Work Smarter//

15 Tips for Leaving Work at Work

It’s all about transitions and boundaries.

Don Pablo/Shutterstock
Don Pablo/Shutterstock

In case you haven’t heard, work-life balance is a myth. At Thrive, we’re all about work-life integration. It’s different from work-life balance in that it’s a more holistic — and realistic — approach. The truth is that none of us will ever achieve perfect balance, and striving to get there just stresses us out. Work-life integration acknowledges that sometimes work will demand more of your attention, and other times life will, but by setting boundaries and making sure you’re prioritizing healthy habits, you’ll be able to thrive in all facets of your life.

We asked our Thrive community for their best tips for leaving work at work, and they had some pretty great strategies. Here are a few of our favorites:

Make lists to prioritize

“I create a to-do list for the beginning of the week, and edit it every morning. I then look at it before I leave work so I can check off everything I have done and know what to prioritize the next morning. It gives me a sense of closure at the end of the day and that physical ticking off a task is actually a great mental feeling.”

—Meera S., marketing manager, London, U.K.

Take a minute to tidy up

“Something I began doing, almost unknowingly during my years as a teacher was straightening up my desk each day just before I left work for the day. Fifteen years later, now as a counselor I do the same thing. When my last client leaves, I come back into my office and straighten up my desk. It takes me no more than one minute and brings about closure to my day. When I return the next morning, I walk into an organized work space and that helps me think clearly and begin the new day. The habit is set and hardwired and I don’t take work home with me.”  

—Josh Neuer, licensed professional counselor, Greenville, SC

Don’t stress about finishing everything on your list

“I finish my most important tasks of the day and keep the second half for not-on-priority tasks. This way I do not stress over work not getting completed. Even if there’s something left, I know I have tomorrow to finish. This strategy helps me a lot and keeps work at bay!”

—Aakriti Agarwal, coach, facilitator and image consultant, Hyderabad, India

Set boundaries with work email

“I never check my work emails or phone over the weekend — my out of office response is turned on until 9 a.m. Monday morning. That way people know not to expect a response from me, and I don’t feel guilty about not getting back to them.”

—Fiona Brown, Author and Women’s Confidence Coach, London U.K.

Don’t dwell on what happened at work

“When you’ve had a bad day, don’t recount all the details of it to others when you arrive home. That just magnifies the negative feelings. Just say, ‘I had a bad day, but now I’m home, looking forward to enjoying a great evening with you.’ And let it go. Be in the moment. Do not allow the bad day to ruin an enjoyable evening.”

—Larry Sternberg, consultant, Lincoln, Nebraska

Create a ritual that helps you transition between work and personal life

“To help transition my mindset from work-mode to relax-mode, I have a few rituals that allow me to leave work at work. For example, on my walk home, I will listen to a podcast about my interests outside of work like fitness, health, and well-being. With these rituals, I get to celebrate my hard work of the day and immerse myself in the other activities I enjoy to reground.”

—Melissa Muncy, content marketing, San Francisco, CA

Change your clothes to change your mindset

“I segment my wardrobe — quite strictly — into three categories: play, work corporate, and work at home. If a ‘play’ outfit crosses over to ‘work,’ it never comes back. You can’t ever again wear a ‘work’ outfit for ‘play’ and expect to feel relaxed. Switch from ‘work’ to ‘play’ clothes the second you come home.”

—Danielle Dunsmore, business owner, Labrador, Queensland, Australia

Embody Elsa from Frozen

“I sing the line from my favorite musical, Frozen — “Let it go.” When I am off the clock I visualize myself leaving work like Fred Flintstone in the cartoon pulling out of the Rock Quarry. I don’t physically take work home, nor do I allow it to take up space in my mind. This helps me keep a healthy balance and maintain boundaries.”

—Tanya Brown, intuitive business coach, Hoboken, NJ

Put yourself in control

“As more people work remotely or stay available to colleagues after hours online, leaving work at work is becoming a thing of the past. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t and can’t create clear boundaries between work and life. To do this, you need to have a clear line of sight to what is on your plate, where your attention is needed, and what actions you need to take to move the ball forward. When you feel in control, you’re more likely to permit yourself to take time off to unwind or shift focus to other things and people that matter. Also, try adopting the “Five ‘Ates”: Collate (create to-do lists often and diligently); eliminate (clear the decks); automate (put routine tasks on autopilot), delegate (let other people on your team do those things you can’t do or don’t do well); and create, accelerate, celebrate (doing the things that you do at your best!).”

—Camille Preston, Ph.D., business psychologist,  Cambridge MA

Leave your work supplies at work

“When I leave work, I leave the building with my keys and phone. In past situations I would pack up my laptop, notebook, etc. thinking I might want to work on my task later in the evening. However, chances are by evening I’m way too exhausted to even jump back into work mode. It’s a wonderful feeling to exit the building with just my personal belongings. I’m allowing myself to be free of work while I transition into wife and mom mode. When I return to work the next day I feel fresh and ready for any obstacle.”

—Kirby Tousey, brand and content lead, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Limit your notifications — and not just the ones from work

“I think it’s important to recognize how non-work communications and obligations that we’re expected to respond to 24/7 also contribute to a stressful life (I’m looking at you, mom group texts!!). For me, since technological solutions contributed to this mess, they need to help get me out. Case in point: When I have my phone set up right, I turn off all notifications for Facebook and email… I’m also considering using Constant Contact as my personal email client so I can schedule emails to go out at certain times. For instance, if I respond to an email at 10 p.m., I’m only encouraging the sender to hassle me more.”

—Tara S., dean, North White Plains, NY

Exercise to stop the post-work stewing

“For me, leaving work at work isn’t really about not checking emails after-hours, although that does help to some extent. I think it’s so easy for our mental focus to be caught up in everything that happened at work, even when we’re not checking our emails at night. So the thing that helps me the most… is exercising after work. I find this is more helpful than before-work exercise for someone like me who tends to be a ‘ruminator’ and replay the events of the work day. It seems I really need a physical action to stop the noise and shift mental gears so I can be present for my relationships and not be thinking about my work to-do (or ‘should’ve done or said’) list when I’m with my friends and family.”

—Margarita B., editor, Queens, NY

When you know a stressful stretch is ahead, don’t keep it to yourself

“My stress often becomes my family’s stress. As a teacher, I have to be mindful and warn them if something stressful like report cards, Back to School Night, or an observation is coming — or if a student or parent pushed me over the edge on a certain day. I let my family know what is happening so they can give me space to handle my challenges. Simply tell your family when you need time to work, and when that time is up, give your energy to family that needs you. Teach them to do the same for you.”

—Jenny W., teacher, Flemington, NJ

Keep your calls separate

“In principle, I’m a big believer in two phones and not giving many co-workers your personal cell phone number or installing your work email account on it. That way, you don’t have to actively, consciously avoid the work stuff to communicate with family and friends. In practice, it’s tough once you have kids and want to make sure some people don’t have to put effort into finding you if they need you. I insist on separate apps for everything, and only put my desk landline in my email signature. Pushing as much voice and video as possible through Slack and MS Teams is great, too, because you can turn off the work stuff, but keep the ringer on.”

—Jay S., system administrator, North White Plains, NY

Create a workday, even if you don’t have a traditional schedule

“I started my own business about eight years ago, when I had one kid and was trying to get pregnant with another.  At that time work was a side-gig — I would work when it suited me: during naptime, late in the evening, Saturdays — whatever was convenient. Fast-forward three years and I suddenly had more work than I could handle. I’d work here, parent there, work at night, parent during the day, bring my kids to job sites, and work/parent simultaneously (which is guaranteed fail at both). Finally I made the decision to commit to a regular workday. I have to try really hard to avoid all of that during my ‘work hours,’ and similarly, after 4 p.m., I shut the computer down and walk away. Sometimes my projects don’t get all the attention I could give.  And other times the kids don’t get all the attention I can give. But I’ve found that assigning myself a real ‘workday’… works.”

—Caroline B., interior designer, Saratoga Springs, NY

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