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How to unwind after work without feeling guilty | Acumen Connections

How to unwind after work without feeling guilty

Why it’s so hard to disconnect from work and enjoy downtime

Woman sitting on couch with feet up. She's trying to unwind, but is still using her laptop.

Work always on your mind? Learning to unwind after work is an important part of our journey to better mental and physical health. We know this, and yet we still struggle to unplug from work. Why is it so hard to disconnect without feeling guilty? 

I twirled my fork around the handmade pasta when I noticed something was wrong. 

Had I undercooked the pasta? No. Put too much garlic in the sauce? Not for my taste. Something I did made my handmade pasta terribly forgettable. 

It was no ingredient, or cooking fault of my own. It was me. 

I decided when I sat down this pasta would have no taste. No other meal or labor of love would I enjoy like I should. Because I had developed a problem. 

By flaw, I had become a devoted people pleaser. I became obsessed with a need to impress and exceed expectations. I also had fallen victim to an environment filled with workaholics. Which leads me to dinner. 

Dinner is my time to destress and enjoy the pleasantries of the day. Cooking is a bit of a passion project for me that’s especially flourished in the pandemic. 

My phone is always at arm’s reach. Even at dinner. It’s natural for me this way. Rarely, if ever, am I more than a few feet from my phone. Just in case. 

But taking this routine to the dinner table had hurt me. If I had a notification come in, I would rush through dinner, eat as quickly as I could, all so I could clean up the kitchen and send a reply. It had been so long since I enjoyed a good meal, because I no longer knew how. 

My ability to enjoy dinner was sucked dry by my compulsive need to be always-on — always working, all hours of the day. Today always-on is the default work setting for most. Innovations in technology have made responding quicker. It only takes a second. But those only a second moments are cutting away from our ability to enjoy life outside of work. And worse — it’s ruining what should be a really good pasta dinner. 

It’s easy to be so invested in work that you forget how to step away. But that’s the key to a good life: stepping away. If, like me, you forget how to unplug, you will hit the proverbial wall. 

Burn out feels like a hamster wheel you cannot step off of. No end in sight, and no visualization of progress or advancement made. Always going, and no sense of satisfaction. 

We are not machines. Our bodies need time to rest. Our minds need time to destress. Neither operates well under continual stress. 

Relaxation is essential. We’re no strangers to this proverb. Then why is it so hard to unwind after work and enjoy downtime? Explore with me and look at some solutions.

Imposter syndrome has complicated our mindset.

Imposter syndrome is doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It affects high-achievers who struggle to accept their accomplishments. 

Imposter syndrome is feeling like your colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud, that you don’t deserve your job and your accomplishments. It’s not that you’re undeserving. Imposter syndrome affects 70% of adults. It’s based loosely on the concept that you only succeed due to luck, and not talent, qualifications, or real achievement. 

Years ago, imposter syndrome was only reserved to a small class of people. But now, imposter syndrome has spread. It’s the new norm to set extremely high expectations. But common among those with imposter syndrome is a feeling that even if unnecessary expectations are met, they feel like their effort wasn’t good enough. 

Imposter syndrome overemphasizes weaknesses and underestimates strengths. 

Behind imposter syndrome is an influence that made us believe that going nonstop is the only pathway to success. Conventional wisdom has pushed the record of paying dues as the only way. But there’s more than one doorway to success than working yourself sick.

Relaxation is an investment.

Relaxation isn’t lazy or passive. 

It’s real, and the consequences of avoiding relaxation are concerning. 

Most think stress is acceptable if it’s caused by work. Work made me this way. It’s just the way it is. Everyone gets stress from work. 

Only part is true. Sure, most everyone gets at least some stress from work. But admitting that stress is just a part of life and not worth addressing is problematic. 

Burnout is more serious than the colloquial phrase we toss it around as. It’s a major risk factor for depression. If you are constantly tired after work, emotionally fatigued, stressed at the ping of an Outlook notification, you may have feelings of depression. 

Exhaustion is the reaction to chronic stress. 

Relaxation is the antidote. 

Hear me out. People, especially those with imposter syndrome, view relaxation as an Achilee’s heel. It’s not. If it helps, think of relaxing as recovery. Ask any athlete and they will tell you recovery is essential to keep progressing.

What you need to do to disconnect from work without feeling guilty.

Understand who breaks benefit.

Taking breaks isn’t just about you. 

It’s a reflection of your team, as well. 

Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched. Your team is observing your actions. So if you respond to emails at all hours of the day, others among you will feel a need to, too. If you are a leader, all eyes are on you. 

People tend to mirror what they see. Part of what you do will set the expectations and norms for your colleagues. If you are mentaly exhausted, chances are the environment around you is being dragged down, too. Your work environment should be one where everyone is comfortable and relaxed. Making that happen starts with you. 

Stress can lead to brain fog, a sensation of feeling tired, difficulty focusing, or having a hazy thought process. Simple tasks become a challenge and require more work. And working harder won’t fix the problem. 

Breaks give time to think through things fully. Mentally unwinding can help keep you from succumbing to brain fog, and stay more productive. 

Breaks benefit not only you, but those around you. Understand how breaks benefit your work environment. Help yourself and help others.

Put your phone away at dinner.

Pre-pandemic, friends and I would go out to dinner. 

Occasionally, to help train us to be present, everyone would put their cellphones in the middle of the table. Buzzes and pings, come as they may. The fun part: whoever picked up their phone first had to pay for everyone’s meal. 

If you have work chat or email on your phone, consider not doing that. If you allow yourself to check email or messages after hours, you risk getting sucked into a rabbit hole. Your overeager coworker can wait until the morning in most cases. 

Phones are the most unnecessary distraction. 

Give it a rest. Believe me, food tastes better when you take the time to enjoy it. 

It’s OK to go 30 minutes free from your phone. Whatever it is, it can wait.

Limit technology at home.

It’s easier said than done to be more present at home. 

What it means: no phone, laptop stashed away, attention given to the people I care about — not TV or Twitter scrolls. Put away the technology and log off. 

Years ago, it was Christmas Eve and I was at a family gathering. In between conversations with family members, I stopped to check my work email. It’ll just take a second. In just minutes, a coworker spotted that I was online, and sent me an email. I responded. I found myself sucked back into work at a time where work wasn’t that important. 

Don’t let that be you. “Just a second” tasks add up, and take you away from the more important things in life. In the worst instances, you fall into a rabbit hole that wastes your most precious commodity: your time.

Draw a clear dividing line between work life and home life.

Work from home complicated things. 

One of the most common complaints around remote work is how it’s hard to disconnect after hours. Most of us never thought that was that big of an issue until that became our reality. 

Turns out the 5 p.m. stroll from the kitchen table to the couch is a foggy dividing line, at best. With no physical location change, the ability to disconnect from email and chat apps is more distant. I found in remote work settings, I was working longer days and postponing the time I logged off later and later. 

Address this with three solutions: designate a place to work, designate a work time, and take a commute. 

If you can, dedicate a work space and mark it off-limits after hours. I am fortunate to have a desk to set my laptop on, and use as my devoted workstation. Anything I do in the afterhours, I do in a different part of my house. Mentally it helps me separate my work environment from my home environment. 

Second, designate time. Say you work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Great. Let others know you are unavailable during these times. Then, schedule a hard stop. If your hard stop is 5 p.m., start the process of wrapping up the day at 4:45 p.m., and slowly ease out of the work routine. Close your laptop, put down your phone, and walk away. 

Third, take a commute. I thought the last thing I would miss in a work from home environment is the commute. It’s a chance to reset your mind and have a definitive break from work. Most days, I physically get in the car and drive for 10 minutes. Other times it’s a walk with my dog. Only rule is that it must immediately follow my logging off point. Lingering around only keeps me focused on work. 

Commuting has tricked my brain into thinking that when I get back, I am home and not at work. Silly? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. 

However it looks for you, it’s important to allow yourself the time to decompress from a hectic day. Nobody likes to take work stress home with them.

Schedule the weekend.

Set an agenda for the weekend and start Friday night. 

Work-focused people tend to use the weekend trying to catch up on work instead of devoting time to family, self-care, or hobbies. The weekend is meant to be a time of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. It’s a chance to recharge for the next five days ahead. 

Until recently, I struggled to enjoy my weekends. I did little, got sucked into a rabbit hole of scrolling social media for hours. Come Sunday evening, I felt as though I had little to show for my weekend. It left me feeling down and depressed that I blew another weekend, and had five days before I’d get to try again. It made Mondays a drag. 

To resolve this, I scheduled out Friday through Sunday evening. It made my weekends purposeful and enjoyable. Did I schedule every hour? No, but I prioritized things that kept me busy and limited the time I could spend thinking about work. 

Once I got good at this, I started scheduling my weekday evenings. It’s clear that not everything I want to do will fit into two days. I needed to add in hobbies and fun activities to my weeknights. Weekends felt a lot less high stakes now that the pressure of having a dream weekend slipped away. With time to myself during the week, I could have a do-nothing weekend and be OK. 

Do-nothing weekends aren’t bad. High-achievers will struggle with a feeling that they should do more in their downtime. But there’s value in doing nothing. Always going is tiring. Weekends I booked every hour were fun and adventurous. But come Monday, I was run down. Tuesday I was tired. 

Weekends are a balancing act. Planning helps you keep things that matter to you in focus. Balance intentional activity and relaxed downtime to have a restful weekend.

Bottom line: Ask how you are doing.

Take inventory with how you are doing. 

You control your situation. 

It’s easy to feel always-on. But you are under no obligation to work all hours of the day. 

Take no shame in giving yourself rest. 

You deserve to relax.

Acumen Connections is a locally owned and operated payment processor in Wichita, Kansas. Our organization seeks to help small businesses meet their goals with real solutions designed by real hardworking people. To help businesses and individuals achieve personal and professional successes, we’re providing new content weekly. Stay up on our posts by visiting the Acumen Connections FacebookInstagram or Twitter pages, and visit the blog for a full catalog of resources fit for hardworking people.