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← How to turn off work thoughts during your free time

Feeling burned out? You may be spending too much time ruminating about your job, says psychologist Guy Winch. Learn how to stop worrying about tomorrow's tasks or stewing over office tensions with three simple techniques aimed at helping you truly relax and recharge after work.

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Showing Revision 8 created 12/19/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. I wanted to be a psychologist
    since I was a teenager,
  2. and I spent years pursuing that one goal.
  3. I opened my private practice
    as soon as I was licensed.
  4. It was a risky move, not getting a day job
    at a hospital or a clinic,
  5. but within one year,
    my practice was doing quite well
  6. and I was making more money
    than I ever made before.
  7. Of course, I was a full-time
    student my entire life.
  8. (Laughter)

  9. I could have worked at McDonald's

  10. and made more money
    than I ever made before.
  11. That one-year mark
    came on a Friday night in July.

  12. I walked home to my apartment
  13. and got into the elevator with a neighbor
    who was a doctor in the ER.
  14. The elevator rose,
  15. then it shuddered
    and stalled between floors.
  16. And the man who dealt
    with emergencies for a living
  17. began poking at the buttons
    and banging on the door, saying,
  18. "This is my nightmare,
    this is my nightmare!"
  19. And I was like,
    "And this is my nightmare."
  20. (Laughter)

  21. I felt terrible afterwards, though.

  22. Because I wasn't panicked
  23. and I knew what to say to calm him down.
  24. I was just too depleted to do it,
  25. I had nothing left to give,
    and that confused me.
  26. After all, I was finally living my dream,
  27. so why wasn't I happy?
  28. Why did I feel so burned out?
  29. For a few terrible weeks,

  30. I questioned whether I'd made a mistake.
  31. What if I had chosen the wrong profession?
  32. What if I had spent my entire life
    pursuing the wrong career?
  33. But then I realized, no,
    I still loved psychology.
  34. The problem wasn't the work
    I did in my office.
  35. It was the hours I spent
    ruminating about work
  36. when I was home.
  37. I closed the door
    to my office every night,
  38. but the door in my head remained wide-open
  39. and the stress just flooded in.
  40. That's the interesting thing
    about work stress.

  41. We don't really experience
    much of it at work.
  42. We're too busy.
  43. We experience it outside of work,
  44. when we are commuting,
  45. when we're home,
  46. when we're trying to rejuvenate.
  47. It is important to recover
    in our spare time,
  48. to de-stress and do things we enjoy,
  49. and the biggest obstruction
    we face in that regard is ruminating.
  50. Because each time we do it,
  51. we're actually activating
    our stress response.
  52. Now, to ruminate means to chew over.

  53. The word refers
    to how cows digest their food.
  54. For those of you unfamiliar
    with the joys of cow digestion,
  55. cows chew,
  56. then they swallow,
  57. then they regurgitate it back up
    and chew it again.
  58. (Laughter)

  59. It's disgusting.

  60. (Laughter)

  61. But it works for cows.

  62. (Laughter)

  63. It does not work for humans.

  64. Because what we chew over
    are the upsetting things,
  65. the distressing things,
  66. and we do it in ways
    that are entirely unproductive.
  67. It's the hours we spend
    obsessing about tasks we didn't complete
  68. or stewing about tensions
    with a colleague,
  69. or anxiously worrying about the future,
  70. or second-guessing decisions we've made.
  71. Now there's a lot of research
    on how we think about work

  72. when we are not at work,
  73. and the findings are quite alarming.
  74. Ruminating about work,
  75. replaying the same thoughts and worries
    over and over again,
  76. significantly disrupts our ability
    to recover and recharge in the off hours.
  77. The more we ruminate about work
    when we're home,
  78. the more likely we are
    to experience sleep disturbances,
  79. to eat unhealthier foods
  80. and to have worse moods.
  81. It may even increase our risk
    of cardiovascular disease
  82. and of impairing
    our executive functioning,
  83. the very skill sets we need
    to do our jobs well.
  84. Not to mention the toll it takes
    on our relationships and family lives,
  85. because people around us can tell
    we're checked out and preoccupied.
  86. Now, those same studies found

  87. that while ruminating
    about work when we're home
  88. damages our emotional well-being,
  89. thinking about work in creative
    or problem-solving ways does not.
  90. Because those kinds of thinking
    do not elicit emotional distress
  91. and, more importantly,
    they're in our control.
  92. We can decide whether
    to respond to an email
  93. or leave it till morning,
  94. or whether we want to brainstorm
    about work projects that excite us.
  95. But ruminations are involuntary.
  96. They're intrusive.
  97. They pop into our head
    when we don't want them to.
  98. They upset us when
    we don't want to be upset.
  99. They switch us on
    when we are trying to switch off.
  100. And they are very difficult to resist,
  101. because thinking of all
    our unfinished tasks feels urgent.
  102. Anxiously worrying about the future
    feels compelling.
  103. Ruminating always feels
    like we're doing something important,
  104. when in fact, we're doing
    something harmful.
  105. And we all do it far more than we realize.
  106. Back when I was burned out,

  107. I decided to keep a journal for a week
  108. and document exactly how much time
    I spent ruminating.
  109. And I was horrified by the results.
  110. It was over 30 minutes a night
    when I was trying to fall asleep.
  111. My entire commute,
    to and from my office --
  112. that was 45 minutes a day.
  113. Totally checked out for 20 minutes
  114. during the dinner party
    at a colleague's house.
  115. Never got invited there again.
  116. (Laughter)

  117. And 90 minutes during
    a friend's "talent show"

  118. that, coincidentally, was 90 minutes long.
  119. (Laughter)

  120. In total, that week,
    it was almost 14 hours.

  121. That's how much "downtime" I was losing
  122. to something that actually
    increased my stress.
  123. Try keeping a journal for one week.
  124. See how much you do it.
  125. That's what made me realize
    that I still loved my work.

  126. But ruminating was destroying that love
  127. and it was destroying
    my personal life, too.
  128. So I read every study I could find,
  129. and I went to war against my ruminations.
  130. Now, habit change is hard.
  131. It took real diligence to catch myself
    ruminating each time,
  132. and real consistency
    to make the new habits stick.
  133. But eventually, they did.
  134. I won my war against ruminating,
  135. and I'm here to tell you
    how you can win yours.
  136. First, you need clear guardrails.

  137. You have to define
    when you switch off every night,
  138. when you stop working.
  139. And you have to be strict about it.
  140. The rule I made to myself at the time
    was that I was done at 8pm.
  141. And I forced myself to stick to it.
  142. Now people say to me,
  143. "Really? You didn't return
    a single email after 8pm?
  144. You didn't even look at your phone?"
  145. No, not once.
  146. Because it was the '90s,
    we didn't have smartphones.
  147. (Laughter)

  148. I got my first smartphone in 2007.

  149. You know, the iPhone had just come out,
  150. and I wanted a phone
    that was cool and hip.
  151. I got a BlackBerry.
  152. (Laughter)

  153. I was excited, though,

  154. you know, my first thought was,
    "I get my emails wherever I am."
  155. And 24 hours later,
  156. I was like, "I get my emails
    wherever I am."
  157. (Laughter)

  158. I mean, battling ruminations
    was hard enough

  159. when they just invaded our thoughts.
  160. But now they have this Trojan horse,
  161. our phones, to hide within.
  162. And each time we just look
    at our phone after hours,
  163. we can be reminded of work
  164. and ruminative thoughts can slip out
  165. and slaughter our evening or weekend.
  166. So, when you switch off,
  167. switch off your email notifications.
  168. And if you have to check them,
    decide on when to do it,
  169. so it doesn't interfere with your plans,
  170. and do it only then.
  171. Cell phones aren't the only way
    technology is empowering rumination,

  172. because we have
    an even bigger fight coming.
  173. Telecommuting has increased
    115 percent over the past decade.
  174. And it's expected to increase
    even more dramatically going forward.
  175. More and more of us
    are losing our physical boundary
  176. between work and home.
  177. And that means that reminders of work
  178. will be able to trigger ruminations
    from anywhere in our home.
  179. When we lack a physical boundary
    between work and home,
  180. we have to create a psychological one.
  181. We have to trick our mind
  182. into defining work and nonwork
    times and spaces.
  183. So here's how you do that.
  184. First, create a defined
    work zone in your home,

  185. even if it's tiny,
  186. and try to work only there.
  187. Try not to work on the living room couch
  188. or on the bed
  189. because really, those areas
    should be associated
  190. with living and ... bedding.
  191. (Laughter)

  192. Next, when you're working from home,

  193. wear clothes you only wear
    when you're working.
  194. And then at the end of the day,
  195. change clothes,
  196. and use music and lighting
    to shift the atmosphere
  197. from work to home.
  198. Make it a ritual.
  199. Now, some of you might think that's silly.
  200. That changing clothes and lighting
  201. will convince my mind
    I'm no longer at work.
  202. Trust me, your mind will fall for it.
  203. Because we are really smart,
    our mind is really stupid.
  204. (Laughter)

  205. It falls for random associations
    all the time, right?

  206. I mean, that's why Pavlov's dog
    began drooling at the sound of a bell.
  207. And why TED speakers begin sweating
    at the sight of a red circle.
  208. (Laughter)

  209. Now those things will help,

  210. but ruminations will still invade.
  211. And when they do, you have to convert them
  212. into productive forms of thinking,
    like problem-solving.
  213. My patient Sally is a good example.

  214. Sally was given
    the promotion of a lifetime,
  215. but it came with a price.
  216. She was no longer able
    to pick up her daughter
  217. from school every day,
  218. and that broke her heart.
  219. So she came up with a plan.
  220. Every Tuesday and Thursday,
    Sally left work early,
  221. picked up her daughter from school,
  222. played with her, fed her,
    bathed her and put her to bed.
  223. And then she went back to the office
  224. and worked past midnight to catch up.
  225. Only, Sally's rumination journal indicated
  226. she spent almost every minute
    of her quality time with her daughter
  227. ruminating about how much
    work she had to do.
  228. Ruminations often deny us
    our most precious moments.

  229. Sally's rumination,
    "I have so much work to do,"
  230. is a very common one.
  231. And like all of them,
  232. it's useless and it's harmful,
  233. because we'd never think it
    when we're at work, getting stuff done.
  234. We think it when we're outside of work,
  235. when we're trying to relax
    or do things that we find meaningful,
  236. like playing with our children,
  237. or having a date night with our partner.
  238. To convert a ruminative thought
    into a productive one,

  239. you have to pose it
    as a problem to be solved.
  240. The problem-solving version
    of "I have so much work to do"
  241. is a scheduling question.
  242. Like, "Where in my schedule can I fit
    the tasks that are troubling me?"
  243. Or, "What can I move in my schedule
    to make room for this more urgent thing?"
  244. Or even, "When do I have 15 minutes
    to go over my schedule?"
  245. All those are problems that can be solved.
  246. "I have so much work to do" is not.
  247. Battling rumination is hard,

  248. but if you stick to your guardrails,
  249. if you ritualize the transition
    from work to home,
  250. and if you train yourself
    to convert ruminations
  251. into productive forms of thinking,
  252. you will succeed.
  253. Banishing ruminations
    truly enhanced my personal life,
  254. but what it enhanced even more
  255. was the joy and satisfaction
    I get from my work.
  256. Ground zero for creating
    a healthy work-life balance

  257. is not in the real world.
  258. It's in our head.
  259. It's with ruminating.
  260. If you want to reduce your stress
    and improve your quality of life,
  261. you don't necessarily have to change
    your hours or your job.
  262. You just have to change how you think.
  263. Thank you.

  264. (Applause)