Reader question: How do you switch from work mode to personal mode?

photo-290Today’s reader question comes from a graduate student who has young children. She writes that “You seem to have a great handle on mentally switching from on to off to on, and you also work a lot, are extremely productive and have an ongoing list of projects that you could (should?) be working on at any given moment.”

So, she asks, “For people who have ‘always available’ jobs … how do you create space for downtime? I find that, although I spend lots of time each week not working (because I am taking care of my kids), so much of my non-work time is polluted by stress and pressure related to things I think I should be doing, and even mental list-making of things I’d like to do the next time I get to my desk. In the end, I find that this leaves me exhausted and burnt-out by the time I do get to my desk and I have trouble focusing on the things I’m supposed to be working on (so I write emails to bloggers to ask for their advice, for instance). … Would you be willing to write about how you turn off the work to-do lists when you are not working? And also how you protect your down-time/kid time from work related thoughts so that you can recharge?”

First, to clarify something: While I am flattered by this reader’s question, I don’t necessarily have a great handle on mentally switching from on to off. I frequently don’t turn off the work to-do lists when I’m not working. What I do try to do is write the thought down, or send an email to myself so that I can remember what I was thinking about, and then return to whatever I was doing. And of course there’s this dirty little secret: My work is not that stressful. I like what I do and so I don’t find it that troublesome to think about article ideas while I’m making dinner.

Nonetheless, I think this is a great question. Flexible work has many, many upsides, but a downside for some people is that you have to set boundaries constantly. These micro-boundaries can be tough if you’re prone to go-along-to-get-along with other people, or if you have a tendency to worry. All this will be exacerbated by a stressful job. If thinking about work leaves you burned out by the time you actually get to your desk, which then makes you unfocused, you’ve got a vicious cycle. I think there are a few ways to break it.

First, you can consciously schedule fun stuff into your life. I’m not just talking about open space, though open space is nice. The problem is that if you’re really stressed about work, work thoughts will invade this open space. You have to actively be doing something else: an exercise class you enjoy, a social event, guitar lessons, whatever. Figure out stuff you love to do. Make a good long list, and treat yourself.

This reader has young children, which makes this more difficult, but not impossible. I’d aim for a handful of grown-up fun things per week, and then also take a second approach, which is to seize opportunities for fun whenever they come up. I stopped writing this for a bit to go play in the snow for 20 minutes. I am quite capable of screwing around for 20 minutes on the internet unintentionally, so why not use that same quantity of time for something more intentionally fun? True, the kids got sick of the sleet fairly quickly, but fun doesn’t have to come in big chunks. With little kids, it often doesn’t. Take what you can get.

As you start to feel secure in having more fun in your life, you’ll start to feel more taken care of. The gently-treated self wants to please and may start being more focused and disciplined at work. When you’re actively having fun in your downtime, you’ll also start protecting your downtime. You’ll tell yourself “I don’t mind spending an hour on this crappy task today because I’ll be spending 2 hours reading an awesome book tonight!”

This brings me to the third tactic, which is to try keeping track of your time. Much of time management is mental, and part of feeling more in control of time and life is knowing exactly how long dreaded tasks take. I dislike emptying the dishwasher, but knowing that it only takes 5-7 minutes helps keep it in perspective. Adding up my expenses for my taxes only took about an hour. I know I spent more than an hour of mental energy thinking “I don’t want to do this!” What a waste. Knowing this helps keep the rumination in check.

A fourth idea: Sometimes people do benefit more from separation. Switching gears is mentally costly. Just because your work is flexible doesn’t mean you always have to work flexibly. Another upside of keeping a time log is that working parents sometimes discover they are spending a lot of time around their kids. That knowledge can give you permission to schedule some longer stretches of work, rather than trying to be always available to family, too. We can’t be 100 percent efficiency machines at the office. Rather than feeling bad about getting distracted, maybe recognize that your work day is going to need to include consciously scheduled breaks, and you need to budget a long enough time to do your work and get in that break time too.

Finally, reflection helps. I’d stopped writing in my journal over the past few years, but then I picked it up again in January. These past few days have been blah. I’m not feeling productive, and the kids have been getting on my nerves. But when I write in my journal, I force myself to think up a few highlights. I had an enjoyable work lunch yesterday. I started an interesting book. I hopped on the treadmill for half an hour after the kids went to bed. I played out in the snow with the big kids for a bit. I gave the baby a bath, which he loves, and I enjoyed (and was mentally present for!) a few minutes of cooing and smiles. All told, not bad.

What advice do you have for this reader?

Photo: The baby is able to switch modes very quickly. I think he was screaming 2 seconds after this smile.

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