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