Use the end of your day to recover smartly

For so many of us, the end of a work day means one thing and one thing only: collapsing on the couch. And why would we do anything else? Making it home, after a day on our feet, or running around, or stressing out, or using our brains to their maximum capacity, is an achievement in itself—an achievement that deserves a reward.

And that’s absolutely true. Just like we wrote in our last newsletter, a life where we grind ourselves to dust without even considering the ramifications is no way to live.

But, like most good-feeling things that we haven’t stopped to examine more closely, there are elements in this routine that are sneakily bad for us. All that time on the couch (or whatever you’re doing that isn’t strictly “healthy”) doesn’t set up good and sustainable systems for ourselves. And does it have to be five hours of couch time? Not four, or three?

But most of all, though it feels like laying motionless for as long as possible would be a restorative activity, we’re robbing ourselves of the one thing we really need before doing it all over again: recovery.

So here’s a quick rundown of what’s important to remember about our evenings and how we can use them to best set ourselves up for success tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day.

If your preferred method of winding down after work involves plopping onto the couch and indulging in a Netflix marathon until you drift off, we regret to inform you that there’s more to truly disconnecting from your job than simply unplugging and zoning out.

Contrary to what you might think, your brain doesn’t neatly file away completed tasks like items on a to-do list. Instead, they tend to linger, a phenomenon known as Attention Residue. These lingering thoughts about previous tasks can persistently intrude into other activities or even spill over into your personal life.

Even if you attempt to distract yourself by binge-watching your favorite shows, your mind often continues to churn over work-related concerns, causing stress and preventing true relaxation. (Ever noticed how as soon as you lay down to sleep, your mind starts replaying insignificant arguments or events from the day?)

To make matters worse, these lingering thoughts can intensify over time if left unchecked. As researchers from Lehigh University highlighted in Science Daily:

“Past studies have shown that failure to disconnect from work and recharge leads to burnout, increased turnover, higher rates of deviant behavior, decreased productivity, and other unfavorable outcomes.”

On the flip side, a study featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that individuals who successfully detach themselves from work experience a range of benefits, including:

Reduced work-related exhaustion

Significantly lower levels of procrastination

Heightened engagement at work, often reaching a state of ‘flow’

Improved work-life balance and overall quality of life

Enhanced satisfaction with both work and personal relationships

Better mental and physical well-being

So, how can you effectively detach from work?

Rather than succumbing to the allure of the couch, recent research has identified four key activities that facilitate unplugging and disengaging after work:

  1. Detachment from work
  2. Relaxation
  3. Mastery
  4. Control

Now, let’s delve into crafting an after-work routine that includes each of these essential elements.

Limit screens (yes, we know it’s hard)


In today’s digital age, it’s not uncommon for adults to spend close to 10 hours daily glued to screens, as highlighted in the latest Nielsen report. While a significant portion of this screen time likely occurs during work hours, it leaves a considerable chunk of post-work hours dominated by screen usage.

Research indicates that exposing oneself to screens, such as laptops and smartphones, before bedtime can detrimentally affect mental health, sleep quality, and overall well-being. The repercussions include increased levels of stress, heightened anxiety and depression, and a greater risk of burnout.

The seemingly straightforward solution might be to ditch screens altogether. However, it’s not that simple. Screens have become deeply integrated into our daily routines to the extent that we often don’t realize the extent of our usage. Studies show that smartphone users tend to underestimate how frequently they check their devices, indicating a reliance on screens that may go unchecked.

Given our tendency toward inertia, relying solely on willpower to reduce screen time isn’t reliable. Instead, cultivating healthier screen habits during non-work hours is key. Here are some practical suggestions:

1. Redesign Your Environment: Take a cue from behavioral economist BJ Fogg, who, in his quest to consume less popcorn, made it less accessible. Similarly, making screens less convenient can help curb usage. Consider charging your devices in a less accessible place or powering down your laptop after work. Increased friction can deter mindless screen time.

2. Substitute Screen Time: Employ Choice Architecture principles by replacing late-night screen usage with healthier alternatives. For instance, swap out your phone or tablet with a book by your bedside. Following the example of influential figures like Barack Obama and Bill Gates, reading before bed not only relaxes the mind but also fosters personal growth.

3. Implement Screen Time Controls: Acknowledge that complete abstinence from after-work screen time might be unrealistic. Instead, utilize commitment devices to monitor and limit screen usage. Tools like RescueTime allow you to set specific time limits for websites and apps, providing custom alerts when you exceed your designated screen time. These alerts can even trigger focus sessions to block distracting content, ensuring a balanced approach to screen usage.

By adopting these strategies, you can regain control over your screen time, fostering a healthier work-life balance and promoting overall well-being.

Make relaxation a part-time job


In today’s fast-paced world, we find ourselves dedicating a significant portion of our day, around 80% or more, to collaborative tasks such as email correspondence, attending meetings, and engaging in calls. Regardless of whether you lean towards introversion or extroversion, the constant interaction with others can be draining.

While none of us relish the feeling of isolation, it’s crucial to recognize the importance of carving out some time for solitude. This alone time serves as a vital tool for disconnecting from the external world, replenishing our energy, and delving deeper into our inner thoughts and emotions.

Solitude, a topic pondered by luminaries ranging from Thoreau to Proust, holds immense power in allowing us to recharge and introspect. Contrary to the image of a hermit in the woods, solitude, as articulated by Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, is less about physical seclusion and more about disconnecting mentally.

Newport emphasizes the significance of stepping away from external stimuli, such as podcasts, social media, or even conversations, to truly experience solitude. By immersing ourselves in moments devoid of external influences, we grant our minds the space to process complex emotions, tackle difficult challenges, and foster creative insights.

Incorporating moments of solitude into our post-work routine is key to effectively disconnecting and recharging. Here are some simple yet effective ways to embrace solitude:

  • Request some alone time while preparing and cooking dinner.
  • Dedicate half an hour to quiet reflection before heading to bed.
  • Take a leisurely 15-minute stroll after dinner.
  • Engage in meditation upon returning home from work.
  • Opt for the scenic route home to enjoy some uninterrupted time with your thoughts.

Whether it’s just a few minutes or a more extended period, prioritizing moments of uninterrupted solitude allows us to detach from work-related stressors and rejuvenate our mental faculties.

Find an active hobby to keep you sharp


It might sound surprising, but dedicating more time to hobbies and learning can aid in your recovery process. Engaging in activities that you enjoy and find challenging is crucial for mentally disconnecting from work.

These activities, often referred to as “mastery experiences” by researchers, are essentially what we know as hobbies. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” explains, these experiences are absorbing and rewarding because they involve doing things you excel at, even if they’re challenging.

Hobbies not only provide a sense of fulfillment but also have been shown by research to enhance productivity, focus, and creativity when you return to work the following day.

A compelling illustration of this is seen in the codebreakers of World War II. While their work involved deciphering Nazi encryption, they spent their leisure time playing chess, a mentally stimulating activity. This allowed them to mentally recharge while bolstering their confidence and gaining new perspectives.

Finding time for hobbies outside of work can be challenging, as noted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow.” Despite our desire for free time, we often squander it when it arrives. However, there are strategies you can employ:

  • Schedule dedicated time for your hobbies in advance.
  • Utilize tools like RescueTime to monitor and manage your time effectively.
  • Minimize time spent on activities that don’t contribute to your after-work fulfillment.

Making the “closing ritual” a habit


When work feels overwhelming or your personal life is filled with responsibilities, having even a bit of control over your time at the end of the day can be incredibly empowering and rejuvenating.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” bestselling author Daniel Pink suggests incorporating a simple ritual to mark the end of your workday. This ritual serves as a reminder that you have control over your time, regardless of how the rest of your day unfolded:

“Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.”

This ‘closing ritual’ taps into a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘Peak-end rule.’ Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues found that we primarily remember two aspects of an event: the emotional peak and how it concluded. By implementing your own ritual centered on control and positivity, you effectively reshape each day with a positive conclusion.

The specifics of your ritual are entirely up to you, but research suggests several practices that can be beneficial:

  • Creating a to-do list for the next day
  • Closing open browser tabs and tidying your desktop
  • Visualizing your upcoming day
  • Preparing gym clothes or work attire for the morning
  • Reflecting on the day and recording gratitude in a journal

As productivity expert David Allen noted, “You can do anything, but not everything.” While it may not be feasible to immediately change your workload, you can make adjustments to facilitate recovery from demanding days.

Taking the time to recharge mentally and physically sets the stage for increased productivity, improved work-life balance, and overall well-being.

It’s worth it


It might not be the most openly and lavishly slovenly way that we would like to spend our evenings. We might miss that full tub of ice cream that some of us like to put down multiple times a week.

But the you that wakes up in the morning feeling a bit more refreshed, the you that has a little bit more in the tank around lunchtime, the you that still has the energy to go the gym after work (and work off that ice cream)—that you is going to be thankful. And it’s not an overstatement to say that life is going to be better.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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