Even for people who adore their job, work can still be stressful, exhausting and all-consuming. It can come home with you, lingering through dinner and stealing your supposed relaxation time.
(If you work from home — like I do — unwinding may be trickier because you’re technically physically still at work.)
Maybe you’re like me and reply to emails in your head or rewrite stories you’ve already published. (Yes, I realize this is a problem.) Maybe you check your smartphone before bed and scramble to answer a few emails. Maybe your laptop has a special place on your bed. Or maybe you’ve created strict boundaries between work and home, but you still can’t shake the stress of an upcoming project or the usual day-to-day grind.
If you need some help with leaving work at work, here are four activities from the book Five Good Minutes in the Evening: 100 Mindful Practices to Help You Unwind from the Day & Make the Most of Your Night by Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., and Wendy Millstine, NC. In many of their activities, the authors suggest breathing or listening mindfully.
“In essence, mindful breathing is simply directing your attention entirely to a focus on your breath — observing it as it occurs without attempting to control it,” they write. The instructions include getting comfortable, whether that means sitting or standing or lying down, reducing distractions by closing your eyes or focusing on a spot on the floor. It’s natural for your attention to wander. If that’s the case, just notice your wandering and gently get back to focusing on your breath.
“Mindful listening involves directing your attention entirely to a focus on the sounds in your environment, whatever they may be. Simply receive and observe them without labeling or judging them,” they write.
1. Releasing nagging thoughts. Thoughts from our workdays have a way of ingratiating themselves into our homes, from when we walk in to when we’re brushing our teeth. When you notice your mind mulling over work-related thoughts or feelings, Brantley and Millstine suggest the following:
- Gently acknowledge your thoughts and say something like “The story [or the thoughts] about work are here now.”
- For about a minute, close your eyes and breathe or listen mindfully.
- Notice if there are deeper feelings present in your thoughts. Maybe you’re feeling upset, excited or angry. Name these feelings and let them be as you keep breathing or listening mindfully.
- As you name each feeling, speak kindly to it. You might say, “I release you” or “Thank you, but not now.”
- Conclude this practice by focusing on your breath or surrounding sounds. Slowly open your eyes and move gently.
2. Unraveling like a thread. If you find decompressing difficult, this visualization can help. Brantley and Millstine suggest imagining that you’re a spool of thread that unravels from job-related stress. They say that you can do this anywhere, including at your desk or on the subway.
- Connect to your breath for one minute and focus on the present.
- “With the first rotation of your spool of thread, you’re unwinding your tiresome list of worries. You’re freeing yourself from their grip on life.
- On the second spin of the spool, you’re unraveling your burdensome thoughts and what you left undone at work. Tomorrow you’ll have a chance to get to it; but for now, there is no room for work.
- With each unraveling, you are loosening from your spiraling thoughts and returning to a place of restored serenity.”
3. Enjoying a dose of humor . Ever notice how laughter can lift a sullen mood, calm you down or just provide a healthy distraction from what feels like utter doom?
Brantley and Millstine suggest spending a few minutes creating a mental or written list of everything that makes you laugh. While they admit that scheduling in humor might seem odd, many of us also might be out of practice.
These are their ideas:
- Rent a favorite or new comedy.
- Call a friend who always makes you laugh or has a positive outlook on life.
- Go to a website that publishes funny jokes.
- Watch TV shows that feature bloopers or goofy behavior. (May I recommend shows like “The Bachelor,” which is often laugh-out-loud funny — at least to me — and a hilarious show called “Psych” on USA.)
4. Acting like a tourist on the way home. It’s common to live on autopilot when you’re going about your routine. But this also means missing a lot of beauty. “Let your daily commute home from work become a time and place for connecting with and discovering the richness of life all around you,” Brantley and Millstine write.
(If you work from home and your commute consists of going from your office to the living room, then consider taking a short walk. On your walk, you also can play tourist and look around you with fresh eyes.)
- Before leaving work, take a few mindful breaths.
- Set an intention, such as “May this practice awaken me to the wonder of life.” (According to the authors, “Setting a clear intention is a way of pointing yourself in the direction of an important value or goal.”)
- Picture yourself as a tourist who’s never visited this place — or it’s been a few years.
- As you drive or ride home, be curious about all the sights you see. “See how many new and interesting things or people you can notice.” The key is to have fun and let your curiosity take the lead.