For many of us, leaving the office often doesn’t necessarily mean the work day is done. Whether you’re pulled back into the abyss by an urgent email or have an unfinished project looming over your commute home, forgetting about work is surprisingly hard to do. But as Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in this Harvard Business Review article, it’s doable if you plan ahead.
Here are two of his tips for how to do it.
1. Stop setting yourself up to fail
You tell yourself “just don’t think about work,” but that’s not really the way habit change—or our brains—function, Markman writes.
Markman calls this a “negative goal,” and says it will fail simply because habit formation happens when you replace the thing you want to stop doing with something else. So to truly not think about work, he suggests focusing on what you’ll do with the time you’re not working and actually make a plan. Try scheduling a workout class near the office in the evening, volunteering for a local charity or adopting a new skill like painting or learning a language, as Markman recommends.
Even while you’re living out your newfound pottery-master dreams or embarking on a knitting adventure, pesky thoughts about work will probably sneak in. Don’t fear though: if you start ruminating (the psychological term for repeatedly thinking the same negative thoughts over and over, in this case about work) Markman suggests you “occupy your mind” by doing things like reading, calling a friend or puzzling.
And if the works thoughts won’t just buzz off, sometimes you just need to “get the things that are bothering you outside of yourself,” Markman writes. He suggests carrying a notebook so that when intrusive work thoughts interrupt your you–time, you can take 10 minutes (he says it’s essential to put time limits on this) to jot down whatever you’re anxious about.
2. Create a no-work zone
To keep work out of your mental and physical spaces away from the office, designate an area just for non-work related activities. It could be your bedroom or a literal corner, Markman writes, as long as you “use it as a place where you will engage in non-work activities, like reading or yoga.” The more time we spend in our non-work spaces, the easier it becomes to shake loose from our unwanted work thoughts in the future.
This sacred space for anything-but-work should extend to your digital life as well. “Someone trying to set healthier work-life boundaries doesn’t leave their phone and computer on all the time,” Markman writes.
The most important step? Actually turning your devices off, “all the way off,” he writes. With your phone and computer shut down, you’ll have to deliberately turn them back on to see if someone responded to your email, for instance, which will probably deter you—or at least delay you—from checking. Of course, if you need your gadgets for connecting with a non-work-related human, you could always change your push notification settings or remove work email from your phone while you’re away from the office.
Read more of Markman’s tips here.