work home transition
Managing Stress, Anxiety, Overwhelm

Successfully Manage the Mental Work-Home Transition (The Solution Is Not What You Might Think!)

Even if you’re the type of person who loves your job and doesn’t mind being consumed by it, at one point or another, you’ve probably faced the challenge of how to limit the mental energy you expend on work in non-work situations. You’ve searched for a way to make sure you leave work at work and not bring work stress home with you. Is there a way to manage the mental work-home transition well?

Yes, there is. And it’s probably not what you might think it is.

The strategies you tend to find online, or what well-intentioned people and colleagues in your life might tell you, is some version of, “Try to relax.” Deep breathing, meditation, taking some time to clear your head, taking a walk, etc.

I don’t know about you, but when I have some high-intensity work to do, I can breath deeply while meditating outside on a lovely wooded path like crazy – and my mind is still racing on those pesky work issues.

Even if I am able to mentally transition from work to home for a bit by using relaxation techniques, my mind will snap right back to the work issues like a rubber band. 

For years, I thought the way to successfully transition from work to home was to reduce the intensity of my mental energy after hours. I desperately tried anything and everything to kick my mind down.

Didn’t work.

Until someone suggested to me that I was approaching it all wrong. The key was not to kick it down; instead, they key was to keep the intensity up!

What?!?

That’s right. Instead of doing a step-down work-home transition for intensity of mental energy, try to transition a completely different variable –  the content of the mental energy – and keep the intensity up (at least initially).

Absorb your mind with something totally and completely different than work, something that takes over as much mental real estate as possible.

Listen, your brain is already charged. To compel it to relax is, in some cases, just not going to happen. However, if you redirect that charged energy to something else, well, now you might actually get somewhere. Ironically, you will feel your shoulders relax, your breathing become less shallow, your eyes reduce their strain, and your back hurt less.

It’s weird, I know. But it works.

typical work home transition model

alternate work home transition model

The work-home transition that will be effective for this exercise is going to be different for everyone.

Here are some ideas, with the ones that really worked for me being starred.

  • Focused work out class like Zumba, or weight lifting
  • Team sports
  • Cooking (whatever a challenging recipe would be for you) *
  • NYT crossword puzzle *
  • Calligraphy or other precise, detail-oriented art
  • Physical building (perhaps requiring power tools!)
  • Reading totally absorbing non-work-related content

The alternate, non-work, intense transition activities that you pick must have three characteristics to be effective: (1) they must consume you in a way that your work issues do, or essentially take over your mind’s function, (3) they must be sustained for a good enough transition time from work to home, and (2) they must be enjoyable to you.

For me, cooking was perfect for this. I had interest in expanding and refining my cooking skills, so I experimented with a new recipe every night for a good hour. As a result, I had to completely focus on reading the recipe, making sure the 3 pots on the stovetop wouldn’t burn, and getting the timing of three dishes just right so they were ready for dinner at the same time.

I also dabbled with the NYT crossword puzzle. This was a good one because at first, I sucked at it. But week over week, in that one commute hour on the train home, I kept at it. Over time, I saw improvement in my ability to crack the NYT’s particular crossword “language.” As a result, I found that I got off the train without a single thought about anything work-related before I walked through the door into the house.

You may need to experiment a bit in order to find what works for you. There’s nothing like a good brainstorming session to get some fresh ideas on the table! Just remember to try to think of things that fit all three characteristics listed above.

Pro Tip 1: Do try this at home.

You may want to try this exercise as a way to transition between two environments where one of those is not work.

Heading toward stress? (Family holidays, anyone?) Leaving stress, like vacations that didn’t work out the way you’d hoped?

Use this method for transitioning in these non-work situations, and you can find some relief.

Pro Tip 2: Pick healthy consuming activities.

See that list above? There are just as many, if not more, unhealthy ways to completely absorb mental energy to transition away from work stress.

  • Overdrinking
  • Overeating
  • Overspending
  • Over-Facebooking

My suggestion: get conscious about it. Pick a healthier option, which as a result will serve you better over the long term.


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