Jack's a dull boy
April 21, 2010 5:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my husband more easily transition from work-time to after-work time?

I'm asking in part for the huzz and in part for myself.

He's got a fulfilling but high-stress and very engaging job he's been at for 10 years. He's an engineer and his work is very analytical, but he also has an extremely artistic, goofy and very laid-back side.

Lately, as he gets more responsibility at work and his projects continue to ramp up, he's having a lot harder time switching from "work mode" to "play mode." He has a lot of projects around the house that give him joy and that he'd like to work on but usually he's either so involved with work he can't make the transition, or so mentally exhausted he just wants to veg out.

This is stressful to me. When he's in analytical mode he's very hard to have a conversation with. Many of the house projects he used to enjoy are being neglected due to his exhaustion and frustration. Tinkering *was* his relief but now he comes home and works some more because he can't stop thinking about everything that needs to be done the next day. The only time he ever really relaxes is on weekends when he has more than a few hours to decompress.

As a side note, a few years back we moved overseas for his work, and he was never like this until we moved back. His work has increased somewhat since then, but not by much. I think, in some ways, his commute is part of the problem. Whereas he used to ride the bus or drive the car 2-3 miles to work, now he rides his motorcycle 22 miles each way on a tollway with only his thoughts to occupy himself. I almost think if he could listen to music or something it could signal to his brain that "work time is over and now it's time to play."

I didn't work when we live overseas, and so I'd be home all day thinking of a million things to talk to him about when he got home. I learned quickly to give him his hour to decompress before I unloaded. Now we both work, and that isn't a problem, but I want to know if I can do anything else, other than greeting him at the door with a martini each night, to help facility this transition. He wants to know what tricks the rest of you use to turn off the work brain.

Note: he does not want to scale back at work and I do not want him to. His job is fulfilling and has been very good to us.
posted by Brittanie to Human Relations (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:38 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am very much like your husband too and need a bit of time to decompress after work. My wife has graciously given me the first 30 to 60 mins of when I come back to read news online or a favorite magazine or book to just relax the mind from work mode. Or maybe just some exercise, such as going running or even simply a walk to the park or to the grocery store.
So either another mental but relaxing activity such as reading or a relaxing physical activity.
posted by dealing away at 5:47 PM on April 21, 2010

I have this problem myself and can have trouble relaxing into being at home and being present with my partner. We've tried some different things that have worked to varying success depending on the kind of stress the day has presented:

-me doing some exercise right when I get home: even though I can feel exhausted after a long day of desk work and riding the train, this can really turn things around and reset my energy level

-me spending a half-hour vegging out on the internet right when I get home: this is what I do most often. It's dangerous, because 30 mins can easily become 2 or 3 hours and thats a negative pattern. Still, not-thinking for a time helps.

-me and partner lying down together without talking for five minutes: this is really nice sometimes -- its like a little nap together, with no expectations, and it helps us acclimate to each other's company. we made this a ritual for a little while, and it was really good. since then its become something we do every now and then when we really need it.

posted by cubby at 5:47 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I either exercise right after work, or, if I can't, I at least change my outfit. The exercise means not only a change of clothes and a de-stress activity, but a shower. It's like another day. The outfit means I've changed from 'person who has to interact with many, often negative people, be on defense' to 'home, let down my guard'.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:54 PM on April 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

I have had this in the past. One of the things that has helped me was to take a few minutes to make a to-do list of what I needed to do the next day. That way I could stop obsessing over it. Then something mindless for a little bit, like reading or playing a simple computer game.
posted by procrastination at 6:05 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

He could stop at a cafe and have coffee for 15-30 minutes before coming home. Or pick up something to add to dinner - a loaf of French bread or something.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:05 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have been there. For me it was necessary to chill for an hour by myself when I came home. I came home late because of work. This was not good for our family so I switched jobs. Prior to that my son barely knew me. That was bad. Stressful jobs take their toll. I still have a stressful job and sometimes I need that hour or so of decompression at the end of the day, but at least it is no longer every single day. I know people who stayed in these pressure cookers and it takes commitment from all parties at home. The spouse with the big job needs to try to get home early, decompress, and then join in family time before the day is completely over. I recommend that your hubby adopt an early schedule that allows him to get home early enough to have his chill time and then become normal. The blackberry and the computer with work related stuff are off limits after dinner (at least most nights). This is for his sanity as well as yours and for the relationship.
posted by caddis at 6:08 PM on April 21, 2010

Best answer: What jumps out for me is that he's an engineer. As a hacker myself, I totally get what you're saying. I don't think this is a simple matter of a stressful job. He isn't thinking about work because of the consequences of failure; he's thinking about it because he's obsessing. This obsession is a valuable trait in an engineer. It's the mental rigor that keeps airplanes in the sky. It's the ability to be detail-oriented, methodical, and engrossed when working out the entries for a 600-cell parameter table. He's probably actively developed this ability for years.

For me, this disappears when I finish a project, and remains disappeared until I have a new, sufficiently interesting project. But, it may be that all his projects are interesting, or they're on such a long timeline that this is useless.

I don't think there's anything you can do to solve this. This isn't about giving him his space (he'll just continue thinking about his projects). It also isn't about distracting him with sex or exercise (that's infuriating for somebody deep in hack mode). On a certain level, it must be understood that he wants to think about this stuff, despite any protests to the contrary. To an engineer (of any type), his work is more interesting than probably 95% of the world--even stuff that he'd be deep into if he didn't have an interesting project at hand.

However, he can do something about this, if he actually wants to.

The best bet would almost certainly be meditation or mindfulness training. He needs to learn to let go of the obsession until he needs it again. What might help is if he knows, on a deep level, that letting go for a few hours at night does not mean he will lose the ability to obsess again when the time comes.

Another option might be to smoke pot, assuming his employer doesn't test for it. I've certainly found that nothing helps me enter a less engineery state of mind than smoking a bowl.

But, basically, this is about a mental transition. A willingness to put away the powerful tool of hack mode obsession when it's detrimental.
posted by Netzapper at 6:53 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

"I want to know if I can do anything else, other than greeting him at the door with a martini each night, to help facility this transition."

Greet him at the door with a blowjob each night?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:13 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Netzapper is exactly right. I date someone very much like your husband, and it took him accepting his own "hack mode" and seeing its benefits, while learning to feel and control the biophysiological* transition in and out of it, to begin to let go of work when he got home.

Me, the solid to do list that includes EVERYTHING is enough, better still if I make it before 5pm, or on the train. A shower also helps.

* A real word? Mind body etc.
posted by salvia at 7:54 PM on April 21, 2010

I once belonged to a great carpool of sympatico (and hella funny) co-workers and it was an excellent way to vent and decompress. By the time we got home I felt almost human again. Can your husband find someone to carpool with?
posted by Quietgal at 7:58 PM on April 21, 2010

I think, in some ways, his commute is part of the problem. Whereas he used to ride the bus or drive the car 2-3 miles to work, now he rides his motorcycle 22 miles each way on a tollway with only his thoughts to occupy himself. I almost think if he could listen to music or something it could signal to his brain that "work time is over and now it's time to play."

Have you thought about moving? It's the nuclear option, I know. That said, 22 miles is a huge commute, and he might be much happier if he was closer to his job.
posted by ripley_ at 8:07 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take a walk, do yoga together, or anything outdoors while the sun is still shining. If he's not home until dark then a bath, a glass of whiskey and/or a spliff waiting with a newspaper or book has been known to do wonders.
posted by Juicy Avenger at 8:26 PM on April 21, 2010

My husband, also of the engineer breed, finds a change of clothes and a beer on the sofa while I finish dinner to be the trick. He uses that 20 min to finish the things he thought about on his commute. Send a few emails, make notes to himself and sometimes even a little cat nap. By dinner time he's relaxed and out of work mode.
posted by saradarlin at 9:07 PM on April 21, 2010

I roughhouse or play catch with the kids, which gets my mind off work completely. Sitting down with a beer and offloading the day also helps.

But yeah, hack mode is a bear to get out of. Nor does one always want to.
posted by gijsvs at 9:34 PM on April 21, 2010

If you think listening to music during the commute might do the trick, why not get him a helmet with speakers? Or he can install them himself, since he seems pretty crafty like that.
posted by platinum at 10:21 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

On nights when my boyfriend comes over, when he gets to my place we sit on the sofa for a while and just hold each other. It's the best way I know to decompress.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:30 AM on April 22, 2010

I think he needs to develop a routine that creates a conditioned response "time to shut down for the day".

I like the idea of change clothes after work. A hot shower maybe. Martini would be nice. But commit to something and trying it for a month and see if it helps.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:10 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about some specific ideas to get out of hack mode -

Set aside 10-15 minutes before he leaves the office to make a to-do list for the next day. Maybe the exercise of wrapping up the day and making concrete plans will help solidify his thoughts and clear his mind for home time.

Figure out a way to manage any ideas he might get while at home - he doesn't want to forget them, but he doesn't necessarily want to develop them while at home. So try one of these: a voice recorder to make a very quick reminder; call his office phone and leave a voicemail to be listened to the next day; I use the calendar on my cellphone to make a note at a later date/time so it reminds me later when it's a better time to think about that.

I also like the idea of moving closer to his work. Or think more seriously about the motorcycle. Try to switch up the commute and try taking public transit one day; drive the car (with music/audiobook/podcast) one day, etc. See if any one of these helps, then make a decision about the motorcycle. You may find that it's not really working out as well as it seems.
posted by CathyG at 8:16 AM on April 22, 2010

If you think listening to music during the commute might do the trick, why not get him a helmet with speakers? Or he can install them himself, since he seems pretty crafty like that.

I have a pretty long commute (about an hour each way) and I used to have a remarkably stressful job. What really seems to help me leave my work headspace during my commute is to listen to podcasts - or even better - Audiobooks.

My commute home is usually pretty stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper suckiness and I used to resent how much time I wasted driving, until I regularly spent time listening to things that are value-added in my life. I really really love a good sci-fi Audiobook to loose myself in during my commutes. By the time I get home, I've left my work headspace, had some quality "self" time (aka: reading books I enjoy) and am (somewhat) ready to deal with homelife when I get there.

Also -- I have to agree with CathyG above - making a to-do list for tomorrow's tasks before I leave the office today really helps put finality on TODAY. Its important to remember that no matter how many hours he puts in at home, the work will all still be there tomorrow. And the day after that.
posted by CorporateHippy at 8:41 AM on April 22, 2010

If a move is at all in the cards, then I guess it's not too outlandish to mention the best work-home divider I've found: a bicycle commute. It's forced exercise; a combination of reflective solitude and animalistic aggression-venting; a remarkably effective way to clear my head and reset focus.

In my own experience, music/podcast/audiobook listening on the bike (setting aside safety issues) weakens the work-home division, because that kind of auditory mental attention is similar enough to work that it ultimately just feels, to me, like another hour of screen time*. I find public transit the absolute most deadening of all options, though maybe with an aboveground bus there might be enough "scenery" (even if industrial/highway) to make that not as bad as the Subway/Underground/Métro/RER.

* Listening to audiobooks on long, e.g. century rides, is the bomb though. Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is perfect for long solo trips.
posted by xueexueg at 8:57 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the pressure to decompress is a bad thing in itself. Maybe you could just leave him be and let him naturally decompress or not decompress. It's nice to get home and not have someone expect things. If my husband is doing something when I get home he doesn't toss it down and vice versa.

I'd let him be and do whatever he wants if you don't have a particular thing scheduled (and try to schedule less when he is busier or go alone). You'll probably find that he will start doing fun things without any poking or pushing in a few weeks.

Mandatory organized relaxation is like someone yelling "You must relax now!" at you as loud as they can.
posted by meepmeow at 11:02 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have no idea what you do, but if you are free after his work day, could you sometimes arrange to meet him at work, at the usual end of his work day, so that you could go together immediately from his job to somewhere outdoors, peaceful, and non-Euclidean? You drive out to a pond and have a picnic, for example, and then take your time going home together.

Your transportation would be the trick. Assuming you don't have your own motorcycle, maybe you could get a bus or train to somewhere near where he works -- or somewhere between his job and the interesting spot you're both headed to that evening. You could go to the pick-up point with a helmet in your hand and a picnic in your backpack and he could pick you up.

Your being there waiting at a certain time would help him to close things up for the day because he knows he has to leave by a certain time, not whenever the work is done.
posted by pracowity at 12:25 AM on April 23, 2010

I have struggled with this exact thing, especially as I moved from a role in which I had fun technical challenges to solve (which made me spacey but agreeable) into one in which I had people and organizational challenges to deal with (which made me spacey and hateful.)

Two things that have helped me a bunch:

First, I have a mostly stress-free walking commute of about 15 minutes. This gives automatic decompression time. Some days I'll try to do it as slowly as I possibly can.

Secondly, I started learning to play drums. It's very therapeutic to be ejected from analytic/contemplative mode and into live-here-now mode. I can walk into a drum lesson completely obsessing about work and leave without being able to remember what I was obsessing about.

I suspect that martial arts, yoga, sport, dance, etc -- any other physical activity that forced me to live fully in the moment -- would be helpful for me as well.

Television, reading, computer games -- none of those help me much with this issue. It seems that those are just pause buttons on my brain, rather than transformers of it.
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:53 PM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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