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10/24/2014 09:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Shut Down Your Work Stress After You Leave The Office

By Corrie Pikul

Stop lugging home all of your job stress and actually start enjoying your time away.

The Problem: The "Should I Have Said That?" Endless Replay Loop

woman stress couch

What's happening: You made it home and to your couch, but you're so busy second-guessing the decisions you made today that you can't immerse yourself in anything else (including the new episode of "Mad Men").

What to try: Wash your hands when you walk in the door. Psychologists at the University of Michigan found that washing your hands with soap and water can help you stop questioning your judgment. The study authors explain that this simple act serves as a powerful metaphor of "cleaning the slate" and helps us mentally wipe away doubts and misgivings (it helps get rid of the germs you picked up from the gas station pump, too).

The Problem: The 3 a.m. "How Will I Get It All Done?!" Freakout

woman awake in bed stress

What's happening: You're up in the middle of the night, feeling anxiety over your seemingly endless tasks.

What to try: Change the focus of your to-do list from what you have to do to how you will do it, says Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. At the end of each weekday, review the list and write down the steps you'll take to finish everything on it by the end of the week. It's okay if you sometimes need to do this at home, Pozen says -- taking 20 minutes (no more!) out of your evening to come up with a game plan, which can save you from two hours of tossing and turning.

The Problem: 24/7 Email Addiction

checking phone

What's happening: Checking email puts you -- and your heart rate -- on constant high alert, found US Army researchers working with informatics professor Gloria Mark, PhD, and her team at the University of California, Irvine.

What to try: Turns out everyone -- including the Armed Services -- knows how email can take over our lives: Mark says that by logging out of your office email account when you leave work, you'll be less stressed during the nightly hiatus and have more energy to dive into the fray the next morning. You know that a better way to work is to only check at scheduled times during the day, but consider having email delivered in batches, with the last batch of the day arriving 15 minutes before you leave work, and encourage coworkers to call you if anything urgent comes up. Army representatives have said that they're eager for advice like this as increasing numbers of soldiers juggle smartphones and email on the battlefield; it can help you, too, be all that you can be (at work and at home).

The Problem: The Mid-Meal Gulp Moment

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What's happening: In the middle of dinner, you're ambushed by questions you can't immediately answer, like "Did I start that memo and what do I have to remember to still put in it?" or "Where did I leave things with the sales team?"

What to try: When we leave tasks half-finished, we often expend mental energy trying to keep our place -- with limited success. So find "task boundaries," says Shamsi Iqbal, PhD, a Microsoft researcher who studies multi-tasking and interactions between people and computers. Best case: finish and send the email or don't start it at all, instead of leaving it languishing in your drafts folder, which Iqbal says most people forget to check the next day. Or finish writing that section, that page or at least that paragraph. When you create a psychological boundary like this, Iqbal says, your brain can release what it was thinking about -- freeing you up at night to focus on family, friends and good TV. What's more, the next day, you don't have to re-gather your thoughts or expend mental energy figuring out where you were; you'll feel fresh to start on the next section, page or paragraph of the project.

The Problem: The All-Night Complain-a-thon

wine on bar hands

What's happening: You go out for happy hour to blow off steam with your coworkers, but hours later, you don't feel any better.

What to try: Stop co-ruminating, which is the clinical term for venting to the point of obsession. Talking about your problems at length causes you to dwell on them, which makes you feel low, which makes you complain even more, explains Amanda Rose, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri. Instead of going out for drinks, brew up a peppermint tea at home -- the scent of peppermint has been shown to decrease anxiety and feelings of frustration.

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