals can also help employees separate their work and personal life. An overly ambitious morning to-do list “will likely result in more incomplete goals at the end of the day and, consequently, less detachment,” the study noted. People who have trouble meeting their goals may benefit from “undercommitting and overperforming,” since that could make it easier for them to set and complete goals on time. In other words, stop trying to be the office Superman and you’re less likely to find yourself worrying about work when you should be relaxing.

Ending your day with a plan for what you’re going to accomplish tomorrow isn’t the only ways to kick bothersome work thoughts to the curb. Simple steps like not venting about what happened at the office when you get home can help you keep work thoughts at bay, Peter Shallard, a business psychology expert who focuses on entrepreneurs, told Fast Company.

Having a clear transition between work time and home time can also help, he said. Reading a book during your commute can clear your mind, while a walk around the block after you sign off for the day can do the trick if you work from home. Focusing on solving a non-work challenge like cooking a complex recipe may also help.

“We can only focus on a couple of things at once,” Shallard explained. If your brain is occupied with figuring out the best way to reorganize your closet, you’re less likely to be thinking about what you left undone at the office.

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