When you’re having a tough time at work, it’s natural to focus on improving life at the office. What can you change to make things better? How can you solve that nagging problem? Who can you enlist to help? But the problem with this approach is that, when work is rocky, we often lack the creativityEQ, and determination required to answer these questions.

In short, you get stuck in a rut. Because work is hard you’re worn out, so you don’t have the energy or ideas to fix things. Work stays hard, and your resources are drained further.

How do you break out of this nasty cycle? Start by changing your evenings, suggests a fascinating new study highlighted by the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

The essential ingredient for an energized workday: mastery.

When work is stressful, it’s also natural to want to veg out in the evening. Rest and relaxation seem like obvious route to more energy to tackle your professional problems. But this new study, which tracked 183 stressed out Chinese IT workers for 10 days, throws a wrench into that common sense idea.

The researchers surveyed each employee three times a day. In the morning, they wanted to know how the participants felt: were they exhausted or energized? In the afternoon they asked what practical steps the employees had taken that day to improve their work lives, and in the evenings they were surveyed about how they spent their leisure hours.

You might think that those who spent the evenings loafing on the couch were most ready to tackle the next day with gusto. But that’s not what the researchers found.

“The results showed that experiences of mastery in the evening made employees feel more motivated to make a change the next morning as well as more capable. They also reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, inspired, and joyful, feelings that can increase our willingness to challenge the status quo and take control of work situations,” reports Greater Good.

What is an experience of mastery? Any activity that makes you feel like you have the ability to make a dent in the world. It could be learning something new, an offline hobby, a sport, or volunteering in your community, for instance. But whatever way you approach feeling mastery over your evenings, you’re going to have to log off social media, turn off Netflix, and get off the couch.

In short, doing something effortful that makes you feel competent and productive in the evenings carries over to the next day, giving you the sense that you can be competent and productive at work too (the same applies to weekends). As a result you tackle challenges, work out new processes, coordinate with colleagues, or revise targets. Work gets more manageable and a new cycle is created, but a happier one this time.

How are you spending your after work hours tonight?

Of course, not all of us have the privilege of choosing self-improving activities after work. Some of us have people to care for and chores that need doing. But science also shows that we also usually have way more time at our disposal than we think we do. We just tend to fritter it away on mindless activities. For most people it’s entirely possible to take Greater Good’s essential advice to heart:

“If you want to be a go-getter at your job, think about resuming a hobby or finding a new one; learn that language, sport, art, or instrument that you never felt you had the time or energy to prioritize.” 

Whatever activity you choose, just get up and do something tonight to feel more energized tomorrow.

Originally published on Inc.

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