Some jobs have very clear lines between when you’re “on” and when you’re “off,” while in others the lines are blurred – or potentially nonexistent. That makes not being distracted by work, especially mentally, a major challenge.
This can lead to sitting at dinner while your daughter tells a story about her day, but instead of hearing her you’re wondering whether an email from your boss came through. It can mean exchanging the time you could have spent on sleep, exercise, or talking with your spouse glued to your laptop. And it can look like keeping your work life in order, while your finances or home are a mess because you don’t take time to pay bills, plan for retirement, or tidy up.
What is possible can vary depending on your particular job, work culture, and coworkers. But in most cases, you can reduce how distracted you feel by work during times when you’re not working. These four steps can help. Challenge yourself to gradually implement these changes and see how much you can leave your work at work – both physically and mentally.
Step 1: Define “After Hours”
If you have a traditional 9-to-5 job, your hours are set for you. But if you work in an environment with flexible hours, especially if you are working remotely, you’ll need to think through when you want to be on and off the clock. If your employer has a certain number of hours that you’re expected to work each week. Start by seeing how to fit those hours around your fixed personal commitments, like taking your kids to school or extracurricular activities, making a certain train, or attending an exercise class you really enjoy. When do you need to start and stop to put in the proper work time?
On the other hand, if your company doesn’t have a specific amount of time that you need to work – say, you freelance or have a results-only work environment – but your job still takes over almost all of your waking hours, take the reverse approach. Think through how many hours you want for activities like sleep, exercise, family, friends, cleaning, finances, etc. Then see how much time you need to reserve on a daily and weekly basis to fit in those personal priorities. That then defines the parameters of when you want to be “off hours.”
Step 2: Have Mental Clarity
Next, make sure you have mental clarity on what needs to get done and when you will complete it. This includes having a place where you write down the many tasks that you need to do, whether that’s in a notebook, a task management app, a project management system, or in your calendar. The important point is that you’re not lying in bed at night trying to remember everything on your mental to-do list. Then once you have this list, plan out your work.
That could mean setting aside time in your schedule to work on a report in advance, putting time in your calendar to prep for your next day’s meetings, or just plotting out specific hours that you will reserve for getting your own work done versus attending meetings or responding to other people’s requests. This planning reduces anxiety that something will fall through the cracks or that you’ll miss a deadline.
The final part of increasing your mental clarity is to have an end-of-workday wrap-up. During this time, look over your daily to-do list and calendar to make sure that everything that absolutely must get done – specifically, those tasks that had a hard deadline – were completed. You can also do a quick scan of your email to ensure any urgent messages are attended to before you leave the office. For some people, it works well to do this as the last thing they do that day, say 15 to 30 minutes before heading out. For others, it’s better to put a reminder in their calendars for an hour or two before they need to leave. This gives them a more generous time period to wrap items up.
Step 3: Communicate with Your Colleagues
In some job situations, you can set a definite after-hours boundary like, after 6 pm, I’m offline. But in other situations, the lines are much blurrier. For those in situations where you can have a clear dividing line between work and home, I would encourage you to directly communicate that with your colleagues. For example, you might say, “I typically leave work at 6 pm, so if you contact me after that time, you can expect to hear back from me sometime after 9 am the next business day.” Or in some cases your actions can simply set that tone. If they never hear from you between 6 pm and 9 am, that will set the expectation that you’re not available.
But for others, who have jobs that require more constant connectivity, you may want to set some guidelines to control how people reach you, thereby reducing unwanted interruptions. For example, you could say, “It’s fine to text me during the day with questions, but after 6 pm, please send me an email instead of a text unless the situation is truly urgent.” Similarly, if you have a very flexible schedule where you take extended breaks during the day for things like going to the gym or picking your kids up after school, encourage people to reach out to you in specific, preferred ways that you establish. For instance, “There are some times during the day when I may be away from my computer. If you need a fast response, call or text me.” In these scenarios, you’ll know that only the most important work will take you away from your personal or family obligations via an urgent call or text, and you can turn your attention to non-urgent work once you have the bandwidth.
Step 4: Get Work Done at Work
It may seem crazy to say this, but I want to encourage you to give yourself permission to do work at work. For many, they perceive “real work” as something they reserve for post-5 or 6 pm, after everyone else has left the office or for after they’ve tucked their kids in bed for the night. People have this mindset because this time can seem like the few precious hours where no one is dropping by your office or asking you for anything immediately. But if you want to stop feeling distracted by work after hours, you need to actually do your work during the day.
Completing the actions under the mental clarity step will take you a long way forward in that process. Really guard your time. Put in time for project work. Place time in your calendar to answer email. And if follow-through requires going to a place other than your office to work, do it. Make and keep meetings with yourself to knock off tasks. It’s exceptionally difficult – if not impossible – to not be distracted about work when you’re stressed out because you haven’t gotten your work done.
And if you must (or want to) do some work outside of your standard day, make sure that you timebox it. For example, I will work from 8-9 pm tonight then stop. Or, I’ll put in three hours on Saturday from 1-4 pm, but then I won’t think about work before or after. It’s much better to designate a time and stick with it than it is to think about work all night or all weekend and do nothing. As individuals, we need a mental break to do our best work, and taking time for ourselves — without the distraction of work — can help us become our best selves. I can’t guarantee that thoughts about work will never cross your mind, but with these four steps, you can reduce how much you’re distracted by work after hours.
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.