There’s nothing wrong with thinking about work outside of work per se. Getting ideas in the shower is a beautiful thing. But if thinking about a problem is keeping you up at night or keeping you from relaxing, that’s a different matter.
"My definition of when it’s a problem is purely pragmatic," says Peter Shallard, a business psychology expert who focuses on entrepreneurs. "You’re hitting a wall ruminating on the same problem again and again, anticipating a solution based on the intensity of that rumination."
Creativity doesn’t work that way, and being preoccupied can make you miserable.
Unfortunately, simply telling yourself to stop thinking about work is about as effective as telling yourself not to think of a polar bear (what just came to mind?). Here are better ways to cope.
Everyone complains about commuting, but it serves a purpose: creating space between "work" and "home." Use your trip home to ease into not-working mode by listening to or reading something light.
Work from home? "You can create those ritualistic structures, but they’re so much cooler because you’re doing them voluntarily," says Shallard, who goes for a walk around the block to signal the transition from work to home. Even if you’ll be signing on to email or a conference call later in the evening, enforcing a few hours of device-free family or leisure time gives your brain a break.
"The habit of going home to your spouse and debriefing them is very intuitive for a lot of people," says Shallard, but it’s a bad idea.
First, "being stuck in your own work problems is a form of self-indulgence," and second, rehashing a work problem will "stimulate us to mentally regress back to that afternoon when we had that problem."
Instead, ask your family members (or friends or roommates) about their days, and challenge yourself to be a good listener. Focusing on other people and their needs is a great way to get out of your own head.
For all the wonders of the human brain, it has this little limitation: "We can only focus on a couple of things at once," says Shallard. To keep your mind off work problems, give your brain a different problem to solve: where to plant the new rosebushes in your back yard, building a ship in a bottle, whatever.
"I really love cooking, but I’m not that great at it, so I really have to focus," says Shallard. Following a complex recipe means there’s no room left in his brain for any thoughts beyond "don’t burn the chicken."
This is the mental equivalent of getting a hobby. By focusing your brain on a different problem in the future (Do I have enough frequent flier miles to upgrade? Did my friends like that resort?), you engage your brain in the same solution seeking process it uses for work problems, but for a far more pleasant subject.
The upside of regular coaching sessions, says Shallard, is that long-term clients "start to get in the habit of saving up problems." They’ll email him "Remind me on Friday to talk about X"—and that simple act then gives their brains permission to procrastinate active problem solving until then.
That’s precisely what you want, because when you’re no longer actively thinking about a problem, that’s when those great solutions come to you in the shower. Half the time when Shallard brings up Problem X on Friday, the person already has it figured out.
You can give yourself the same sort of designated worry time by meeting with a mastermind group, or scheduling an accountability session with a friend or colleague. Often, your brain just needs to know that there’s a time for thinking about that issue—and now is not that time.