How to relax and recharge after a stressful workday: The 3 types of rest you need to (actually) recover

Rest is more than just not working. As Alex Pang, the author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less told us, work and rest aren’t competitors. They’re partners. The better you are at resting, the more energy and creativity you’ll bring into your work.

So why is it that so few of us really know how to relax and recharge at the end of the day? 

Instead of treating rest with the same discipline as powering through your inbox and to-do list, you’re more likely to hit the end of the day and want to just ‘tune out’ (i.e. Netflix, gaming, etc…).  

But this kind of passive rest doesn’t really help you in the long run. 

Instead, proper rest requires a few key elements in order to help you truly recover and recharge. The good news is that learning how to relax isn’t hard. All it takes are a few changes to your routines and habits. 

The 3 essential elements of rest and recovery

There are many different ways to think about how you relax and destress after work. There’s disconnecting from your work, which is the psychological process of unplugging and switching into ‘non-work mode’. 

Then there’s the idea of deliberate rest, which is engaging in activities that are challenging, yet rewarding enough to refill your creative well.  

But what about when you really just need to relax and recharge your energy? 

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you sleep, you still feel exhausted and on the path to burnout. And while work fatigue is a real issue and often a symptom of bigger problems that a guide like this won’t fix, there are ways to be more strategic about how you relax when you have the time. 

True rest–the type that leaves you feeling energized, inspired, and like you can take on the world–requires three key elements:

  • Relaxing your mind
  • Relaxing  your body
  • Relaxing your expectations

With the crazy (and stressful) nature of our workdays, accomplishing all three of these is a challenge. But the benefits are huge. 

People who know how to properly relax not only have more energy for all aspects of their lives but are also more creative, feel more balanced and happy at work, and are way less vulnerable to burnout. 

So how do you bring all of these elements together and destress after work?

How to relax your mind: Close any open loops and follow a ‘shut down’ routine

If you’ve ever gotten into bed only to have your mind race with all the unfinished tasks, to-dos, and conflicts at work then you know the importance of relaxing your mind. 

Yet, it’s impossible to simply tell ourselves (or someone else ) to ‘just relax’. Those thoughts you push aside when watching TV or making dinner for your family always seem to pop up as soon as you try to fall asleep. 

In fact, there’s an evolutionary reason why you can’t instantly disconnect from work. Over time, our brains have become incredibly good at two things:

  1. Latching onto important information (like those tasks that still need to be done tomorrow)
  2. Being on high alert for new threats in your environment (like the email you might get from your boss during dinner)

While these qualities have their place in the wild, in the working world they create what’s known as open loops and anticipatory stress

Open loops are the tasks, responsibilities, and commitments that live rent-free in your head. This could mean: 

  • Skimming your inbox and seeing a message from a client that you know is important but will take more time to complete than you have right now
  • Starting that exciting new side project that you’ve been thinking about for weeks
  • Returning that call to your brother that you’ve been meaning to for the past few days

Open loops feel important so you hold onto them tightly in your head at all times.

Anticipatory stress, on the other hand, is the feeling that you constantly need to be ready to respond to a message or jump into work, making it impossible to relax and detach. You anticipate and feel future stress, even if it never materializes. 

As you can imagine, thinking about unfinished tasks while stressing about potential future ones makes it impossible to relax your racing mind. 

While solving anticipatory stress comes down to changing expectations (which we’ll get into later), closing open loops has a more concrete and actionable solution: a master list.

How a master list helps you relax your racing mind

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, describes a master list as a document where you capture every task, email, to-do, and idea.

For each item, you’ll write down a concrete next step, set a deadline (if appropriate), and categorize them as either working on now, waiting on someone else, or someday.  

At the end of your day, spend a few minutes dealing with open loops. Unanswered emails get flagged and a reminder. Unstarted projects get put into your task management system with a deadline. Easy responses get made. 

Closing open loops is an important part of an effective shutdown ritual–a series of actions that signal the shift from work to non-work mode. However, if you want to truly relax your mind, you’ll want to follow the rest of these suggestions from Deep Work author Cal Newport:

  • Record your progress. Start by acknowledging what you accomplished–hours worked, tasks completed. Whatever metric you choose. Your RescueTime dashboard can show you these stats down to the minute
RescueTime Weekly Report for College Students
RescueTime observes and records the exact time you spend in apps and on websites.
  • Glance at the day (or week) ahead. Look ahead to make sure there aren’t any open loops you’re forgetting about. This will help you from ‘checking in’ later on.
  • Acknowledge the day is over. Use a ritual to signal the shift to non-work mode. This could mean closing your laptop or saying ‘workday over’ out loud. 

A shutdown ritual is especially important when you work from home and can’t create any real physical from your office.

How to relax your body: Use active recovery, breathing techniques, and screen breaks

You’ve probably heard about the risks of sitting for too long and staring at screens all day. But if not, here’s the rundown: 

Whether you work from a desk, couch, of the kitchen table, spending all day sitting hunched over a keyboard and staring at a screen is incredibly hard on your body and mind. 

Sitting for over eight hours (with little to no physical activity) poses the same health risks as obesity and smoking. While extended screentime can lead to what’s known as computer vision syndrome with symptoms ranging from blurred vision and neck and shoulder soreness to constant headaches. 

Part of resting is learning to unwind the screw you’ve been tightening all day long and letting your body physically relax.

Here are a few strategies you can try:

Deep breathing exercises

Changing how you breathe can bypass the anxieties of your mind and directly relax your body. As UC San Francisco professor Elissa Epel explains:

“The rate and depth we breathe at is a huge determinant of our mental state.”

When you breathe quickly and shallowly–like when you’re scrolling through social media, reading emails, or doing something stressful at work–it triggers your fight or flight response. You’ll start to feel tense and anxious. Whereas deep, steady breathing triggers the parasympathetic (i.e. ‘rest and digest’) branch of your nervous system.

Here’s an easy breathing exercise you can try to see the difference for yourself. 

  • Sit somewhere comfortable with a straight back
  • Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose
  • Inhale for a count of two
  • Hold your breath for a count of one
  • Exhale gently through your mouth for a count of four
  • Finish by holding your breath for one second and then repeat

The 2–4 count is a good place to start, but if it feels too short you can extend it to 4–6, 6–8 and so on. The key is to exhale longer than you inhale. 

Progressive muscle relaxation

One of the most popular techniques for releasing some of the physical tension of the workday is called progressive muscle relaxation. This is where you systematically relax your muscle groups one at a time. Here’s how it works:

  • Choose a space where you can lie down and stretch out like a carpeted floor
  • Breathe in and tense the first muscle group (for example, your hands). Tense hard enough to feel it but not to the point of pain or cramping. Hold for 4–10 seconds.
  • Breathe out and relax the muscle group quickly and all at once.
  • Pause and relax for 10–20 seconds. Take a moment to notice the difference between how your muscles feel when they’re tensed versus relaxed.
  • Move onto the next muscle group
  • When you’re finished, count backwards from 5 to bring your focus back to the present

When you start, it’s a good idea to work through your whole body. But once you understand the exercise, you can selectively target muscles that are tense and need to be relaxed.

The 20-20-20 technique for eye strain

Eye-strain is another common symptom of our screen-filled days. But more than just dry eyes, too much time on a screen can lead to headaches, tense shoulders and back, and potentially even blurred vision. 

One simple exercise you can work into your whole day to help with eye-strain is the 20-20-20 technique:

Every 20 minutes stare at an object at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. 

Try meditation (if that’s your thing)

Many meditation practices are designed to help you relax and focus your energy on your body and breath.

While not everyone can get behind the idea of sitting silently and doing nothing, there are plenty of apps that can introduce you to meditation or help guide your practice from Headspace to Calm.  

Spend time in nature

Finally, a walk outside is also a great way to calm your mind and body after a long day. But it can also help push you further into a state of relaxation. One study found that people who get more fresh air have less mental fatigue and even sleep better at night.

If you’re having trouble disconnecting from the day or sleeping at night, try a quick walk around the neighborhood. Just being outside for a few minutes can help.

How to relax your expectations: Set better boundaries, log off, and schedule fun

Finally, the missing element in most people’s wind-down routine is the mental shift from work to non-work mode. While closing loops helps remove those nagging tasks and responsibilities from your mind, work has become so all-consuming that the threat of it in our off hours keeps us on high alert.

Earlier, we talked about anticipatory stress–the anxiety of knowing that you always need to be available to answer emails, calls, or texts. Removing this is easier said than done. But once you do, you’ll be able to be fully present in the other aspects of your life. 

Here are a few ways to relax expectations after work:

  1. Have a conversation with your boss. When we interviewed 500+ workers about their habits and working styles, 75% said they’d never had a conversation with their boss or colleagues about communication expectations and boundaries. Changing the way you work starts with being open and upfront about when you’re available and when you’re not. 
  2. Keep your phone in another room. The presence of your phone can be stressful enough. Especially if it has your work email/Slack/etc… on it. Instead, keep your phone in a separate room or in a bag and resist the urge to check it (especially before bed).
  3. Remove work apps from your phone or home device. If you can go a step further, remove work apps from your phone. This forces you to create a distinction between phone (personal time) and computer (work time).
  4. Change your email signature to create boundaries. Set response expectations right in your emails with a signature that says how long you normally take to respond and when you’re not checking emails. For example, I try to respond to all emails within 48 hours but have limited space in my day.
  5. Use if/then statements to reduce the need to keep working. Expectations aren’t just set on us. If you catch yourself playing mental games to keep working, create a set of rules for common scenarios. For example: If I get an email notification at 5pm then I will set aside 10 minutes tomorrow morning to empty my inbox. 

And here’s one more: Schedule some fun into your workweek.

Committing to your own relaxation is easier when you have something to do. Instead of just creating an arbitrary border between work and non-work time, give yourself something fun to look forward to. Maybe it’s a walk with a friend or an online fitness class or playing games online. 

Rest and relaxation aren’t a luxury, they’re a requirement

You might think that relaxation is sitting on a sunny beach and sipping a cocktail out of a pineapple once a year. But the truth is that proper rest needs to be an essential part of your work routine. 

Rest is a requirement. Not a luxury. More than just shutting out the world, your body, mind, and soul benefit when you incorporate relaxation and rest into each and every day. 

How do you relax and recharge after work? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jory MacKay

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