How to turn off your “work mind” at the end of the day

by S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in 2003 at www.stress-info.ch in German, French and Italian.

Thinking about work, even not at work, can take various forms. Perhaps you cannot concentrate on what your partner or children are trying to say to you when you are home. Perhaps when you try to sleep, events of the day run across your mind like an unwanted movie and prevent you from falling asleep. Whatever form your unwanted thoughts of events of the day may be, there are various things you can do to “turn off” thoughts that interfere with your enjoying the present moment.

While there is no one special technique that works for everyone, here is a list of techniques that you may find helpful in leaving work behind when you are home.

Think of this list as a menu from which you can try out various approaches and determine which approaches work best for you.

From Automatic to Aware

Many times, our thoughts automatically go in directions we do not want them to go. Thus you may find your mind automatically drifting in the direction of work, even when you do not want it to. Building awareness of these automatic moments is the first step towards reducing them.

Start to pay close attention to your thoughts. Each thought has a beginning, middle and end. Most of the time, we only become aware of thoughts in the middle – when we begin to feel the negative effects of unwanted thoughts – and not as they are arising. Watch your thoughts as an observer might, neutrally. In the beginning it may take practice and might feel strange. But with time, it will feel as natural as anything else you might do to check yourself- such as checking your appearance in the mirror before you go to a meeting.

If you find yourself becoming aware of your thoughts in the middle or end of your thought process, not knowing how you got to be so immersed, be patient with yourself. With practice you will be better able to catch your thoughts at the beginning, as they arise.

By becoming aware of the thoughts, you go from automatically experiencing them to consciously observing them. For many people, just this is enough to reduce the frequency of the unwanted thoughts. If observation alone is not enough, at least it will create some distance – so that you will not feel that you are being swept away by your thoughts. Then, once you have some distance, you can try taking action against your unwanted thoughts.

Taking Action Against Unwanted Thoughts

Wherever you may find yourself in the process of identifying unwanted thoughts, early, middle or late, here are a few things you can try.

One option is to simply say to yourself “stop”. For some people that is enough, while others may find it helpful to actually visualize a stop sign at the moment they tell themselves “stop”.

If watching your thoughts feels too abstract and you want something more concrete, try watching yourself breathe. Some people find it helpful to focus on their breath as it enters their nose and then again as it leaves their nose. Others find it easier to focus on their abdomen and just watch it rise and fall with each breath. Still others count their breaths in cycles of four. For instance, slowly breathing in, you can name this breath “one” and slowly exhale. Then name the second one “two” and so on until you reach four. Upon reaching four, you start again with “one”.

When you find your thoughts drifting off in unwanted directions like a boat tossed about on turbulent seas, then focusing on your breath can serve as an anchor to help hold your attention in place. This is a technique that you can use no matter where you are. For instance, you can use it to shut out thoughts of work when you are at home. Or when you are at work, if you have had a difficult meeting with colleagues and now need to concentrate on the task at hand, you can also use this technique to re-focus yourself.

Time Limit on Thoughts of Work

If you find that you simply cannot let go of your thoughts about work, then tell yourself that you set a time limit for yourself. While this may sound funny, it can help people contain thoughts that seem overwhelming. You can tell yourself that you allow yourself fifteen minutes to think about work at home. That’s all. Not more. Then, set a timer and make yourself think about work until the timer goes off. Then time is up and it is time to go on to other things.

The fact that this exercise sounds almost artificial and funny can help lighten the situation. By “allowing” yourself only a set amount of time to think about work, you can playfully tease yourself about how, in fact, you can prevent thoughts about work from spilling over into your private life.

Create a “Decompression Chamber”

Just as divers need to go through a period of decompression as they rise to the surface, you can create for yourself a space or an activity that signals to you that you are “decompressing” from work. Decompression varies from person to person and you can be creative and original in how you come up with your own decompression chamber. For some people it means putting on headphones and listening to quiet music before they interact with their family. Others meditate, while others take a hot bath. The choices are yours to make. The main thing is to label this activity as a transition zone from work into private life and consciously tell yourself that you are now making a transition and it is time to leave work behind.

Do Something!

Since our thoughts, behaviors and emotions are inter-connected, you can try shutting off thoughts of the work day by engaging in some kind of physically demanding behavior. For many people, exercise can serve this function. It not only helps to reduce stress, it is good for one’s health, and can serve as an intensive activity that demands your attention fully, thereby disengaging your thoughts from work.

Focusing on the Present Moment

Doing something does not always have to be physically demanding. It can be something that you can do routinely around the house. For instance, you can turn the task of preparing dinner into an exercise in focusing your thoughts so they do not stray back to work. Quite a few people find dinner preparations to be a nice way to relax from the demands of the day. As you are cutting vegetables or stirring food on the stove, just take deep relaxed breaths and bring your attention to the present moment.

Anything you are doing in the present moment can help to shut off unwanted thoughts about work. It can be cooking, walking, reading…anything. If you find it difficult to focus on what you are doing in the present moment, quietly in your mind observe and describe to yourself what you are doing. “Now I am putting my left foot in front. Now my right. Now my left.” Or “I am washing the lettuce for the salad. I am peeling the carrots…” and so on.

This may sound odd at first, but remember it is an exercise to increase your ability to focus on the present moment. Think of this kind of self-talk as “training wheels” for a bike. The more you practice on focusing in the present moment, the less you will need the training wheels. And the more focused in the present moment you are, the less likely you are to think about work.

Closing Thoughts

Sometimes the creative process is such that ideas about challenges at work may suddenly appear at surprising moments such as while washing the dishes or walking your dog. In such cases simply note down your insights and tell yourself that you can think it through later. The greater problem arises when you do not want to think about work but find yourself doing so for long periods of time.

In such situations, try practicing some of the techniques and suggestions described above. All of these are meant to help you bring your attention to the present moment. Doing this allows you to effectively shut out thoughts about work that you may not wish to think about. You can also use these suggestions as a starting point to create your solutions. Be inventive. Be creative. Be playful. See what else you can come up with.

The more you practice the techniques described here, the better you can keep out thoughts of work at the end of the day. But if you find that thoughts about work prevent you from enjoying your life fully or sleeping properly, then it is important to seek the help of a trained health care professional.

Copyright 2005 S.D.Shantinath, Ph.D, All Rights Reserved.