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How do I switch off my work brain at the end of the day?

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICOLE WONG

WORDS BY AMY FOCIC

No more mental overtime.

Even though it already takes up most of our daylight hours, work always seems to find a way to embed itself in our brains long after we’ve clocked off. I can’t be the only one who’s been ready to fall asleep at the end of a long day, only to find I’m agonising over a mistake I made earlier that day, or thinking of ideas for projects. The audacity. 

It was after work one day that the idea to explore why our brains insist on working overtime came to me (the irony is not lost on me). In every job I’ve ever done, I’ve had problems with switching off my work brain – productivity guilt loves to creep its way in as soon as I’ve clocked off. Naturally, I wanted to arm myself with more tips to combat the issue.


Interested to hear how others navigate the world? Head to our Life section.


I talked to organisational psychologist Dr Michelle Pizer to find out why this happens, and how we can stop it. After all, don’t we deserve an evening without work-related chatter occupying our minds?

Why can’t we switch off from work?

As it turns out, there are a few reasons why we find ourselves doing mental over time, according to Dr Michelle. The first? We’re just wired to want to sort out ongoing work.

“It’s a natural thing to not switch off. When something’s unresolved we want to stick with it until we’ve resolved it, it’s just naturally how we work. If you’ve got ongoing work that doesn’t get resolved in the day – if it’s an ongoing project – then you’re going to carry that with you, you can’t help it.

“We have our best ideas in the shower, or when we’re going for a walk. The unsolved problem gets solved sometimes when we’re not directly thinking about it.”

Another reason? If you care about the quality of work you do, you’re typically going to dwell on something you did at work that maybe wasn’t up to your standard.

“Feeling like you let someone down versus feeling like you did a good job for them is important for how much you think about work,” she explains.

Dr Michelle also says the type of job we do can impact our capacity to detach when the day is done. If you’re doing repetitive tasks that are going to be the same tomorrow, it’s probably going to be easier for you to switch off at the end of the day. 

On the other hand, people who have jobs that are thought-intensive  – Dr Michelle uses the term knowledge workers – might find they carry their work over after finishing time. 

Regulating how much we dwell on work is important so that we can sustain our job long-term, and perform at our best, according to Dr Michelle. This left me wondering – can some reflection on our jobs be healthy?

Can thinking about work after hours ever be beneficial? 

Put simply, yes. But, an important caveat – the research shows your reflections should be positive for it to actually be helpful for your wellbeing.

“If it’s positive reflections, even on weekends and holidays, it can make you feel better when you go back to work, because you’re feeling good about it.

“For example, you might be thinking ‘I did a great job today’ – that’s a good thing to be thinking. Positive thoughts about what you did or your work, or even engaging in problem-solving, is linked to good wellbeing,” explains Dr Michelle.

Have you ever been stoked when your boss gave you encouraging feedback? Or felt proud of the work you did that helped someone? Then you can stress less if you find yourself thinking about it after the fact. 

However, there is a point where thinking about work in our off time can veer into unhealthy territory. Dr Michelle says if you’re using work to avoid something more pressing or tricky in your life, then it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions.

“Are you avoiding something that’s challenging you in your personal life? Are you avoiding a family situation, or a difficult relationship, so you’d rather be at work instead? Is there something that’s more difficult than work so that you’re focusing more on work?” 

So let’s say you’ve done a bit of self-interrogation and determined your fixation with work is interfering with your wellbeing. How do you remedy it?

How can we stop dwelling on work once we’ve clocked off?

Dr Michelle says there are three main strategies you can use to mentally clock off: psychological detachment, relaxation and mastery. 

“Psychological detachment is where you resist engaging in any job-related activities after hours… you don’t check your emails for instance, you have to set a boundary for yourself. The idea is to create an environment that sets you up for success, whatever that is for you, and gives you some separation… you could say, if you keep thinking about it, then you’ll phone a friend, or you’ll go for a walk.”

I ask her whether psychological detachment is essentially finding healthy distractions to take your mind off the job. She agrees but says this has become harder with the prevalence of working from home. Her solution?

“What I’ve taken to doing is closing the lid of my laptop. There’s something about the physical act of closing the lid that lets me know ‘You’re done, you’ve done enough for today, it’ll be there tomorrow’.”

Relaxation can go hand in hand with detaching mentally. Dr Michelle suggests activities like yoga, meditation, and exercise to help you recover from the demands of your job. For a distraction strategy that requires a tad more effort, look to mastery. 

“They’ve found that people who find experiences of mastery in activities other than work feel better about life in general. Things like mastering a sport or keeping a hobby. I, for example, have chosen a knitting project that is beyond my knitting capabilities. It’s like I’m learning another language, it’s really challenging. But it’s rewarding – it takes focus and concentration.”

Admittedly, I’ve tried knitting-adjacent hobbies in the past and my lack of patience led to my downfall. For now, I’ll stick to closing my laptop and walking away, preferably to a cuppa and New Girl reruns. 

For more tips on how to stop thinking about work, check this article out.

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