At the end of the workday, you can pack up and leave the office; you can shut off your phone and computer; you can change out of your suit and into sweatpants.
Unfortunately, you can’t turn off the part of your brain that’s still preoccupied with work issues.
Yet a new study suggests that there’s a simple strategy for mentally distancing yourself from your job. The trick? Write down exactly how you plan to complete any uncompleted tasks the following day.
Just over 100 people participated in the study, led by Brandon Smit at Ball State University and cited on Research Digest. At the study’s outset, everyone indicated how central a role their job played in their life.
Then, every day for about three days, participants filled out two surveys. One survey asked them to indicate any goals they’d left unfulfilled at work, any goals they’d completed, and how meaningful those goals were. The other survey asked how much time they’d spent thinking about those goals and about work in general.
Half the participants were instructed to create a plan for where, when, and how they would accomplish each unfulfilled goal from that day — for example, “I will sit down at my desk at 9 a.m. and draft an email to the client…”) The other half of participants didn’t receive these instructions for planning.
Results showed that, among participants whose jobs were central to their lives, the planning exercise helped prevent thoughts about unfinished but important tasks at the end of the day.
Smit writes: “Creating end-of-day plans for incomplete goals is a low-cost option, both with regard to time and money, for improving employee occupational health and performance.”
In other words, if you stop obsessing over all the items on your to-do lists you didn’t get to, you’ll be more productive the next day because you’ll have given your brain some rest. Not to mention, you’ll have a plan of attack for when you get into the office.
It’s worth noting that this exercise isn’t a panacea. The study found that the planning exercise didn’t prevent people from thinking about work in general. So thoughts about your lazy teammate or the promotion you didn’t get might still creep up.
At the same time, planning to complete unfinished tasks takes minimal time and energy, and you can always stop if it isn’t helping. Best case scenario: You’ll be a more effective employee and a more relaxed person in general.
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