How to Stop Thinking about Work – 5 Tips

How to Stop thinking about workIt is critical to your mental and physical health to know How to Stop Thinking about Work.  This post is written for my benefit and yours, if you find yourself in a similar situation.

During the last six weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about work.   I love my new job, and theoretically I am only working about 40 hours a week,  8:30 am to about 5:30pm, Monday through Friday.  I don’t take my computer home, and I only look at my work phone at home to check on my meeting schedule for the next day.

“Sounds great,” you may say, “what’s the problem?”  Well, while I am not physically working, I seem to be working mentally, 24/7.   For example:

  • I am still dwelling on the people issues I am facing while I am commuting after work to pick up my older daughter from summer camp.
  • I find myself zoning out at the playground, lost in thoughts about how to facilitate a big meeting I have the next week.
  • As soon as I wake up in the morning, a list of work to-do’s rushes into my head – “I have to do xyz today…Don’t forget about that one again…This is the way to really address this issue I had yesterday.”  It’s as if my brain was working in the background all night solving issues that are unresolved at work.
  • Even on the weekends, when I don’t have to wake up to go to work, I still wake up thinking about the past week, about some things I wish I had done differently.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Are you exhausted from just reading it?  I am tired from living it.  I know I have a big job — I am involved in 3 programs, and I am leading 2 projects with 30 people, each of whom are implementing new services that can impact up to 5 million customers. Even though all of this is important, it’s time to stop thinking about work after I leave the office.

You may say, “Well, no wonder you are thinking about work all the time. You have a lot of responsibilities.  It ‘s really normal for you to have this level of stress, given your job.”   I would actually disagree with you. I have experienced five disadvantages from over-thinking about work.  I think this applies to all of us, no matter what our job level is (entry level, manager level, or executive level):

  1. Mental Energy Drain – When I think about work all the time, I am not letting my brain rest enough to be 100% the next day.   If we don’t have a fully rested brain to use each day, we cannot perform at our best, leading to bad decisions or short tempers.  As time goes on, I find myself already tired — and it’s only 9am in the morning!  I know I felt like that several mornings in recent weeks.
  2. Negatively Impacts Physical Health – We only have this body, and about 80 years to use/abuse it if we are lucky.   Thinking about work all the time is an indulgence that will affect our physical health in the long run.  I sometimes wake up with headaches or stomach tightness.  That cannot be good for anyone long term.
  3. Less Life Enjoyment – While I may be physically present with my kids and husband on weeknights and weekends, I am not always mentally there.  My husband has been getting frustrated with me for zoning out into my own thoughts in the middle of our conversation or at dinner.  Plus, when I play games with my kids, half of my brain is still working on some job issues, and my six year old has to remind me when it’s my turn because I’ve been distracted.
  4. Unnecessary Work Resentment  – For a few weeks, I resented work because it was in my head all the time.  I was tired of it, but couldn’t seem to shut my brain off from work.   The work life balance I wanted with this new job was not there.  I could have easily blamed the job or my boss, but I realized I was the one responsible.  No one was actually emailing me after hours, nor asking me to work late or on weekends. I am unable to stop thinking about work. It’s completely self-imposed.
  5. Unproductive Use of Time  – Although I may be thinking about work at home, I am not actually doing any work.  My brain is only repeating work thoughts and scenarios.   Sometimes I am afraid to forget the solution I came up with, and other times I am too focused on what already happened and what I could have done differently.  Either way, it is actually an unproductive use of my non-work time.

You may wonder by now whether or not I have actually figured out how to stop thinking about work.  Well, sort of.  This post is helping me sort it out.  Here is what I figured out:  I realized that I have three types of unproductive work thoughts.  Depending on the type, I have implemented five strategies to manage them.

Three type of unproductive work thoughts

  1. Unfinished To-Dos:  Work is rarely ever done in one day.  There is always something to do the next day, week, or month.  I developed a bad habit of thinking about what I haven’t done, then repeating it to myself, worrying I may forget it.  Part of this is happening because I usually have to leave work in a rush exactly at 5 or 5:30pm.  I literally have to drop what I am doing, and rush so I can be on time to pick up my older daughter from school or camp.
  2. Unresolved Work Issues:   This one is a little more complex.  It’s not really a task, but more like a work puzzle that my analytic brain is holding on to to solve.  There is also the underlying stress of “if I don’t solve it, will the project be behind schedule.”   I end up thinking about both, often after work and sometimes even in my sleep.
  3. Dwelling on Past Events:   This may seem out of place, but it probably occupies most of my unproductive work thoughts.  As a recovering perfectionist, I have had a relapse.  I guess I am human.   After work, I find myself dwelling on events that happened during the day, and either blame myself or others for less than perfect executions.  It actually sounds more ridiculous now that I am writing this down and sharing it with you.   But if you have ever experienced the emotion of regret, I think you know how powerfully it sticks to your brain and unnecessarily tortures our thoughts.

How to Stop Thinking about Work – 5 Tips

After experiencing these unproductive thoughts in my off-work time for several weeks, I knew I had to  make some changes to enjoy my job and life again.  Here are five strategies I am practicing, with some success:

  • Be Self-Aware:  I realized that half the battle of figuring out how to stop thinking about work is simply just catching myself when I am doing it.  Instead of letting my brain run away with all these unproductive work thoughts, I am now identifying them every time they occur. It gives me control over my brain. Now that I’m catching myself, I can do something about it, and so can you.
  • Implement a 10 Minute Buffer –  I now dedicate 10 minutes at the end of each work day to think about what still needs to be done, and then write out a to-do list. This has helped me “park” my thought at the end of the day, so I know I won’t forget about them. I also arrive 10 minutes earlier in the morning and take that time to get into work mode, and prioritize what I must do that day.
  • Enjoy a Creative Outlet –  Contrary to popular belief, none of us can actually multitask.  Our brains can only focus on one thought at a time.   One of the best ways to stop thinking about work is to focus on something else, preferably something fun and creative.  My creative outlets are salsa dancing, writing blog posts, and playing physical games with my kids.  All of these activities require my complete focus, and they give my brain a break from thinking about anything else.
  • Practice Forgiveness – Regret seems to be an instinctual emotion for all of us.   Two Fridays ago, I was able to lead my largest project team to meet an important deadline.  You would think I’d feel relieved that weekend.  Nope!  Instead, on Friday night, I felt really bad about how hard I had to push others on my team to get it done.  I was not my best self that day.  Instead of just chalking it up to lessons learned and “I will do better next time,” I just started replaying those few meetings and beat myself up for it. As you can see, I also need to be reminded to forgive myself, even though I already wrote the article “Forgive and Forget” back in 2011.  It took a friend to remind me again.  Instead of trying to suppress my feelings of regret, I now look at it differently by giving myself the freedom to leave the past in the past, and start fresh every day.  It’s better to focus on what we can do right now, and what we can learn today and in the future. Also, by forgiving myself, I can forgive others — after all, no one is perfect.
  • Learn, Practice, & Grow – Last but not least, I realized that this experience is just part of the journey of life.   I truly believe in the growth mindset — we can all change for the better every day.  Writing this post is helping me grow.  I also found a book on this topic to help me learn further.  It’s called 10% happier– How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.  I just bought it, and will let you know what I learn 🙂

As you can see, I am still figuring it out.  Thanks for reading this post.  I hope some of the tips I shared here can also empower you to stop thinking about work unnecessarily.    Enjoy life, work, and live with passion!

Your comments:  What are the reasons you cannot stop thinking about work?  What methods have you tried using to stop yourself?  What worked and what hasn’t?  I look forward to learning more and having a discussion.

Like this post? then help me out and share it on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Email, etc…

Best wishes to your career success.  I am always in your corner.

Lei

20 thoughts on “How to Stop Thinking about Work – 5 Tips

  1. Ld Post author

    I think you described my problem better than I can ever could! It is EXACTLY what I have been experiencing since I took on a role as a project manager role in the last couple of months. With kids in the picture, it was mentally exhausting thinking about work and the worse part was not able to turn off the switch. I’m so glad to stumble upon your posting and hope you will continue to share, including books you recommended. Thank you!

  2. Jodi

    Lei,
    I have come back to this article multiple times, because I love the way you wrote it. I struggle with this so much. Why do we identify so much and attach so strongly to work things? Why do we make anything big enough in our brain that it keeps us up at 3am? Especially since work is not what is truly important in life. I’m curious if there is a basis in anxiety or if it is something that comes from elsewhere. Thanks for putting this discussion out there!

  3. Lei Han Post author

    I woke up at 3am today stressing about work. Yes, it still happens even though I wrote these tips above. I realize it will always happen if we worry about work. In this case, I know I am worried about a project. I keep crafting two different emails in my head trying to resolve the issues. Finally, I just got up and wrote them down so I don’t keep rewriting them in my head and hope I don’t forget. The need to remember was what kept me from sleeping. Then I decided to do something just to switch my mind out of the constantly repeat thought, so I have been replying to comments on the blog.

    It’s amazing how many of us are affected by this issue. The only other learning i have at the moment is I have to let go of outcome. NOw that I have written down two emails and will execute them tomorrow, I will do what I think is right to influence the situation. I must have faith in others and also not worry too much yet about how they respond. It’s amazing how much imagined responses will also keep us up at night. I am learning to take action when I worry and can’t stop thinking about work and then also let it be as there is always going to be issues at work. Good night :-). Going back to sleep

  4. Sandy

    Thanks for this post. Really helped. Below are some of the point which i realized myself which will help us.

    Things wil happen quickly if it is emergency or some one need it immediately. Just check when that emergency arises or whose that and when he need it so that unfinished work will complete. From this we will get to know when the work will be finished so that we no need to worry about until. Reason for most of the unfinished work is its not in your control or you are waiting for somebody for their response. Also we need to know how our work is consumed and whom will consume our work.

    We are always anxious when thinking about future works. So its better we spend time in Just reflect and review our past moments.

    We need plan how our future moments. What we want to do in our future moments.

  5. Leon

    Hi Lei, I can relate with your story. Have you read Getting Things Done by David Allen? He says we have ‘open loops’ – unfinished thoughts that drain mental energy until we address them. I agree with the 10 minute buffer technique since it helps to condition our brain to transition into rest mode and not feel anxious because we’ve already laid out our thoughts for tomorrow/next week. Thanks for the article, I really like it 🙂

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Thanks Leon. Glad you like it. I have not read this book but the theory totally make sense. that’s how I feel as well when I can’t stop thinking. Sometimes I even get up in the middle of the night to write some stuff down. I found that I can be thinking about the same “unfinished thought” without resolution for an hour but if I just get up and write down the next series of thought and next steps in 10 min, I can be fast asleep after wards. 🙂 Thanks for sharing

  6. Susmitha

    Since a week I do not have good sleep. I keep on thinking about my new challenges in work even after leaving the workplace. I am like need to complete the work immediately and even after coming home sitting infront of PC and doing the work.

    While reading the article it is like reading my mind.I love music. So I decided to learn a new stanza everyday to keep myself occupied and get rid of the thoughts related to work.

    Thank you so much:)

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Susmitha, so glad to hear this is helping. How is it going? I am realizing too that overthinking about work is an act of insecurity. We are worried that if we don’t do it now, somehow we will get fired or something. For most people, it’s complete fiction made up by our over-active brain. Glad to hear you are using music to help you unplug 🙂

  7. Britt Elin

    Your post was like reading my own thoughts. I really needed this right now: seeing that someone else is just like me. Just an hour ago I read and answered a work email, while I was lying in my boyfriend’s arms trying to watch a movie. I know, it is terrible! I wish I had a magic cure for this. I have tried forcing the work thoughts out, but I get a knot in my stomach from doing it. I then get the constant feeling I have forgotten something, and then thinking about work is the cure to get rid of the knot. But then I am stuck thinking about work again.

    I do however have one strange trick, that works when I am not too tired. I will sit down and do my super detailed cross stitch embroidery at the same time as I listen to an audio book. The combination of those two completely use up all my brain power, and leaves no space for work thoughts. I can only last up to a couple of hours, but during that time I am completely occupied by my hobbies. It makes me feel much better. Maybe someone else who is desperate to get certain thoughts out of their brain can also try something similar. A short, temporary fix, but it feels great!

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Britt, thanks for commenting and sharing your trick. I can see why your brain is completely occupied with two activities at once. I am still investigating better ways to solve this for us all.

      The one thing I realized about why “I constantly think about work,” is “worry.” I started trying instead of pushing the work thoughts out, I started asking myself the questions of why and what and using my logical mind to stop the pattern.
      – Why am I worried about work?
      – What I am worried about exactly? make a list of everything I am worried – nothing is left out.
      – For each thing on the list, write down the reason I am worried – still distinguish whether there are any facts in it or just “fantasies” of my mind. – For each ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen if this happened?
      – For each, write down the one thing I can do to be less worried about it.
      I found that this sometimes help me prioritize what is really truly needed to be done and what is less important
      .
      The other thing I started doing is taking 15-30 min when I am thinking about work at home and write down a to-do list and star ones I will tackle immediately tomorrow.

      Both of these have helped me so far in addition to keeping up my workout to get rid of all the toxic energy. I am still working on this topic and will write another post, once I have a good set of new tips. I appreciate you taking the time to write. Best wishes. Let me know if either of these tips help.

      Lei

  8. April

    I can identify with almost all of this! The past two years at my job have been very challenging and I’ve had a lot of those “unresolved work issues” burning holes in my brain. At the same time I’ve been learning a lot more about myself, what I need from a job and how to regain control. It’s definitely all about “practice, learn and grow”! The reassuring part is that the brain can make new pathways and we can do small things along the way to feel better. I really appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

  9. Tim

    Lei-your “How to Stop Thinking about Work – 5 Tips” post is excellence, thanks for sharing. I wish you continued success in helping others! I shared your link on my FB page too, cheers!

    Tim

  10. Charlotte

    Hi Lei, thanks for posting this. I was wondering how you’re doing in your mindset now, a whole year on? I suffer from very similar problems to those that you outline – although I’m 21 and in my first ever “stressful” job! A lot of the time I’m sure the situation isn’t even one which needs to be stressed about, I’ve just made it up! I’m coming to the realisation that it is in fact all in my head, and I can learn to change my negative tendencies into positive ones in regards to how I think about work. I’d just really like to know how you’ve progressed since writing this post?

    Thanks.

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Charlotte, thanks for reading and commenting. I have learned a lot in the past year. It’s still a process for me. I would agree. Many things are not real and only in our heads to torture us if we let it. It’s time for another post on this. Here are some highlights.
      1. Understand root cause of overthinking about work – insecurity about our abilities! Insecurity then leads to worry, self criticism, and perfectionist tendencies. We all have insecurities. It’s how we manage it when we realize we are feeling insecure. Working on our self confidence helps this.
      2. Separate what you can control with what you cannot. Take action on what you can control and communicate what you cannot.
      3. “Turn on the light instead of fight the dark.” I am learning to shift my attention to other things than work. It’s hard to keep trying to stop thinking about work, because in fact, you are still thinking about it by trying to stop. What has worked better is think about something else. It could be a passion you have outside of work. It could be where you want to go on vacation next.
      4. Expect some imperfection and let it go. The 10 min buffer has helped a lot. I would write down a to-do list for myself at the end of the day and then agree with myself to pick it up in the morning. It takes more like 20 min. Even if I didn’t get everything done that day, I accept it and appreciate myself for what I was able to accomplish.
      5. Meditate. I just started meditating 4 weeks ago. I have resisted for years and didn’t think sitting still would do anything for me. It is helping me center and just observe my thoughts without judgment and giving me the mind space to choose a different response to my thoughts. Also giving me some power to get out of the endless loop in my thoughts
      6. Watch something funny or hang out with someone that makes you laugh. When there is a lot of stress, we all need a mental break. Go watch a funny movie or grab a drink with someone who always seems to make you laugh.

      Have I mastered this? I wish. it’s a process. I have been overthinking about work since my first job and only realized in the last 5 years that it’s unhealthy. You are ahead of the game and catching yourself early. I applaud you. You can more easily build good habits to replace the bad.

      Try some of these tips and Keep me posted on how you are doing.

      Lei

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