How to stop thinking about work (so you can relax)

a woman sleeping soundly knows how to stop thinking about work

It's 2 am. You're in bed after a strenuous day. You can't stop thinking about a project you were working on.

It involved a tricky supply chain problem with a lot of moving parts. You spent hours trying to solve it but didn't manage to find a solution in time for the workday to end.

But now, when you're supposed to be switching off for rest, your mind is whirring with work-related anxiety. Sleep seems like a lost cause.

Overthinking work concerns during non-work hours can have a pretty bad impact on your life. Stress levels can impact your ability to get proper sleep, impeded your time for fun, and adversely affect your mental health.

When work takes center stage in your mental landscape outside of the office, you might need to make some changes in your life.

Here are a few ways to stop thinking about work, from immediate interventions to longer-term lifestyle changes.

Table of contents
Are unfinished tasks contributing to your worries?
How do you stop thinking about work?
Schedule a 'worry time'
Consider a four-day work week

Before we get into some tips and suggestions to help you stop feeling overwhelmed by work, let’s take a look at some relevant statistics.

How overthinking impacts your physical health

  • One in four Americans say work is a source of anxiety, and work-related stress is on the rise.1
  • Your brain can't concentrate on two things at once, but it can quickly toggle back and forth between tasks. However, this decreases your attention span, ability to learn, short-term memory, and overall mental performance.2
  • Four in five workers report poor work-life balance. It's said that increased connectivity because of tech blurs the lines between home and work.3
  • 54% of workers say that stress from work affects their life at home.4
  • Over 20% of workers spend more than five hours of office time each week thinking about things that stress them.5
  • 828,000 workers in the U.K. suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019/20.6
  • 17.9 million working days were lost in the U.K. due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019/20.6
  • Stress, anxiety, or depression accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health in the U.K.6
  • Workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and lack of managerial support are the main work factors that cause work-related stress.6

Are unfinished tasks contributing to your worries?

Procrastination can be adding to your work-obsessed thoughts. With the weight of unfinished work hanging on your shoulders, sometimes the only remedy is to clear your desk, get a drink, put your headphones on, and get down to business.

In a way, it's a simple question of efficiency and determination. If you put it off but still have anxious feelings because you know it needs to be completed, you're likely losing more time. You might even experience anticipatory stress. If you can promise yourself guilt-free relaxation after finishing your task, then it's clearly worth spending the one hour smashing through it.

Science backs this up, too. The Zeigarnik Effect is a documented psychological phenomenon where you're more likely to remember things that are left unfinished than those you finished.7 Named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, it identified how our brains have strong needs to see things through to completion. Without the closure of a boxed-off task, the issue remains floating around our consciousness, periodically reminding us of its importance until it gets resolved (this is why TV show cliffhangers are so powerful at getting us to return to watch the next episode).

Sometimes the only way to deal with the demands your brain is making of you is to give in to them. Set

How do you stop thinking about work?

Here are a few ways to stop thinking about work:

  • Focus on your personal goals
  • Talk to a career coach
  • Review your lifestyle choices
  • Assess your work-life balance

By looking at your life holistically, you can be empowered to make changes and focus your thoughts on your wellbeing and passions outside of work.

Focus on goals in your personal life

One way to calm racing thoughts is to give your mind something else to think about.

If your brain has a different problem to solve, your mental energy will be diverted away from work stuff. Try to find something that really gets you into a ‘flow state’ or ‘the zone’ - something with the right balance of challenge and enjoyment.

Maybe you've always wanted to learn to play an instrument, learn to paint, or salsa dance. Physical exercise and meditation can also help quiet excessive worry.

It doesn't have to be anything complicated, think board games or other collaborative pursuits like jigsaws, quizzes, and craft projects. Or pick up a fun, new hobby like learning to play an instrument.

Volunteering can be a positive distraction and often brings a sense of gratitude and purpose to your life while helping causes you believe in.

Another way to do this that's favored by millions around the world is video gaming.

Jane McGonigal is a Ph.D. game designer and neuroscientist advocating for the use of games to help build healthy brains and agile mindsets. If you're not convinced video games can be a healthy and productive use of time, her conversation at the Knowledge Project may well convince you otherwise8:

"Every time you play a game, you’re choosing how to spend your time and attention. That’s a decision we are constantly making that is often operating at a subconscious level and we don’t necessarily take ownership of it. If you ask yourself, why am I playing this game? And why did I want to play it now? I think that actually can help you develop more clarity in all of the things you do."

Alongside the positive effects on your focus that gaming can have, it can also help reduce anxiety by causing you to run through multiple scenarios and map out how you might respond. Sure, you probably won't encounter dragons or wizards in your working life, but the mental models you learn by dealing with them in games can be mapped onto real-world problems.

Anything that gives you a goal to strive towards is great for letting your mind be active in a healthy way - unlike watching TV, where you can easily drift back to work thoughts as you're passively consuming.

Talk it out with a career coach

Like most issues that we tend to ruminate on, it helps to ease the burden by sharing your concerns with a trusted listener.

In the workplace, it might just be a case of getting coffee with a colleague and explaining the pickle you find yourself in. You might just need a sympathetic ear to vent your frustrations with; a little validation for your distress can go a long way in making you feel like you're not alone. An emotional balm like this might soothe your work anxiety and let you move on to other concerns.

A good manager will help you with certain tasks or challenges you're facing. They want you to grow and succeed. If you have a good rapport, take the time to share the impacts of your career demands.

One option is to try working with a performance coach; a neutral party outside of your company that can offer support and guidance for workplace issues that are broader in scope than technical. If you're stuck thinking about how to get ahead in your career, or how to tackle a big new project, a coach might be your best option, and will likely have useful insights into how to stop thinking about work when you need to disconnect.

Better yet, get started with a free personalized F4S coaching program. AI Coach Marlee can help you set and achieve your goals, like quieting your mind so you can live a more meaningful life.

Begin by taking the research-backed free assessment. Answer forty questions and gain instant access to your results, which reveal insights into your workplace motivations.

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Review your work-life balance

Your incessant out-of-hours work thinking might be activated by other non-work factors, too. A few lifestyle tweaks might help mitigate the runaway train of work rumination in your personal time.

Firstly, caffeine, found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks, might help you boost focus during work, but you pay the price afterward, as the withdrawal crash contributes to anxiety and difficulty sleeping.9

Lack of sleep (or poor-quality sleep) also contributes to anxiety and wandering thoughts. 10

So addressing these issues by cutting down on stimulants (especially in the afternoon) and practicing healthy sleep habits can have a huge impact on your daily mental wellbeing and ability to relax properly.

And then there's exercise. Even after a busy working day when you're really not in the mood, fitting in at least a few minutes of movement that gets your heart beating will have really positive effects. As mentioned on the Harvard health blog:

"Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about. Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious. Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals."

Going for a run, hitting the gym, taking a long walk, or even dancing your way around your home - these can all help lower stress and take your mind away from work-related thoughts.

Even a small amount of regular mindfulness can seriously help clear your mind from intrusive thoughts. Single sessions won't act as a magic balm that defends you from all work-related thoughts. The longer-term effects of regular meditation practice can result in a calmer mind with less anxiety. The increased ability to focus on work means you'll also have a better focus on the things that aren't work too - so it's certainly worth looking into.

Check out our guide, 9 mindfulness exercises to help you manage stress.

Schedule a 'worry time'

This idea comes from Laura Vanderkam, a time management and productivity expert.12 She recommends scheduling blocks of time to think about a particular problem and giving yourself permission to wait to deal with it until then.

Having a designated time for processing gives you the freedom to relax in the other parts of your day:

"Often, your brain just needs to know that there’s a time for thinking about that issue–and now is not that time."

It might not be the most rigorous scientific concept, but simple tricks like these often turn out to be the most effective. In this case, there's no complicated system.

So next time you're worrying about a work issue - feel free to procrastinate!

Consider a four-day work week

Seeing as how the main cause of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression is an overwhelming workload (including tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and lack of managerial support), it might be hard to imagine how you could possibly fit your current workload into a four-day week.

But emerging research shows that the four-day work week is more than just a pipe dream; it has been proven to drastically improve productivity and employee wellbeing.

It also appears promising for addressing gender and economic inequalities, along with crisis-provoked unemployment levels. It is also looking like a potential weapon against global warming.

If you aren’t in a leadership position, you could start a conversation with your manager by sharing our comprehensive guide (with statistics) that answers everything you’ve wanted to know about the four-day work week. You could also share the statistics from this blog with them, along with our articles on job burnout statistics and work-life balance stats.

The four-day week is not viable for every single company or industry, but reports show that it’s not only viable for huge companies. In fact, small- and medium-sized companies can experience enormous benefits as well. And with entire countries currently looking at implementing it, it’s a great time to get on board, or at least start the conversation with your team.

Stop thinking about work so you can enjoy your life

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  1. (2017). Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/mental-health-survey-2017
  2. (2022). Available at: https://bebrainfit.com/human-brain-facts/
  3. (2017). Available at: https://www.bustle.com/p/9-workplace-mental-health-statistics-that-show-why-this-years-world-mental-health-day-theme-is-so-important-2840292
  4. (2023). Available at: https://www.smallbizgenius.net/by-the-numbers/workplace-stress-statistics/
  5. (2019). Available at: https://www.coloniallife.com/about/newsroom/2019/march/stressed-workers-costing-employers-billions
  6. (2022). Available at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
  7. (2014). Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201403/why-we-hate-not-finishing-what-we-start
  8. (2021). Available at: https://fs.blog/knowledge-project/jane-mcgonigal/
  9. (2023). Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/caffeine-and-anxiety
  10. (2020). Available at: https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/causes/sleep-debt

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