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Summary:

How good are you at switching off from work? I’m not talking about turning off your web connection or letting your calls go to voicemail. I mean switching off mentally from the work you do every day.

How good are you at switching off from work? I’m not talking about turning off your web connection or letting your calls go to voicemail. I mean switching off mentally from the work you do every day.

For those of us in roles that involve problem solving or creativity of some kind, and who spend our lives at keyboards and meetings, it can be hard to switch off at the end of the work day. It’s even harder if you’re “always on” — if your computer or phone is always within reach, and some part of your mind is always engaged with the world at large courtesy of your web connection.

Why Does Switching Off Matter?

A web working friend of mine laughingly comments that he gets his best ideas in the shower. He attributes this phenomenon to the fact that the practical, rational side of his brain is occupied on a task (washing his hair), leaving the creative part of his mind free to run wild.

As a designer, he also finds that he needs to engage himself with non-creative tasks on a regular basis. He feels that this allows him to recharge his batteries for the times of steady creative output.

The concept of switching off mentally from work is hardly new — we all need to take time out to relax at some point. Yet it seems that fewer and fewer of us make sure we get enough time away from the thought processes that accompany our daily work. Not only does this leave us mentally busy all the time, and risk burnout, as my friend suggests, it can limit our creativity and problem solving capabilities.

Three Ways to Switch Off … Completely!

Switching off doesn’t have to mean disconnecting from the web, isolating yourself, or ignoring the things you enjoy or care about. It just means swapping your everyday focus and thought patterns for something else. If you can find ways to switch off easily, you can do it as and when it suits you, rather than waiting for a vacation or long weekend to roll around.

Here are a few techniques I use to ensure that in the time when I’m not at work, I’m not constantly thinking about it. You’ll notice that each of these techniques involves switching my mind into a different thought pattern. For me, this is the easiest way to switch off.

1. Stop sitting down.

In my work, I spend most of each day sitting down. So if I finish work, then spend an evening reading, watching TV, or poring through the paper, I often find that my thoughts continue along the same paths they’ve been in all day.

On the other hand, pastimes that involve a different kind of movement — like sports, cooking, wandering through an art gallery, or playing with a yo-yo — require me to use my mind and body differently. They demand a different kind of focus and different skills, so they allow me to switch off. Find a pastime that requires a different kind of movement than you use at work, and you might find it easier to switch off from the daily grind.

2. Clear your mind.

If you can meditate, congratulations! Word has it that this is the ideal way to clear your mind and focus your thoughts away from the everyday. Not surprisingly, many people (myself included) find traditional meditation extremely difficult. Perhaps we just feel societal pressure to “be doing” all the time; perhaps we have too much nervous energy. But an inability to meditate doesn’t preclude us from clearing our minds, too.

There are a few tactics that those who don’t mediate can use to slow our thoughts and achieve a single non-task-oriented focus for a given period. Yoga, tai chi and similar exercises that require a focus on breathing are a great place to start. For some, jogging or swimming achieves the same goal. Perhaps for you, it’s brushing the cat. If you can identify the easiest way to clear your mind, you’ll always have a way to switch off when you need to.

3. Focus on an easy challenge.

I’ve always been pretty terrible with numbers, so I find Sudoku puzzles a bit of a challenge. Similarly, I find jigsaw puzzles, crosswords and most games that involve skill, rather than knowledge, engaging. Since I rarely attempt them, when I do, they take up all my attention — there’s no mental space for work at those times.

For you, the easy challenge might be learning to knit, to sing, to play cards, or to dance the Tango. The fact that you’re learning it (though it’s not too difficult!), and it’s not related to the kinds of mental processes you use for work, can help to focus your thoughts toward a goal, and shift your thinking away from your everyday trials, to an entirely different realm.

These are the techniques I commonly use to switch off mentally from my work, but what are yours?

Photo by stock.xchng user amoor.

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By Georgina Laidlaw

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  1. These are really good tips! Simple and very possible for anyone to try them out.

  2. I can vouch for the standing up thing and doing something completely different.

    I also recommend listening to someone else discuss something that isn’t work related.

    My combined switch-off is cooking (whilst standing) listening to a play on the radio or another speaking program.

    very theraputic!

  3. Alexandra Tallis Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    This is a good topic many people I’ve met have found huge difficulties with. I read a book called Tai Chi Health for Life by a renowned Tai Chi Master named Bruce Frantzis and I wanted to share a few of his viewpoints since they felt tailor made to this topic (to my knowledge Tai Chi is the best tool for what you are aiming for).

    The biggest thing which prevents people from being able to relax from over stimulating work is that their mind and energy can’t descend out of their brain back into their body due to tension being locked within the nervous system since it had to overexert itself. Anything which can somewhat remedy that will relax the person enough to let them begin to “switch off,” and many indirect approaches that realize some of the overall goal have become quite popular in our culture!

    The whole subject of how the energetic processes facilitate mind body integration are really complicated-but this article did a pretty good job synopsizing a large part of it and I thought you’d appreciate it!

    http://www.taichimaster.com/tai-chi/the-tai-chi-tipping-point/

    I also learned that a common viewpoint within Taoist Meditation is that true creativity requires relaxation in the nervous system (somewhat connecting to your point of your friend getting his best ideas in the shower).

  4. The best mind-emptying technique for me is weight training. For some reason, once I start moving that iron, my brain empties of all other concerns. Another good one is weeding the garden. Very satisfying to root out undesirables.

  5. arionproductions Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    I love to read… a great way to switch off for me is to read fiction set or written in the first half of the 20th century – an age before mobile phones or computers. I can happily immerse myself in a quieter, less frenetic age. I enjoyed your post so much it inspired me to write my own ‘switching off’ post about the books I like.
    http://arionproductions.com.au/?p=703

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