Thinking about work at 2 a.m.? Here’s how to truly unplug

Lisa McLeod PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

We know that disconnecting from work can reduce our risk for burnout, jump-start creative, innovative thinking and make us happier and more grounded people.

Yet for many, particularly high achievers, disconnecting sounds easier than it is. If you’re trying to unplug for an evening, or even for a week or two, you might find yourself frustrated by your brain’s inability to “comply” with your scheduled vacation.

Here are five tips to help:

Write down your thoughts

If you’re lying awake at night thinking about all the things you have to do the following day, a good old-fashioned to-do list is the remedy you need. Writing something down lets our mind loosen the mental grip on a particular thought; we have security that we won’t forget.

Your action items will be there in the morning and your mind will thank you for the reduced workload, knowing you don’t have to “remember” when you sleep.

Be aware of your overall screen time

I read a tweet that said, “Another day of staring at the big screen while scrolling through my little screen so as to reward myself for staring at the medium screen all week.” I found it painfully relatable.

Having your “out of office” time look eerily like your “in office time” is confusing for your brain. The low-grade eye strain, the repeated scrolling motion, heck, some of us are even in the same chair (or couch, no judgment). Your brain needs to be able to discern the difference between “work” and “not work,” and a new web browser isn’t enough to send the signal.

If you’re not already, try monitoring your screen time. Make efforts to reduce it by going outside, practicing an off-screen hobby like cooking or reading an “actual book.”

Put an OOO response on (even if you technically could hop on email for a second)

Having an “out of office” reply on your email is seen as a common courtesy to those who might reach out to you while you’re away. But there’s another person who hugely benefits: You. Knowing that everyone is responded to, even automatically, quiets your mental pop-up.

I’m a work in progress (plus I run a small business) so I confess, my out of office usually includes my cell phone number for emergencies. But in reality, I’m in consulting, and as one of my favorite clients once said, “No one is going to bleed out on the table.” Be realistic and give yourself space to truly unplug knowing most things are OK to sit for a few days (or at least a few hours).

Practice mindfulness

Baking cookies with your kids and suddenly, your mind floats to next year’s marketing initiatives? Been there. Bring yourself back to the present moment with mindfulness. Start by asking yourself: What do you hear? What do you smell? What are five things you can see?

A mindfulness practice can help ensure you’re more than just physically there for the holidays; it keeps you mentally there, too.

Learn something new

If you’re finding that your mind is a little more “active” than you’d prefer during a rest period, try channeling that mental activity into learning something new. Picking up a new hobby gives your brain a place to point its energy (so it doesn’t land on thinking about upcoming meetings).

Immerse yourself in a new skill. Even if you totally suck at it (For example, I tried cooking, with a recipe and ingredients, no meal kit. The result was mediocre at best, but I found myself totally immersed and I felt fresher the next day.) Your brain appreciates a departure from the routine challenges.

This time of year is one where we typically recharge and reconnect. Since early human history, all cultures have established times and traditions for resting and resetting. We instinctively know, our sanity and our productivity require downtime. In an environment that is heightened with anxiety (and inhibited by physical restrictions) taking the time to truly unplug becomes more challenging and even more important.