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How to Quit Thinking About Work When You’re Not At Work

Give your brain some time off

The average American full-time employee spent 6 hours and 24 minutes per day working or commuting to work in 2016. That’s 44 hours and 52 minutes per week (for reference, there are 168 hours in a week). And more damningly, that includes the weekends.

But let’s be honest: It feels more like we spend all of our waking hours at work, thanks to being constantly available and feeling like we must answer every work email, text or Slack, whatever the day or time. We obsess over deadlines while trying to fall asleep; we brainstorm ideas while sitting down for dinner with our partners; and we consider leaving it all behind to live as a drunk in an abandoned trailer park while nursing a hangover on Sunday evenings. As a result, our lives become narrow and constricted — we lose sight of the endless possibility of life outside of work.

That’s (obviously) no fun, and it’s certainly not healthy. So how can we truly leave work at work? According to Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and coach for busy executives, it’s largely a matter of finding a practical way to follow the classic management non-answer when you complain of being overwhelmed: Work smarter, not harder.

“Stressing over work when you’re not there is caused by leaving too much chaos behind,” Duncan explains. “Spend time organizing everything, improving and streamlining how you work with better processes and technology. Imagine leaving work with a clean desk, deadlines met and a clear sense of what needs to get done first the next workday. If your eyes always see a mess, your mind will become one.”

While this is arguably the best way to avoid bringing work home, it’s also easier said than done (especially if your boss is set on working you until you literally dissolve into a pile of dust at your desk). If that’s your situation, simply shutting off your devices can be extremely helpful. Here’s why, according to the Harvard Business Review:

“A smoker doesn’t try to quit smoking while leaving a large carton of cigarettes in their pantry. Similarly, someone trying to set healthier work-life boundaries doesn’t leave their phone and computer on all the time.”

If that’s not an option, Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, recommends picking up a hobby outside of work. “To keep your mind off work problems, give your brain a different problem to solve: Where to plant the new rose bushes in your backyard [sic], building a ship in a bottle, whatever,” she writes in an article for Fast Company. That way, you can focus solely on your hobby (and forget about work) when you’re at home.

All of which probably sounds impossible if you’re drowning at work. But hey, maybe you can at least distract yourself from looming deadlines by giving it a try.