Unplug from work?
August 28, 2009 6:12 AM   Subscribe

How to better unplug from work?

I'm a computer programmer who works both from home and in an office part of the time. I tend to internalize the work pressures and spend inordinate amounts of time still ruminating about work issues.

I know for my mental health it would be better to 'leave these issues at work' so I thought I would consult the green for advice.
posted by toastchee to Work & Money (20 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Distract your mind with something else. Bonus if it makes you physically exhausted so you get a good night's sleep. Mountain biking requires a fair amount of concentration, and gets you away from the digital world and into the tangible. Don't take your cellphone.

If exercise is not an option for health reasons, perhaps a more sedate hobby such as knitting or another creative pursuit? Something that doesn't allow a lot of daydreaming, requires you to work with your hands, and after which you have some tangible finished product.

Also, be sure to socialize, not isolate, and tell your friends to stop you if you start talking about work. NO TALKING ABOUT WORK when you're not actually working.
posted by desjardins at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2009

Everyone unwinds differently...some people can actively do nothing to occupy themselves others need to pour themselves into something non-work related that requires just as much concentration and focus. Bog standard suggestions for this are hobbies, volunteering, exercise, sex, etc.
posted by mmascolino at 6:26 AM on August 28, 2009

It's good to have ritualized things that you do when you start and when you finish work, so that you really feel like you are in one mode and not the other. There's a saying about hanging up your hat when you get home from work, and that's a good example. As a replacement, try some of these

1) Only work from home at a desk that is meant for doing work. All other personal computer use is to be done at a different desk.
2) Change out of your clothes into different clothes when you finish work.
3) Where a hat when you are working. Take it off when you are done.
posted by molecicco at 6:26 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

drink a beer.
posted by distrakted at 6:27 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

(I kind of like the hat one best)
posted by molecicco at 6:27 AM on August 28, 2009

More detail please: do people avoid you because all you talk about is work? Do you have trouble doing other activities because of work? (Not do you think about work while doing other stuff, but does it actually KEEP you from doing other stuff) Do you get inappropriate in public due to work issues (screaming on the El, or tweets that you wish you hadn't sent, for instance). Are you unable to eat or sleep?

Everyone obsesses about work to some extent. Okay, so it's the green, practical advice. Ask people both at your place of business and friends who are not connected with your business how much they ruminate on work issues; at the very least, that'll give you some perspective. (Also, I note you use the term "ruminate" rather than "obsess" so perhaps you aren't as far gone as you think.)
posted by nax at 6:28 AM on August 28, 2009

On preview-- I also like the hat.
posted by nax at 6:29 AM on August 28, 2009

2nd'ing mountain biking. Have had several very stressful IT jobs in the past. Mountain biking is one of those things that pulls you completely out of the world for several hours at a time.
posted by jaythebull at 6:46 AM on August 28, 2009

Seconding some sort of physical outlet, if that works for you. During the winter months when I'd rather not be outside, I try to find things that are mentally challenging that I can obsess on instead. Last year it was learning Latin. This year it will probably be some sort of math (the ghosts of a failed quarter in college continue to haunt). The point is that it's got to be require substantial focus on my part.

I work from home, so the temptation to overwork is doubleplusungood - I need only slip into the office and get behind my desk. That door needs to stay closed, and my ritual for weekends and evenings is to power everything down so that the room is absolutely silent. Door closes, I'm out in the hall and it's "hi honey, I'm home."

But I have to say that the hat is an awesome idea.
posted by jquinby at 6:46 AM on August 28, 2009

I do programming work from home. The thing that makes the biggest single difference for me is having a cut-off time after which I don't do anything related to work; that time is about four hours before I go to bed. If I don't unwind with an unrelated activity (cooking, watching TV, playing with my son, riding my bike) I'll inevitably find myself unable to sleep that night. If my boss calls after the cut-off time, then it's "OK, I'll take a look tomorrow".
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:47 AM on August 28, 2009

Seconding something physical--spending so much time in front of a computer makes me feel like the real world ceases to exist.

I like doing a short yoga routine when I get home--it's only 20 minutes or so, but the whole point is to empty your mind plus it gets your blood pumping and I've found I don't have the same sitting-at-a-desk-all-day aches I used to.

What about cooking? Chopping, sauteeing, stirring--these are all visceral physical actions that can help keep you in the present.

Are you ruminating about work issues because you're stuck on a project or because you are afraid you'll forget something otherwise? I learned that making a really detailed to do list on Fridays helps keep my weekends work-worry free, because I'm not afraid that I'll forget to get to something I meant to do. If a BIG something pops up, I'll send myself a voicemail or email about it, so I can get to it on Monday, but I don't let it ruin my weekend.

Don't try to prevent yourself from thinking about work AT ALL. That's like telling yourself not to think of a pink elephant--all of a sudden, that's ALL you can think of. Focus instead on being present in whatever it is that you are doing, and let work take care of itself. It takes practice.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:54 AM on August 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

My best method: podcasts, because they are passive, yet require active listening. Nothing puts things in perspective faster than listening to a Radio Lab episode about the formation of the universe, or the origins of life. Also, comedy podcasts are a great way to unwind. Nothing helps life go better than laughing as much as possible every day.

Maybe take a walk while you listen. Especially when you are working at home, it's a great way to "leave the office" at the end of the day.
posted by The Deej at 7:14 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a problem I struggle with as well. I don't do a very good job of it, but when I do, it works very well.

1- Have a schedule. Don't live by it to the letter, of course. If you are really cruising along on something and can change your schedule (effectively) on the fly, go for it. But remember to un-schedule on the back end. Whatever you blew off has to go back in somewhere else, or else your schedule stops working. If you blow off doing the laundry because that other task was going along well, schedule the laundry asap.

2- Stay as far ahead of the game as you are comfortable with. I get the most "kick" out of scheduling things at a razor thin margin (because I'm a procrastinator). So if I schedule things too far away from their deadlines, I lack the motivation to follow the schedule and I fail. But also, the more closely I schedule things to their deadlines, the more stress I feel because I have less liberty to make those on the fly corrections. It's a balancing act.

3- Absolutely the idea about compartmentalizing work things from other things. If you can't have separate computers and desks for work and other, at least have separate user accounts on your computer for work versus other. Have a filing system of some kind that allows you to "close up" work stuff and put it on the shelf when work time is over.

4- Pulling work stuff out of your other stuff is only half of the equation. You have to pull the other stuff from the work stuff. (I'm doing a very bad job of it right now, since I should be working...) Especially hard for people who work from home, because other people tend not to respect the "I'm at work" thing when they know you are at home. Work just as hard at removing your private life from your work life.

5- Have a "parking lot" or to do list for each role you set up for yourself. (It's a stupid name for a good concept.) If you are doing one thing, but have an idea for another, write it down and put it on your list or pile for when you are doing that. As long as you develop the habit of remembering to check those lists when you start the new task, it will work quite well. (I use email for that- work emails versus personal emails, and I email myself things all the time.)

Peanut_mcgillicuty makes a good point on this- don't be afraid or opposed to thinking about work on private time. Just don't let that interfere with what you are actually doing. Complete the thought and save it for later.

6- Again, agreeing with others, in addition to all of this, have a routine. I know a guy who worked from home who made it a point to get up, read the paper, have his coffee, etc. Then he would shower and put on his work clothes (shirt and tie), and then go into the other room and work. It was good punctuation on the role shift. When work was done, he'd "commute" back to the bedroom and change into non-work clothes (and then mix up a pitcher of Manhattans, but that's another story.).
posted by gjc at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Im an engineer who recently moved into a sales engineering role. the stress levels were immediately bumped up and i work much longer hours than i used to. the best way to unwind for me is grabbing a friend and renting a canoe or kayak for an hour or two on a beautiful day. being outside, active, and talking about guy stuff or anything other than work makes me feel absolutely amazing.

another thing that actually changed my life is going to weekly acupuncture sessions. after the fourth or fifth session i noticed an immediate change in my life. i can now deal with and handle more stress and negative people dont seem to phase me anymore. my energy levels have gone through the roof too. i can get through a long day now without any coffee. if you havent tried acupuncture before, i suggest giving five or six sessions a try. some practitioners may even be partially covered by you health insurance. it's worked wonders for me and im going to do it at least twice a month for the rest of my life.
posted by deeman at 7:59 AM on August 28, 2009

I work from home full time. Separate computers is the key for me. When I'm done for the day I close the lid on my work laptop and open the lid on my personal laptop. Thunderbird on my personal laptop does not pull mail down from the work server. If there is a true need for me to check work email after hours, it's Outlook Web Access from Ubuntu. That is just painful enough to insure it only happens in the most dire of circumstances.
posted by COD at 8:12 AM on August 28, 2009

I used to work at home and found that if I didn't end the work day, I'd never stop working. In the morning, I would go take a 15 minute walk around the neighborhood - that was "walking to work," and in the evening, I would do the same -"coming home from work." Once I came home from work, work was over.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:17 AM on August 28, 2009

Have something to focus on outside of work hours, preferably something creative. I started a choir, and am responsible for sheet music, booking concerts, advertising, choir member recruitment, piano playing, etc. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's seriously a great time, and the choir has become fast friends. I haven't time to obsess when I'm creating something beautiful!
posted by LN at 9:28 AM on August 28, 2009

I worked from home for ten years, the first 7-8 of which were extremely stressful for the exact reasons your question raises. The last two were considerably better.

The difference: I created a physical environment in my home that was the "office," and it had a door. Nothing took place in there except work, and work never took place outside of there. Therefore, when I wasn't working, I could close the door and mentally detach myself.

It sounds simple and self-evident, but the psychological benefits are strong.

Also, have a few bourbons at night and allow yourself to spend the evenings on a hobby that you love but feel is a "waste of time" (trashy TV, comic books, games, etc.).
posted by jbickers at 11:49 AM on August 28, 2009

Agree on "commuting," in whatever sense works for you. I'm a grad student and I live in a tiny apartment so my physical distinctions are a bit muddled, but I have a few spots that I only do work in. Ironically, my desk doesn't tend to be one of them, because I have my guitar right there, my pleasure reading sharing a bookshelf with reference books, etc. I generally have to go sit on the couch if I want to get anything programmed, ironically enough.

Same idea might work for you. Try to establish a head-space of "I am at home. It's okay to read Metafilter/play games/do your hobbies/etc." Turn off your work email, if you have a company phone and are allowed to (ie, not on call), turn that off too. Before I went back to school, I had a job where I was issued a company phone for use while in the field. I turned it off when I went off the clock at night. I sometimes got voicemail, but I don't think I ever had an issue that couldn't be handled at 6a the next morning. (I checked it early, in case I was reassigned for the next day or something).

Also, seconding "go do something on the weekends." My something is "fly gliders;" other people up-thread have suggested mountain biking or kayaking. I think the best activities are ones which are mentally engaging (so you can't afford to dwell on work), social (so you're distracted) and probably most importantly, fun for you.
posted by Alterscape at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2009

This has been a problem for me at jobs where, in hindsight, something very serious was wrong. I don't want to freak you out, but maybe you want to set aside a few hours to take a high-level view of what's going on.

Sit down with a pad of paper and start by writing down all the work-thoughts-while-not-at-work you can think of having had. (e.g. "Last night I couldn't stop thinking about how Steve blamed me for problem X during Tuesday's meeting.") Then sort these into big-picture categories (e.g. "sucky coworkers," "fretting over my own performance," "confusion and concern over inter-office politics," etc).

Now ideally the next step would be "find a solution to the larger problem and implement it" or "look for a new job." But let's get real. If you had the ability to control these issues, you wouldn't be ruminating over them. And who goes looking for a new job In This Economy?

However, just being able to categorize these thoughts should help you get some control over them. If you can step back and recognize "Oh this is another complaint about a sucky coworker" when you start ruminating, it can help you push aside the bone-chewing and get back to your real life.
posted by ErikaB at 1:18 PM on August 28, 2009

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