In an ideal world, we would be able to switch on our brains and focus, whenever we needed to, then be able to switch off and relax, whenever we wanted to. Unfortunately, for many of us, this isn’t the case. It’s been estimated that up to 70% of workers ruminate or worry about work issues, at one time or another 1.
Some studies suggest that high ruminators – people who have particular difficulty in switching off from work – are twice as likely to experience issues with poor executive control1. Executive control is associated with the activity in the prefrontal cortex, includes high-level cognitive processes such as:
- Working memory
- Mental flexibility
We are not machines; we can’t always be ‘on’, so why is it so difficult to switch off and recover when we want to?
A negative spiral
One of the challenges with rumination is that it can set off a negative spiral. Persistent thoughts make it difficult to switch off, which may further compromise the very cognitive abilities we need to switch off, making the situation worse. Consequently, we need to find techniques to interrupt this cycle. I understand that sometimes it’s not easy to detach. For a lot of people, switching off is a skill that we need to re-learn, so here are three powerful ways to improve your ability to switch off and recover.
Shift your thinking from ‘why’ to ‘how’
We can struggle to switch off because our thoughts are often ‘attached’ to emotions. “Why” thoughts are often the most sticky and emotional. For example, you might find yourself repeatedly thinking “why do they always ask me to do everything at the last minute?”. Shifting “why” thoughts to “how” thoughts makes them less sticky and takes away their power. We can do this by thinking of one useful action we can take, even if it doesn’t fix the situation straight away.
When you notice a “why” thought hanging around, write down a “how” action. For example, if you keep thinking “why do they always ask me to everything at the last minute”, even writing a note to schedule some time to speak with that person about this issue, the next day, can help you to detach from the thought.
Measure your ability to switch offIn 2012, Professor Mark Cropley and a group of researchers developed a survey to measure different types of thinking about work, sometimes called the ‘Work-related thoughts’ questionnaire2. The questionnaire identified three types of thinkers:
- Affective ruminators: Affective ruminators often find it difficult to switch off emotionally from work-related thoughts. They may become tense and frustrated because they cannot stop thinking about work.
- Problem-solving ponderers: Problem-solving ponderers think about and ponder on work-related issues when they are not at work. This may be because they enjoy their work, and the mental challenges work gives them.
- Detachers: Detachers tend to switch off very quickly after they leave work.
I’ve created a digital version of the survey here.
After you’ve responded to the fifteen questions, your score for the three thinking-types will be instantly displayed on the screen, which will give you a sense of which kind of thinking you express most.
Do your own experiment
I encourage you to experiment. If you notice that persistent thoughts are negatively affecting your ability to switch off, assess where you’re starting from, with the questionnaire, try out the ‘why to how’ technique for a couple of weeks, then re-assess, using the same survey, to see whether it has made a difference.
1. Cropley M, Zijlstra FRH, Querstret D, Beck S, Fila MJ. Is Work-Related Rumination Associated with Deficits in Executive Functioning ? 2016;7(September):1–8.
2. Cropley M, Michalianou G, Pravettoni G, Millward LJ. The relation of post-work ruminative thinking with eating behaviour. Stress Heal. 2012;28(1):23–30.