How to Stop Thinking About Work When You’re Off the Clock


Off the clock?

I laughed when I wrote “off the clock” because for higher education leaders, it doesn’t really mean anything. You are not an hourly employee working a specific schedule. In most cases, you are expected to work during regular business hours, plus some extra hours to get all your work done, and also be reachable when your attention is needed on an urgent matter.

For most of my readers, there isn’t such a thing as “off the clock”. With a smartphone in hands and a laptop nearby, evenings and weekend no longer provide an opportunity to relax and unplug. People still text and e-mail at all hours. Do you know what else hardly ever stops? The mind! Most of my clients tell me that they spend countless hours thinking about work, worrying about problems, or thinking of upcoming meetings and deadlines. Sigh…

Thinking about work vs. actually working

Do you find yourself thinking about work when you are away from the office, during what should be your personal time? It’s a rhetorical question; I already know the answer. Of course, you do. You might believe that those hours spent “thinking” about your work help you make progress and solve problems, but in most cases, they delay your ability to make progress.

You see, when the mind is preoccupied and looking for closure or for a solution to a problem, it tends to keep thinking the same thoughts, considering the same perspective over and over, and failing to question assumptions and find alternatives. Basically, the mind is busy but doesn’t accomplish anything worthwhile.

One of the most important things you need to do is differentiate time spent “thinking about work” vs. actually working. Imagine if you spent time thinking of a report you have to prepare but didn’t write a single word. In that case, it’s easy to see that you wouldn’t be productive. But some cases are less obvious. Imagine if you rehearsed an upcoming meeting in your mind. You might be under the illusion that you were preparing while in reality you were just worrying about something you couldn’t do right away.

Why thinking about your work hurts your performance

It is very common for higher ed. leaders to think about work issues, almost obsessively, to the point of starting the next day tired from the stress of the previous day. They have no adequate time to recuperate, get refreshed and re-energized, to be able to start the next day feeling strong and creative.

Compulsive “thinking about work” is not only an energy drain but it is also counter-productive because the thoughts keep re-affirming old perspectives and limitations rather than bringing in new ideas. Have you ever tortured yourself mentally trying to solve a problem, until you gave up, and the solution came to you when you were no longer trying? We often get our best ideas in the shower, at the gym, or after meditating. That is no accident. We have to let go in order to “reboot”.

Can’t stop thinking?

My clients tell me it’s easy to realize that thinking too much isn’t good for them, but what is tough is to stop! They are so used to thinking about work during their personal time that they don’t know how to shut it off. The obvious answer is to develop a mindfulness practice, be in the moment, meditate, exercise, and be committed to work-life balance. Easy, right?

Self-discipline works to a certain extent, but it’s very difficult to do if you skip a crucial step. Before you can change your behavior, you need to become consciously aware of the reasons you had to engage in the “old” behavior. When we do something, we always have reasons, but we don’t always know what these reasons are. Over-thinking happens when it meets certain needs, and it won’t stop until we find a different way to meet these needs. Are you still with me? Let me give you some examples.

What “thinking” is here to accomplish

In most cases, thinking more than we want to, comes from fear. It might be fear of making a mistake, fear of looking bad, fear of criticism, fear of conflict, fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough time, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of having regret, etc. You might think it doesn’t apply to you because you are not afraid, but the fear I am talking about is also called stress. Stress is always an indication of fear; fear that something will go wrong. Don’t get hung up on terminology. The point is that once you understand how your mind is trying to keep you safe, you’ll be able to figure out what else you can do to feel safe, without obsessing about the issue. It’s a very powerful process of inquiry and self-awareness that I can help you practice and master.

What to do about it

As I mentioned previously, the first step is to learn to differentiate thinking about work vs. actually working. The second step is to create structure and boundaries that fit your unique situation. Do what you need to do, but not more. For example, you might decide to exercise after work, have dinner with your family, then give yourself 30 to 60 minutes to reply to e-mails if they can’t wait until the next day. The point here is simply to eliminate excess and stop doing what is counter-productive.

Next, to find enough willpower to be self-discipline, you need to understand the reasons why your mind wants to think so much. What is it trying to accomplish? Is it looking for closure, a resolution, some form of control, or predictability? What is it trying to avoid? Look into the fears, get to the root of the problem, and you’ll be able to find reassurance.

I know it’s not easy to gain such an elevated state of awareness on your own. But the good news is that it is easily achievable when the process is facilitated by a trained professional. I invite you to click here to schedule a time for us to discuss working together. Imagine how good it would feel to be able to relax every evening and start each day energized and refreshed! Let’s talk soon.

 About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.