I can’t shut off my brain after work.

It’s 2:00 a.m., and you’ve been awake for over an hour. That tough conversation with a client didn’t end well yesterday, and you’re not sure what to do next. The project you’ve committed to finishing is due in three days, and you don’t know how you’ll find the time to get it done. Then there’s the conversation you had with your teenager over dinner that still doesn’t have a resolution. 

Sound familiar? And what’s worse is that every issue is magnified in the middle of the night. By morning, you can at least think with more clarity; but problem solving never goes well in the dark.  

The problem is that when it comes to your work, there’s always “one more thing to do,” and you’ll never get everything done. If you don’t become intentional about your time and set boundaries, you’ll always be at the mercy of the urgencies of others—and those urgencies will end up controlling your personal life. 

What are the intentional choices we can make to take back control of our time after hours? Pick a few from this list and experiment with them: 

Take real breaks during the day. Whether you’re onsite or remote, it’s easy to work straight through without stopping—eating lunch at your computer or ignoring opportunities to “shut down” for a few minutes throughout the day. If you can’t find balance in your day, you establish a pattern that’s hard to shut off after hours. Set your phone alarm every couple of hours to remind you to walk briefly outside without your phone, talk to a friend, read an article, or do a short personal task to take your mind off your work.  

Make a worry list as the last task of the day. List the things that are on your mind that you’ll be dealing with tomorrow, then leave it on your desk. It takes it out of your head and stores it so you can leave it without concern until morning. 

Don’t make calls on the way home. At least once or twice a week, try turning your phone off as well as the radio during your commute. You’ll have that time to mentally disconnect from work and transition to your home environment. 

Minimize mental effort in the evening. You’ve been using your mind all day, so give it a break when you get home. Focus on relationships, exercise, walks, playing games, or doing physical tasks you enjoy.  

Protect your time. Put an out-of-office message on at the end of your workday saying, “I won’t be checking messages until tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m., and I’ll get back to you then.” 

Give your brain office hours.   

  • Turn off all technology 30 minutes before bedtime as a buffer before sleeping.
  • If you use your phone as your alarm, set it across the room, so you’re not tempted to check emails at midnight. 
  • When your brain kicks into gear at 2:00 a.m., simply tell it, “Sorry—we’re not open right now. Please come back tomorrow morning.” 
  • Keep a pen and a notepad next to your bed (not technology). When anxious or random thoughts come into your mind, jot them down, so you don’t lose them—and it’ll be easier to go back to sleep. 

Trying to shut off your brain is tough when it’s running at full speed throughout the day. It’s better to keep it running but on things that will replenish and renew.