Writing down how, when, and where they will complete the tasks may help workers enjoy their evenings, the author of the study says.
“When goals are left incomplete, even beyond the work setting, they tend to linger on our minds,” said Brandon Smit of Ball State University in Indiana, the author of the new study.
“We know that getting a break from work demands reduces fatigue and increases positive mood among employees,” Smit told Reuters Health by email. “It even predicts better job performance the following day, and that’s saying nothing to the obvious benefits to individuals who are present and engaged with their loved ones during family time.”
Through Amazon’s crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk, Smit surveyed 103 people using two online questionnaires per day for five workdays. Participants submitted one survey immediately after work, including information on daily complete and incomplete goals, and another right before going to sleep, assessing how much they had thought about work since returning home.
More than half the participants worked from home occasionally or most of the time. Most worked at least 40 hours per week and none were unemployed, according to their responses.
About half of the respondents were randomly assigned to receive instructions on how to make a plan for when, where and how they would complete remaining tasks.
In one example, a credit analyst listed an incomplete goal as “call back customers about financial disputes.” The written plan for completion was, “I will go into work and start at 10:00 AM in a call center in my office. Log into my computer and call customers back on the multi-line phone to inquire more information about the disputes. After a thorough investigation and verifying evidence, make a final decision and send correspondence to the customer.”
People more often spent time in the evening thinking about incomplete goals rather than complete ones, Smit reported in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
Those who wrote a plan for completing the goals at the end of the workday spent less time thinking about those tasks in the evening than people in the comparison group who did not write a plan. Writing a plan was only effective for people with higher levels of job involvement, though, Smit noted.
“More and more people are finding it difficult to unwind and relax after work,” said Mark Cropley of the University of Surrey in the U.K. who was not part of the new study.
Cropley is the author of the book “The Off Switch: Leave work on time, relax your mind but still get more done.”
Inadequate recovery from the demands of work has been tied to poor health outcomes including a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, negative mood states, poor sleep, and increased fatigue, as well as poor work outcomes like decreased productivity, lack of detachment and an increased risk of making mistakes, Cropley told Reuters Health by email.
“One of the best ways to detach is to develop and pursue a hobby that focuses the mind,” he said.
Setting time barriers, like always stopping at six p.m., or physical barriers, like not checking work emails at home, can help keep work and life separate, Smit said.
What about the internal sources of distraction, such as nagging worries about tomorrow’s presentation?
“Sometimes we, ourselves, are the source of work spilling over into our personal lives,” Smit said. “In this case, planning may help put us in a state of mind that better allows us to switch off from work in the evening.”