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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?