Techniques to switch off from a never-ending workload

Do these imaginary figures sound like you?

Chris, a senior manager at a New York design studio can’t sleep. His mind is churning, thinking about the mountain of tasks facing him back at the office. Katrina, the production manager at a well-known publishing house is distracted by a work email at the dinner table. Her partner complains that she “never seems able to turn off.”

They’re not the only ones having difficulty disengaging from their jobs at the end of the workday. According to a seven-year study on workers’ performance, an inability to make this break between professional and personal time ranked among the top-10 stressful situations that people were least effective at handling. Technology has, of course, exacerbated the problem, offering both convenience and imposition, by putting our workplaces just a touch screen away. How can we all do a better job of leaving work at work, so our home lives become more pleasurable and less stressful?

A good thing to do would be to use end-of-day routines to create a psychological barrier between their two worlds. When the following five strategies were tested with a group of 26 managers, the percentage who said they were “effective” at making a clean break between work and home jumped from 40% to 68%.

Before leaving the office…

Do one more small task. Make a short phone call, sign a document, or respond to an email. This way you end your day on a positive note of completion. There’s gratification in knowing that you elected to push yourself and now have one less thing to do the following morning. And, as research from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle, has shown even “small wins” can enhance your mood.

Write a to-do list. On paper or digitally, make a record of all the tasks you need to accomplish, ideally in order of importance. When my organization worked with the New York Presbyterian Hospital Cornell Medical Center to survey more than 1,000 workers living in the northeast we found that the practice of building such lists was among the top three most effective skills for enhancing work performance and positively redirecting stress.

Straighten up your work area. Putting things away and getting piles organized will better position you to start off fresh the next day. In that same collaborative study, managers and non-managers reported that when they instead left their desks or stations cluttered, the frustration and pressure they’d felt that day was rekindled the next morning. So there may be some truth to the idea that having a tidy desk equates to having a fresh mind.

Choose a specific action — something I call an “anchor quick charge” — that will, for you, symbolize the end of thinking about work. Examples include locking your office door, turning off your monitor, or calling home. Consistent use of this designated anchor will enable you to take control of your emotions and shift your mental state, just as if you were clocking out on a timesheet. Research from Francesca Gino and Michael Norton has shown the power of such rituals or routines.

Start the evening on a positive note. Instead of greeting friends and family members with the standard “How was your day?” — opening the door to discussion of everyone’s residual negative work or school stress — be more specific. Ask what good or exciting things happened to them that day, then engage with them in a conversation about it. The idea is to take the focus off yourself. And, if someone asks, “How was your day?” resist lengthy explanations unless you think they can help resolve a hanging concern.

This five-step strategy requires minimal time and effort — about 10 -15 minutes per day in our experience. While some of the tips and techniques may not seem new, they can be highly effective when used in sequence and combination, greatly reducing feelings of stress and improving work-life balance.