One Way to Stop Obsessing Over Work When You’re at Home

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Photo: Tetra Images

When I have an important unfinished work task, it inevitably clangs around the inside of my head when I’m trying to sleep. This is pointless — there’s nothing to be gained by obsessing over how I’m going to report out a story when it’s 1 a.m. and I need sleep. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology highlighted by the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest offers one potential way out of this self-induced brain trap.

As BPS’s Alex Fradera explains, Brandon Smit of Ball State University surveyed a bunch of workers and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that those with uncompleted goals reported more intrusive thoughts about work when they were home at the end of the day (completed goals did not take up this sort of brain space). But he also brought up a possible way to short-circuit this type of obsessing, at least partially:

To help prevent this, Smit asked a subset of his participants, once they’d described their incomplete goals, to clearly plan where, when and how they would tackle each one, for example: ‘‘I will go into work and start at 10:00 AM in a call center in my office. Log into my computer and call customers back…” By specifying the context for action, this helped the high-involved participants to put the goals out of mind during off-work hours, and as a result their uncompleted goals produced fewer intrusions, almost as if they had the same status as completed goals. Data from a simple measure of work detachment also suggested that, using Smit’s strategy, the participants found it easier to let go of work in general.

This is extending things past the article, but one could imagine making this a part of your nightly routine: Write down what you’ve got to do at work tomorrow and how you’re going to pull it off. Then lights out, no more work-thought.