It’s safe to say we’re all busy. Overcommitment is the new norm. And our days have become jam-packed with tasks, to-dos, meetings, emails, and deadlines. (Not to mention everything else in our personal lives!)
It’s a terrible feeling. But more than that, it’s holding you back from being as productive, focused, and happy as you should be.
Just like your body needs time to recuperate after a hard workout, your mind needs time to unplug and disconnect from the workday.
But if long days are inevitable, what can you do to properly wind down, unplug, and recover?
How to unplug after work: The 4 essential activities that let you fully disconnect from work
If your idea of unplugging and disconnecting from work is to sit on the couch and fire up Netflix until you fall asleep, we’ve got bad news for you. It turns out that disconnecting from work isn’t just about unplugging and tuning out.
Your brain doesn’t operate the same way as your to-do list. Completed tasks don’t just get scratched off and discarded. They linger. This is called Attention Residue—when thoughts about a previous task persist and intrude into other tasks or even the rest of your life.
Even if you try to “switch off” by binging Netflix, your mind keeps thinking and stressing about the workday. (This is why the second you lie down in bed you can’t stop thinking about stupid arguments or meaningless events).
Even worse, these feelings only compound the longer you let them fester. As researchers from Lehigh University wrote in Science Daily:
“As prior research has shown, if people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes.“
On the other hand, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who are able to psychologically disconnect from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue
- Far lower rates of procrastination
- Far greater engagement at work (and getting into a state of ‘flow’)
- Greater work-life balance and quality of life
- Greater satisfaction with their relationships at work and at home
- Better mental and physical health
So how do you properly disconnect from work?
Instead of heading for the couch, recent research has uncovered four key activities that will help you unplug and disconnect after work:
Let’s look at how you can build an after-work recovery routine that includes each of these.
1. Detachment from work: Set screen boundaries to recover from your tech-heavy days
According to the latest Nielsen report, the average American adult spends nearly 10 hours a day looking at screens. While (hopefully) most of that time is happening during work hours, it still leaves a big chunk of after-work time staring at screens.
Multiple studies have confirmed that simply looking at your laptop or any other blue-light emitting device (including your phone, tablet and some TVs) 1–2 hours before you go to sleep can lead to increased depression and anxiety, poor sleep quality, decreased psychological and emotional well-being, an increased level of stress and higher likelihood of burning out.
So the easiest solution is to just go full Luddite and stop using your devices, right? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple.
Screens have become so ingrained in our lives that we don’t even realize we’re using them. One study found that smartphone users check their devices more than 85 times per day but only believe they check them half as often.
We can’t be trusted to limit our screen usage ourselves. So instead, we need to create better screen time habits in our off-work hours. Here are a few suggestions:
Design your environment to be less tech-centric
When behavioral economist BJ Fogg wanted to reduce the amount of popcorn he ate, he didn’t just stop buying it. Instead, he took the bag out of his kitchen, climbed a ladder in his garage and put it on the top shelf. He could always get it (if he really wanted to), but simply making the process harder made him opt for healthier options.
The same goes for your screen time. Humans are lazy creatures by nature. And if you want to change your screen habit, simply make it harder to do.
For example, you could try locking your TV remote in an office drawer. Or even unplug and power down your laptop after work. The more friction, the less likely you’ll be to do it.
Replace your late-night screen habit with something healthier
If the idea of moving your TV just to disconnect from work feels a bit extreme, having your devices out of sight can also make a difference.
In his book Nudge, Richard Thaler talks about how grocery store products on shelves at eye level get purchased more than those down by the floor. This is called Choice Architecture—how we’re more likely to choose things that are in our immediate line of sight.
Try replacing the phone or tablet beside your bed with a book you’ve been meaning to read. Many of the world’s most successful people—from former US President Barack Obama to Bill Gates—read before bed, so you’ll be in good company.
Use a screen time commitment device to tell you when you’re using them too much
You don’t have to give up on your after-work screen time completely. But we all know how easy it is to say you’ll only watch one episode and then end up sucked in for hours.
In this case, you need a commitment device—a way to track and be alerted when you go over your screen time limit.
With RescueTime, you can set time limits on specific websites, apps, or even mobile screen time and then get a custom Alert when you go over.
Alerts can even trigger automatic FocusTime sessions to block social media, news, entertainment or anything else. (Or, you can go to the extreme like RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell and set up a terrifying automated phone call telling you to go to bed if you’ve done more than 30 minutes of productive work after midnight!)
2. Relaxation: Spend time alone to recover from being ‘always on’
We now spend up to 80% or more of our day on collaborative activities like email, meetings, and calls. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, spending all day engaging with other people is draining.
While no one likes to feel isolated, we all need some alone time to properly recover from the day.
This doesn’t mean you need to become a hermit in the woods. Instead, as Deep Work author Cal Newport explains, solitude is less about physical isolation, and more about mentally disconnecting:
“The key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation.
“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions… It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”
There are lots of ways you can add a bit of solitude to your after-work recovery routine:
- Ask to be alone while you prep and cook dinner
- Give yourself a half-hour of quiet time before bed
- Go for a 15-minute post-dinner walk
- Meditate when you come home from work
- Take the long-route home
Whether it’s a few minutes or more, setting aside some non-distracted time to be alone with your thoughts helps disconnect from work and recharge.
3. Mastery: Spend time working on a hobby or learn something new
It might seem counterintuitive that spending more effort on hobbies and learning will help you recover. Yet engaging in activities you enjoy (and that challenge you) is an essential element of psychologically detaching from work.
Researchers call this “mastery experiences,” but you probably know them as hobbies.
As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains:
“Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when they’re proficiently executed.”
Not only do hobbies help you feel rewarded, but research has found they can also improve your productivity, focus, and creativity when you return to work the next day.
One great example is the codebreakers during World War II. While they spent their working time trying to crack Nazi encryption codes, their leisure time was spent playing chess—an equally mentally and emotionally taxing activity. However, playing the game allowed them to disconnect from work while building their overall confidence and giving them fresh perspectives.
Making time for hobbies outside of work isn’t always easy. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow explains:
“Despite our yearning for free time, we tend to waste it once it comes around.”
However, there are a few strategies you can use:
- Schedule time for your hobbies in advance
- Use a commitment device like RescueTime to track your time
- Limit the time wasters that eat up your after-work hours
4. Control: Create a ‘shutdown ritual’ to disconnect from the workday
If you don’t have much control over what happens at work, or if your off-work time is filled with family duties, other obligations or chores, being able to control even just some of your time at the end of the day is both liberating and restorative.
In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, bestselling author Daniel Pink suggests creating a ritual at the end of the day. This ritual is a reminder that you’re in control of your time, no matter what you did during the rest of the day:
“Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Backup your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.”
This ‘closing ritual’ works because it takes advantage of a bias our brain have called the ‘Peak-end rule’. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that we only remember two things about an event:
- The emotional peak (whether good or bad)
- How it ended
By creating your own ritual, one that focuses on control and positivity, you’re essentially rewriting every day with a happy ending.
What your ritual will be is up to you, but a few things that have been shown to help include:
- Writing your to-do list for tomorrow
- Closing your open browser tabs and cleaning up your desktop
- Visualizing your day tomorrow
- Setting out clothes for the gym in the morning or work
- Reflecting on your day and writing in a gratitude journal
“You can do anything, but not everything,” wrote productivity expert David Allen. But few of us listen to that advice.
If you can’t immediately change how much you’re working, you can at least make changes to help you recover from your long days.
Take time to properly recover, both mentally and physically, and you’ll be setting yourself up for more productive days, a better work-life balance, and a happier, healthier life.