How to leave work at work: 5 tips for separating work from the rest of your life

How many times have you come home from a long day, kicked up your feet, and then… thought about work for the next 4+ hours straight? Maybe it’s a leftover to-do. Or an off-putting comment from a co-worker. Or even some big idea you just don’t want to forget. Whatever it is, it’s nagging at you and won’t go away.

As much as we’d like them to, our brains don’t operate the same as our to-do list or calendar. And just because you’ve crossed off a to-do or physically moved from cubicle to couch doesn’t mean your brain will follow suit.

But it should. To do our best work, we need to prioritize rest as much as hours worked. So how do you leave work at work? Here are a few science-backed suggestions to help you disconnect and recharge.

How to leave work at work:

What does it mean to find work-life balance in 2019? Check out our in-depth analysis of 185 million hours of working time to discover the biggest threats to your productivity and focus.

Anticipatory stress, attention residue, and why your work follows you home

How to leave work at work stress

Let’s start by understanding why it’s so hard to leave work at work. To do that, we need a quick lesson in behavioral science and evolution.

Over thousands of years, your brain has evolved to do two specific things:

  1. Latch onto information it deems important (like the last task you were working on)
  2. Constantly be on alert for any new threats in your environment (including that late-night email from your boss)

The first part is due to what business professor Sophie Leroy calls Attention Residue. Simply put, studies have found that when we switch tasks, it’s difficult to transition our attention away from what we’ve left undone. So, when you leave work, your brain is still focused on what’s been left undone.

The second part is due to an evolutionary trait called Anticipatory Stress or in other words, worrying about the prospect of future threats.

As we wrote in our Guide to Workplace Stress, the modern workplace is filled with all sorts of things your brain perceives as threats—angry emails, mistakes, missing deadlines. So, even though you might leave work on a Friday afternoon at Inbox Zero, you still stress over the possibility of more emails coming in.

Why does this matter? Sure it sucks to think about work when you’re relaxing after a long day. But there are bigger issues to be aware of. 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.

5 ways to leave work at work

If we’re psychologically and evolutionarily predisposed to stress about work even when we’re at home, what can we do?

Disconnecting from work isn’t as easy as shoving those thoughts out of your mind or drowning out the nagging reminders with Netflix or video games. To get the most of our time off and leave work at work we need to be deliberate in how we end our days.

RescueTime helps you stay focused and productive by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

1. Remove the expectation of dealing with emails outside of work hours

When we studied 185 million hours of working time, we found that people do an hour or more of work outside regular hours on 89 days on the year. But while you might think it’s the fact you have to deal with emails and communication outside of work hours that’s stressing you out. But it’s actually not that simple.

According to a study from researches at Lehigh University, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State University, it’s not the time spent answering emails outside of work that causes us to feel stressed and exhausted, but rather how much you anticipate receiving them.

As Samantha Conroy, one of the study’s authors writes:

“It’s not only that employees are spending a certain amount of extra time answering emails, but it’s that they feel they have to be ready to respond and they don’t know what the request will be. So if they’re having dinner with their family, and hear that ‘ding,’ they feel they have to turn their attention away from their family and answer the email.”

To learn how to leave work at work, we need to remove that Pavlovian response that happens when we get a notification. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Organizational: When we surveyed 500+ knowledge workers, 75% said they’d never spoken to a colleague about response time expectations. Start small. Talk with your team about expectations and set rules. Should they respond out of working hours? Send emails? Make sure everyone’s on the same page.
  • Personal: Our phones are always near us. Try separating yourself from it after-hours, going into DND mode during dinner/family time, or making the hour before bed ‘phone free’.
  • Tech: You can even go a step further and delete email and Slack from your phone. If you’re afraid of going dark, just follow the advice of Ignite 360 CEO Rob Volpe and establish a ‘panic alert’ code. (Volpe and his colleagues use “Jodie Foster” as their code because of the movie Panic Room.)

Bonus: Use RescueTime’s Work Hours feature to see how much time you’re spending outside of work

RescueTime shows you exactly how you’re using your digital devices during the day. And one of the best ways to filter that information is with work hours.

Start by setting your Working Hours under Settings > Advanced Filters. Here’s what mine looks like:

Work hours example

Once that’s done, each report then will tell you how much of that time is spent inside/outside of your regular hours. For example, here’s my time in Communication apps last month:

Comm Scheduling

I can also see how I’m using these apps by time of day, if my usage is trending, and even set alerts to notify me if I spend too much time working outside of work hours.

2. Set hard deadlines for the end of your workday

If you’re putting in a few extra minutes (or hours) at the end of your workday, you’re setting yourself up for a night stressing over work. According to Sophie Leroy, simply finishing a task isn’t enough to clean up attention residue. Instead, “time pressure while finishing a prior task is needed to disengage.”

In other words, attention residue disappears when you have a hard deadline at the end of the day. This might mean adjusting your daily schedule, making sure you’re not falling into the trap of affective forecasting, and optimizing your day around your natural energy levels.

In an even more recent study, Leroy also found that time pressure like this can also help us avoid being interrupted during the day. As she writes:

“When people anticipate resuming their interrupted work under time pressure, they will find it difficult to switch their attention to the interrupting task.”

Not only do deadlines help you keep work at work, but they help you stay focused while you’re there. It’s a win-win.

3. Use your commute to clear the mental clutter of the day

What about when you leave the office? As we’ve written before, rituals—those symbolic actions performed at key moments—are what help us move through the day smoothly. And what better ritual to use than your commute?

Whether your commute consists of an hour on the train or walking from the couch to the kitchen, you can use that time to help keep work at work. The act of moving from one space to another can be enough to knock your attention residue loose. As Dr. Keith E. Webb writes:

“Your mind reacts to movement. Even standing up will clear your thoughts. The more emotion you have in the previous task, the more movement you need.”

If possible, add a bit of walking into your post-work routine. A Stanford study found that walking, both indoors and outdoors, helps boost our creative thinking and disconnect from the singular focus that leads to attention residue.

4. Write tomorrow’s to-dos today

Just like the anticipatory stress of emails, worrying about tomorrow can just as easily derail your detachment.

As author Jocelyn K. Glei writes, the easiest way to get over this is to write tomorrow’s to-do list the night before. Not only does this help you to disconnect (as you’ve thought about and defined your priorities), but also means you’re starting tomorrow off on the right foot:

“I find that if I wake up with a clear picture of my key priorities for the day already in mind, I am infinitely more productive—not to mention more relaxed. By contrast, kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to the dangers of reactive work, letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day via incoming emails, co-worker interruptions, etc.”

5. Set aside time for hobbies, interests, and things that you truly care about

The dark side of productivity advice is that it constantly makes you feel like you should be doing more. More work, more thinking, more personal development. And doesn’t leave any time for, you know, fun!

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that to properly disconnect and recover at the end of the day, we need to spend time focused on what are called “mastery experiences.”

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 will pursuing hobbies just for the fun of them help you keep work at work, but they can lead to more overall happiness due to lower stress, more social relationships, better structure to your day, and a sense of accomplishment and meaning.

RescueTime helps you take back control of your time with in-depth reports, distraction blocking, and more. Try it for free

You weren’t meant to think about work 24/7

The hardest thing about finding work-life balance is just how much of our lives is taken up by work. We work more than ever. Use our careers to help solidify our identity. And fall into the trap of thinking being busy is being productive.

But is that really how you want to spend your time?

Leaving work at work isn’t about creating a hard wall between the two. But about giving you space to both enjoy your time working and the things you do outside of work. Your hobbies, friends, family, or even just watching a movie. All without guilt.

How do you leave work at work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.