Being busy and being productive are two very different things. In the past, I’ve written at length about how to be more productive at work and find a healthier work life balance. However, sometimes—despite our best intentions—to-do lists overflow, meetings pile up, and we end the day exhausted, overworked, and stressed for tomorrow.

“You can do anything, but not everything,”

Wrote productivity expert David Allen. But few of us listen to that advice.

Long days are inevitable. So, it’s essential we find ways to wind down, relax, and recover from the demanding needs of life. Research has consistently found that people who are able to psychologically disconnect from work experience:

  • Less work-related fatigue
  • Far lower rates of procrastination
  • Far greater engagement at work (and getting into a state of ‘flow’)
  • Greater work life balance and quality of life
  • Greater satisfaction with their relationships
  • Better mental and physical health

Disconnecting from work isn’t simply about relaxation, however. To get the most out of your downtime, recent research has shown you need to do activities that contribute to our four recovery experiences: detachment from work, relaxation, mastery, and control.

Let’s look at a few ways to bring each of these into your own end-of-day recovery routine.

Detachment from work: Set screen boundaries to recover from our tech-obsessed days

Man and woman looking at screens

According to the Nielsen Corporation’s latest report, the average American adult spends nearly 10 hours a day looking at screens. And while much of that can be attributed to work hours, it still leaves a significant amount of time outside of work staring at devices.

Unfortunately, those afterwork Netflix binges and late-night movies aren’t helping you recover from your workday.

Multiple studies have confirmed that simply looking at your laptop screen 1–2 hours before you go to sleep can lead to increased depression and anxiety, poor sleep quality, decreased psychological and emotional well-being, and an increased level of stress and higher likelihood of burning out.

So, the answer’s simple then. Get rid of your devices.

Unfortunately, our screen use has become so ingrained in our lives that we don’t even realize we’re using them. One study found that smartphone users check their devices more than 85 times per day but only believe they check it half as often.

Instead, the answer isn’t simply to banish devices, but to create firm rules around their usage in off-work hours. Here’s a few suggestions:

Design your environment to be less tech-centric

When behavioral economist BJ Fogg wanted to reduce the amount of popcorn he ate, he didn’t just stop buying it. Instead, he took the bag out of his kitchen, climbed a ladder in his garage and put it on the top shelf. If he really wanted it, he could always get it, but simply making the process harder made him opt for healthier options.

We humans are lazy creatures. So, to create an environment where you’re less likely to use your technology when you don’t want to, simply make it more difficult to use.

For example, you could try locking the TV remote in your office drawer, keeping your bedroom TV unplugged and in the closet when you’re not using it, or powering down your computer or laptop so it’s not always readily available to use.

Replace your late-night screen habit with something healthier

If the idea of unplugging and moving your TV just to disconnect from work feels a bit extreme, having your devices out of sight can also make a difference.

In his book Nudge, Richard Thaler talks about how grocery store products on shelves at eye level get purchased more than those down by the floor. This is called Choice Architecture, and it explains how we’re more likely to choose to use (or buy) items that are in our immediate line of sight.

Try replacing your smartphone beside your bed with something healthier like a book you’ve been meaning to read. Many of the world’s most successful people—from former US President Barack Obama to Bill Gates—read before bed, so you’ll be in good company.

Track your usage and make yourself accountable to your screen time

Sometimes it’s just not possible to completely disconnect from your screens. In which case, it’s important to be aware of how much you’re using your devices so you can make smart decisions to keep you on track.

With RescueTime, you can set alerts to tell you when you’ve hit a certain time threshold on your computer, have been working for a certain length of time in the evening, or even block distracting sites at a set time.

Or, you can go to the extreme like our CEO Robby Macdonell and set up a terrifying automated phone call telling you to go to bed if you’ve done more than 30 minutes of productive work after midnight.

Relaxation: Spend time alone to recover from always being ‘on’

We’re naturally social beings. However, too much time around other people can drain our energy and get in the way of properly disconnecting and recharging after a long day.

Solitude—as everyone from Thoreau to Proust have written about—is one of our most powerful tools for disconnecting, recharging, and digging deep into our emotions and thoughts. Yet it’s all too easy to shrug off the artist’s idealistic view of isolation and say it simply can’t be done in an afternoon or evening.

Yet as As Deep Work author Cal Newport explains, solitude is less about physical isolation, and more about mentally disconnecting:

“The key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation.

“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

Whether it’s a few minutes while you prep for dinner, a quiet half hour before bed, or a meditation session after work, setting some time aside to be alone with your thoughts helps disconnect and recharge.

Mastery: Work on a hobby or learn something new

Man working on hobby

It might seem counterintuitive that more effort will help you recover from your workday, but that’s exactly what researchers have discovered. By engaging in activities that you enjoy, but that also challenge you, we’re able to disconnect more fully from work.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains:

“Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when they’re proficiently executed.”

One great example is of the codebreakers during World War II who spent their days trying to crack the Nazi’s encryption. Rather than use their downtime to relax from their mentally and emotionally taxing work, they chose to play chess. Most of them had played at a high level (and were even recruited for their proficiency), and so playing the game allowed them to work towards their mastery and get in a state of flow—that amazing moment where their abilities matched the difficulty level.

Pursuing mastery is a perfect example of the importance of hobbies outside of work, which not only help you recover, but can lead to more overall happiness due to lower stress, more social relationships, better structure to your day, and a sense of accomplishment and meaning.

Control: Create a ‘shutdown ritual’ to disconnect from the workday

The final aspect of successful recovery from your workday involves being in control of how you spend your time, energy, and attention.

For people who don’t have much control over what happens at work, or whose off-work schedules are filled with family duties, other obligations or chores, being able to control their time on their breaks is both liberating and restorative.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, bestselling author Daniel Pink suggests creating a ritual at the end of the day to help you gain control, no matter what you did during the rest of the day:

“Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Backup your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.”

This ‘closing ritual’ works because it takes advantage of a bias our brain have called the ‘Peak-end rule’. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that we only remember two things about an event: The emotional peak (whether good or bad) and how it ended

By creating your own ritual, one that focuses on control and positivity, you’re essentially rewriting every day with a happy ending.

What your ritual will be is up to you, but a few things that have been shown to help include:

  • Writing your to-do list for tomorrow
  • Closing your open browser tabs and cleaning up your desktop
  • Visualizing your day tomorrow
  • Setting out clothes for the gym in the morning or work
  • Reflecting on your day and writing in a gratitude journal

If we can’t immediately change how much we’re working, we can at least make changes to help us recover from our long days. Take time to properly recover, mentally and physically, and you’ll be setting yourself up for more productive days, a better work life balance, and a happier, healthier life.

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