Work-life and home life have become blurred. Even after the workday ends, many of us feel a compulsion to continue checking emails and ruminating about work-related problems, worrying about how we will get everything done.
In response, we’re advised to detach from work—to turn off our work brain at 5 o’clock, and take time to be present with our friends and family or engage in hobbies. But as beneficial as this can be, completely detaching can make it more challenging to motivate ourselves and focus when we return to work. After a relaxing evening or jam-packed, adventurous weekend, how do we get back into work mode the next morning?
A new study suggests that people who have mentally prepared for and thought about the upcoming workday—or “reattached” to work—have better work experience because they start the day off more in touch with their work goals.
Researchers recruited 151 people from a diverse range of careers and emailed surveys to them each morning for one workweek. People were considered to be more reattached to work when they agreed with statements like, “This morning, I gave some thought to the upcoming workday,” or “This morning, I thought about what I wanted to achieve at work today.” People also indicated how much energy they felt to pursue work goals, how excited or inspired they felt, and how much they anticipated being able to focus at work.
In the afternoon, researchers sent out a second wave of surveys to capture how much support participants felt they received from their colleagues, how self-determined they felt around making decisions that workday, and how engaged they felt at work.
Analyses of these surveys found that reattaching to work led to a cascade of positive experiences during the day. The process may play out like this: Taking time to reattach to work helps our work goals to become more salient, which energizes us to focus. When we consider how to achieve our goals, we become more aware of our autonomy to accomplish them, as well as the resources and people we have supporting us. All of these factors contribute to feeling more inspired and engaged at work—which, other research suggests, is important for productivity.
While many factors outside of our control—like our work environment—play a role in how engaged we feel at work, reattaching to work is something that we can practice any given morning to make our workday better.
How to Reattach to Work
Reattaching to work can mean briefly reflecting just after leaving the house, while we’re on our commute, or when we sit at our desk before we begin working. What does it entail? This study doesn’t answer that question definitively, although the researchers suggest that it could include planning your activities and envisioning the flow of your tasks for the workday.
Based on the way reattachment worked in the study, though, we can imagine a few questions that might be helpful. Consider reflecting on or writing down answers to these questions when you are ready to reattach to work.
1. Why does the work I do matter to me? How does my work impact the lives of others? Reflecting on your answers to these questions allows you to become more in touch with your work goals and the motivating sense of purpose that you derive from work. For some people, the answers may come naturally, while others may be left blank. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer right off the bat. Even when we don’t think our work is inherently meaningful, research suggests we can give it meaning by finding an answer to these questions. For example, a bus driver might find purpose in providing mobility to people in their community.
2. Who are the people—both at work and in my personal life—who support me and my professional success? At times, many of us feel isolated and even overwhelmed by our work tasks and responsibilities. In those moments especially, bringing to mind the people who support us can help relieve stress and make us feel more capable and confident about what we are trying to accomplish. Consider a friendly colleague who is always willing to help or eager to bounce ideas around. Alternatively, think about someone outside of work, like a close friend who is there when things are stressful and happy for you when things are going well.
3. What would I like to focus on today? Reflect on a goal or task you would like to accomplish today. For example, a teacher may have a certain number of papers they are aiming to grade, or a software engineer may intend on fixing a bug in their code. When you first think of this task, you may feel stress or apathy. Reattaching to work involves acknowledging and even embracing these feelings—and then trying to visualize yourself doing this task in a calm, focused, and productive way. Anticipating being focused and engaged in your work can help you to realize that vision.
Taking time to reflect on what we do, why we do it, and how we might approach our work today can help bring our full focus to our aspirations at work, as opposed to leaving our thoughts on the weekend or just going through the motions. Whatever you do for work, consider answering these questions—or simply taking a moment of reflection and intention—at the start of your workday. Hopefully, you’ll find that doing so helps to ease the transition back into your workflow, and contributes to what you accomplish at work.
Jessica Lindsey is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of California–Berkeley studying cognitive science with a concentration in psychology. She is a researcher and course assistant for the three-course professional certificate series The Science of Happiness at Work. This article was originally published on Greater Good Magazine online.