Turning It Off: Eight Tips for Leaving Work at Work

It’s 5pm and you leave your office, only to step into your living room. Your five-year-old engages you immediately in a philosophical debate about the comparative advantages of hammerhead sharks vs. tiger sharks. Your spouse hands you a toddler with a look that says, “I need a break.” Meanwhile, you can barely process any of it because you’re still thinking about the email you just got from a client at 4:59.

Clockface showing five o'clock

Five O'Clock

The 10-second commute is an artifact of 21st Century living and the so-called “digital economy”. Workers in this environment need to get good at managing the transition or risk burn-out. This isn’t just about work-life balance: it’s about establishing a boundary so both your personal life and professional life flourish.

There’s an element of poor planning–if you haven’t given yourself enough time to do your tasks, you’ll be preoccupied. But even those of us with the best project schedules find ourselves still revving at the end of the day. Healthy 21st century living means turning off your work-self, so you can embrace the rest life has to offer. Distractions on either side of the boundary make it difficult to be your best.

Here are eight things I do to make sure that boundary remains strong:

1. Compose a to-do list at the end of the day

Creating a list is a simple technique from the time management and stress-relief playbook. A good list builds a boundary with a simple message: “You’re done for the day. This is what you need to do tomorrow.” Merely knowing how you’ll start the day tomorrow can eliminate the temptation to wander over to your desk and tinker.

Written to-do list sitting on a computer keyboard

To-Do List

2. Report into a manager

Now that you have a list, you can let others know what you intend to do tomorrow. A corollary of the modern workplace is over-communication. No manager will ever complain about getting too much information. By publicly committing to do specific tasks tomorrow, your ego can rest at ease knowing it’s not on the hook to deliver today. In communicating your list for tomorrow, be sure to indicate your accomplishments for the day. Reminding yourself what you did do can help take your mind off what you didn’t.

3. Create a physical boundary between home and office

To the extent feasible, make your work space separate and distinct from your home space. Your work space shouldn’t be the place where your kids also do their home work. Likewise, your laptop shouldn’t follow you around the house, so you can work “whereever”.

Slightly open double-door

Physical Boundary

A new study from Notre Dame suggests that passing through a doorway helps us compartmentalize our thoughts. While the study attempts to explain how people who go into a room sometimes forget why they did, it also implies that crossing physical boundaries can help create useful separations.

Some people are fortunate to be able to dedicate a separate room with a door to their work. If your living space doesn’t permit this, try to set up your desk so it faces away from the general activity of the house. It should take a small effort to get to your desk: you want to avoid gliding up to it any time day or night. Getting to work should be a distinct and separate activity, even if shares part of 800 square feet of living space.

4. Turn off your email notifications

Even if you leave your laptop on your desk, you still have another computer following you around all day. Your phone tempts you constantly to cross the boundary, especially if it jumps up and down like a puppy with every new email.

Set your phone not to buzz or bing or hiccup with every new message. Usually, such distractions are completely irrelevant to your context, which includes, but is not limited to, locating bathroom facilities in a public place for a desperate kindergartener. Experience says that this isn’t the time to be distracted.

5. Schedule a conversation at the end of the day

In other words, use co-workers to help set boundaries. Your end-of-day calls can be anything from a 15-minute status update to a 30-minute design review to a 60-minute remote sketching session. The end of the meeting creates a natural boundary, such that your final action of the day will be either hanging up the phone, turning off screen sharing, or hitting send on an email with follow-up items.

Calendar showing a meeting scheduled at the end of the day. The meeting is titled "Design Review with Nathan".

End-of-Day Review

“Fun” meetings tend to work best, brainstorming with colleagues or reviewing designs. Getting the last of the creative energy out facilitates the transition to home life without any lingering desire to put the finishing touches on anything.

6. Commit to an after-work activity

You can approach this boundary from the other side, too. That is, schedule an after-work activity with someone. It’s important to (a) involve another person and (b) tell them about it. By making a commitment to someone, you’re more likely to adhere to it. Drop these appointments onto your shared calendar and other people will also know you have a hard stop at the end of the day.

A 6pm commitment establishes a clear boundary. It forces you out of the house and into a non-work-related situation. It gives you something to look forward to, and encourages you to organize your day so you can be done at 5pm.

7. Tell people you’re distracted

Admitting to someone you’re preoccupied can help bring the boundary into focus. Society seems to favor psychological super-humans who can compartmentalize, who live entirely in the moment, unaffected by other aspects of their lives. In reality, we just don’t understand the human brain enough to know what makes one thing keep knocking around in there while your life percolates around you.

So, bringing the distraction to the forefront of your attention can, at least, help you deal with the preoccupation. It lets the other person know that you need help coming back to reality. There’s nothing more humbling than having to ask your five-year-old to repeat himself because you were thinking about something else.

8. Give your brain a commute

Your schedule may love the 10-second commute, but your brain does not. Sitting on the subway for 45 minutes may feel like a waste of time, but it builds a natural buffer. The commute allows your brain to make the transition from “work mode” to “family mode”, or whatever mode you want to end up in at the end of the day.

Use the 20-30 minutes immediately following your end-of-day as a commute. Mindless chores work well, but it can be really anything that encourages your brain to disconnect. Allow yourself to sit quietly and concentrate on something useful but irrelevant. (My colleagues at EightShapes are by now sick of hearing how I spend my 5 o’clock hour cooking dinner for my family. When I sit down at the table, I’m no longer preoccupied with everything that happened before 5.)

Stovetop with dinner cooking

My Commute

It’s easy to slip into old habits. The most important thing you can do is recognize the need for a boundary and constantly find new ways to enforce it. Don’t let boundary-setting become just another to-do item that’s easy to neglect. Experiment with new ways to establish and stick to the boundaries: your brain will thank you for it.