August 15, 2020

Disconnecting While WFH

Some of my coworkers have mentioned that they have a hard time mentally shutting work off after the day is done now that we’re all working at home. We all need downtime to refresh and recharge. Also, research suggests that we’re better at solving complex problems with lots of variables when we aren’t consciously focused on the problem.

Part of the problem is that unfinished tasks tend to rattle around in our minds and distract us from other things we should be doing. David Allen calls these “open loops” in his productivity system (Getting Things Done, or GTD) and defines them as “any unfinished commitment.” He suggests that simply getting them out of your head and into a list helps as long as you can trust you will review that list. For some software engineers writing some comments in the code you’re working on or in the Jira story may be the right place to store what’s still left hanging around in your head.

I would suggest that you make closing these open loops a part of a formal shutdown ritual. It can take a few weeks for a shutdown ritual to take hold, but they can provide you with a definitive trigger that your work day has ended. If you’re skeptical, think about what the end of your day looked like when we were all in the office. You got up, unplugged your laptop, put it in your backpack, gathered some personal items (water bottle, etc.), washed out your coffee cup and put it back on your desk, then drove home listening to a podcast or some music. That ritual took ten minutes or more (depending on the length of your commute), but it was a clear signal to yourself that work was over. I replicate this at home by doing many of those same steps.

Last but not least is the concept of attention restoration. Being exposed to nature (even just pictures or video) can help you concentrate better by allowing you to refresh and recover from mental fatigue. Natural environments are replete with things that are interesting to you, but that only require effortless attention. I’ve even read things that suggest watching something on TV or a movie (minus commercials) can have a similar effect unless you also mindlessly browse Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/etc. at the same time (see also: doomscrolling).

© Eric Biven 2020