- Michael Thompson
4 steps for separating work from play
I used to believe there was no such thing as work-life balance. Workdays would often become work nights, and I’d be okay with that. I’d muscle through creative projects, figuring dinner, chores, and texts from friends could wait.
And then I got married and started a family.
My kids don’t care about my job. My wife does care, but I bet not nearly as much as I think. When my workday is over, they want me to be present. They deserve that, and so do I. And so I’ve been teaching myself how to walk away.
Throughout the pandemic, many newly remote workers have found that it was much easier to disconnect from work when their office wasn’t their kitchen table. Whatever they used to do before coming home — listen to a podcast in the car, work out at the gym, or run errands — helped them transition into their personal time. Here’s something I’ve learned in the two years I’ve spent working from home as a writer and career coach: You still need an after-work routine even if you have nowhere to go. It turns out that priming ourselves to play is just as important as preparing ourselves to work.
I’ve created a four-step process that helps me de-stress and get ready for the second part of my day. Try it and see what sticks. The routine should only take about 15 minutes, but your time, both at work and at home, will be better for it.
Get your work out of sight and out of reach — literally
Whenever Tim Urban, creator of Wait but Why, needs to get work done, he stands on a step stool, places his phone on a high shelf, and then puts the stool in another room. He does the same with his router if the task he’s working on doesn’t require the internet. His reasoning: The effort it takes to access these distractions is just as unappealing as working. And so he works.
In the same way, to be present at home, I’ve started locking my laptop in the trunk of my car at the end of every workday. At first, this felt extreme — couldn’t I just tell myself not to look at it? But getting my work out of sight helps keep it out of my mind. As I place the computer down and walk away, I remind myself that even though there are more emails to sift through, more articles to get ahead on, more administrative tasks to tie up, I’ve done enough and my workday is done.
Play an end-of-workday song
To get into a flow at work, Wordpress founder Matt Mullenweg says he listens to the same song every day. I do the same when I’m getting ready for family time. As I begin to wrap up my work, I shout “Hey Google, play ‘Here Comes The Sun’ please.” When it begins, my shoulders drop. It’s a signal to my brain that the workday is coming to an end. (I also find it amusing that Google compliments me for saying “please.”)
Write out your tasks for the next day on notecards
A lot of people I know write out their to-do list in the evenings or in the morning. Then they complain that they’re always working. Don’t make things harder than they already are. As psychologist Nick Wignall writes, taking some time at the end of your workday to get clear on what needs to be done the next day can free up a lot of headspace.
Here’s what I do each day: After wrapping up my last bit of work, I write down my tasks for the next day on individual notecards. Whenever I complete a task, I move it from my “to-do” pile to my “done” pile. I then take a minute to scan over the large pile of tasks I’ve completed over the last few days, reminding myself that I’m making progress.
An aside: I’m a big fan of executive coach Dan Sullivan’s recommendation to cap your to-do list at three items every day. I usually save the item I’m least looking forward to doing for the end of the day. For me, it’s easier to step way from paperwork than it is a project I’ll probably get immersed in.
Do something that either shocks your system or soothes your soul
Depending on the type of day I’ve had, I’ll choose an after-work activity that either gets my heart pumping or slows it down. I might exercise, meditate, or take a shower. Or I’ll sit out in the sun and close my eyes for a few minutes. A friend of mine likes to take his shoes off and walk on his lawn. Feeling the grass underneath his bare feet chills him out. Choose something that works for you. Have a few options available depending on how much time you have and how you’re feeling that day.
These exercises aren’t foolproof — some days, they’ll work better than others. But by sticking with an after-work routine, you won’t fall into the “24-hour trap.” As a bonus, your work might even get better.