How to Care Less About Work

Alex Membrillo, the CEO of Cardinal, the Atlanta-based digital marketing agency, knows very well the challenges of helping a significant other manage work-related stress. “My wife works for a big IT company, and she’s been under a lot of pressure from her boss for the past couple of years,” he says. “It’s been tough.”

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How to Care Less About Work

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About the authors: Charlie Warzel is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of Galaxy Brain, a newsletter about the internet and big ideas. Anne Helen Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study on Substack.

A t the bleakest moment in the pandemic, when you felt your most stressed, most scared, least centered, you probably heard some variation of the phrase This is really hard. Maybe you read it; maybe your manager said it to you; maybe you said it to yourself. But that’s the truth: Our nearly two years of living through a pandemic have been hard. And like everything else in the United States, that difficulty has not been evenly distributed. It has been hardest for those on the front lines, those afraid of how customers will react to their requests to put on a mask, those out of work or in constant fear of the way COVID variants are whipping through their community. It has been hard, in different ways, for those attempting to work and supervise school from home, for those in complete isolation, for those terrified of being around other people. It is fucking hard, in so many intersecting and unfair ways.

All that hard, seemingly never-ending work has been worth doing so that others—especially the most vulnerable in our lives—might be safer. Even in your most lonely, overwhelmed, or terrified moments, you can still grasp at that purpose. But many knowledge workers long ago arrived at a breaking point—if we’re being honest, this happened well before the pandemic for a lot of people. We worked far beyond the 40 hours of the prescribed workweek, but the goal of all that work became opaque. It was seldom to create work that was meaningful or innovative, even if we could mumble something to that effect when asked what we like about our job. It wasn’t so that we could someday work less overall. We worked hard to prove that we were alert and available for more work.

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When we can’t let go of work while we’re out of the office, we don’t get to enjoy the benefits of time away. To wean yourself off work — and unwanted thoughts of work — you can use a combination of new habits and lessons from cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s how.

Focus on what you’ll do instead. Many people fail to change their behavior because they focus on what they are not going to do rather than on actions they will take instead. Setting the goal not to work (or think about work) when you are away from the office starts with the presumption that you will stop yourself every time you are tempted to do something work-related.

Negative goals like this — where you focus on actions you will no longer take — tend to fail for two reasons. First, your habit system only learns a new habit when you perform an action, not when you don’t. So you cannot create a habit to avoid an action. Second, when you set negative goals, you have to constantly be vigilant about your behavior. Otherwise, you will end up doing the thing you are trying to avoid.

Instead, you need to focus on what you are going to do instead of working. Create a plan for your time away from work — whether it is an evening out of the office or time on vacation. You need a specific plan, or you will return to your habits and re-engage with work when you should be away from it. The plan should focus on the activities you are going to perform instead of working.

For example, you might set up a personal training session for 5:30 PM at a gym near your office a couple of nights a week. Or you might tell your spouse that you’ll pick up the kids at daycare. Or start volunteering at a local charity on the weekends. You can even do some personal development. Sign up for a class to learn a new language. Take up a musical instrument. Start painting. All of these activities will limit the time you have for work, and replace work with other pursuits.

Set a goal for the day

Our frustrations arise often from the lack of a clear goal. It’s hard to measure if a day was good or bad if you didn’t have any clear goal in mind. If you start your day knowing what the goal of the day is, it will make it easier to achieve said goal and ultimately make you feel good about your day once you achieve it. Be careful though as to not set too high expectations and try to be as realistic as possible in your goal setting.

Working without a system or a clear structure can result in frequent chaos which can make you feel easily overwhelmed and cause you unnecessary stress. Having a routine and a system in place that allows you to know what you’re going to do next and how you’re workflow is going to create structure and piece of mind. It is not just more efficient but it will also help you to manage your workload better and make you feel more in control. When it comes to productivity there are many productivity systems you can choose from so don’t shy away from trying them all and picking the one that works best for you.

How to Help Your Spouse Cope with Work Stress

Even if you’re able to leave your projects and worries at the office, your spouse or partner may have difficulty doing so — and that stress can rub off on you. How can you help your partner cope? For starters, you need to listen. Show engagement and empathize. Figure out what they need from you. Sometimes they may just want to vent; other times they may need your advice. If you’re unsure of your role, ask, “Do you need my help? Or do you just want to be heard?” Play career coach — but do so judiciously. If you get a sense that your partner is misreading a situation at the office or is stuck in a rut, ask questions to broaden their perspective. Whatever you do, never compare your spouse’s stressful day to your own. Stress endurance is not a competition.

Home is a sanctuary from work stress, right? Not always. Even if you are able to leave your projects and worries at the office, your spouse may have difficulty doing so — and that stress can rub off on you. How can you help your partner cope? What’s the best thing to say when your partner starts complaining — and what should you not say? Is there a way to help them see things differently? And how can you set boundaries so that home can be a haven again?

When your partner gets home from work and begins recounting their latest office irritation, many of us have a tendency to “only half-listen” to them, Petriglieri says. “It’s 7 PM — you’re trying to make dinner and the kids are around — and so you nod and say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” But that’s likely to leave your partner even more frustrated. Instead, she suggests, “give your partner your undivided attention.” Listen and “really focus on what your partner is saying.” Don’t interrupt. “It’s quite likely that your partner just needs to rant for three minutes and get something off his chest,” she says. Don’t offer advice — at least not yet, Coleman says. “You don’t always need to be a problem solver,” he adds. “Sometimes your partner just needs to be heard.”

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In fact, as Burkeman points out, many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired (or, in many instances, hungover) they might have felt. Burkeman reminds us of renowned artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

So if you are sitting there, putting something off because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it. There is nothing stopping you.

Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.

Do yourself a favor, and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.

By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, there’s no deliberating when the time comes. No do I really have to do this now?, or can this wait till later? or maybe I should do something else instead. It’s when we deliberate that willpower becomes necessary to make the tough choice. But if-then plans dramatically reduce the demands placed on your willpower, by ensuring that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact, if-then planning has been shown in over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200%-300% on average.