How To Switch Off and Leave Your Work at the Office

With these four tips you’ll surely learn how.

by Elisabeth Hahnke, January 15, 2018

If you find yourself agreeing to most of the following sentences, then this article could be for you.

  1. I often think about unfinished work projects when I am at home.
  2. My work is so extensive and complex that I never have the chance to switch off.
  3. I am always on call for my colleagues and frequently communicate at inopportune times with my team, but hey, communication isn’t work.
  4. My work is my passion.

Let’s take a closer look at the individual points. For each point, I’ll suggest a very simple and small change in behaviour for you. Don’t be put off by how simple the tips are. Maybe you think ‘It can’t be that easy,’ or ‘Yeah, I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work.’ If you have ever tried to make small changes in your daily life, then you know how difficult it is. The simpler the tips are, the better. Daily life is complicated enough. The more often you use these suggestions, the more effective they will be.

Problem: Not being able to mentally switch off thoughts about unfinished projects

"I often think about unfinished work projects when I am at home." 

In the 1920s, the Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, made an astounding discovery during an experiment at her university in Berlin. She asked her participants to undertake simple tasks. She interrupted some participants in their work process before they were finished and when asked later, those participants were able to remember their task better than those who had been allowed to complete their task. The Zeigarnik effect implies that unfinished tasks are better remembered than finished ones. Test yourself on how well you can let go of tasks that haven’t been completed. Are you someone who can’t stop thinking about your unfinished to-do list?


Here is the first tip. Do not start any tasks at the end of your work day that you know you can’t finish. Instead, at the end of your work day, focus on tasks you can complete. This can include having a long overdue conversation with a colleague and solving a conflict at the same time.

Ask yourself: Which unfinished tasks need my attention? And then finish them.

Problem: A lack of detailed planning for individual stages of the projects

"My work is so extensive and complex that I never have the chance to switch off."  

The premise of this tip is being able to separate larger projects into smaller parts so that you always have work made up of manageable sections which have a clear beginning and end.


Take the time to create a detailed plan of the tasks you are required to do. You should be able to clearly state which steps should be undertaken by whom and when they should be done. Document progress so that you can orient yourself and know exactly where you are on the path. Projects can often get out of hand because they seem too big and we feel like we are losing control. It’s difficult to forget about them and the worry follows us, leading to a sleepless night. But if you know which small tasks you need to tackle on which days, then even the most visionary enterprise will be manageable.

Ask yourself: Which projects and tasks are so big that I never actually finish them? How can I split things up into smaller tasks? How long do the smaller tasks take and when do I want to do them?

Problem: Being constantly available

"I am always on call for my colleagues and frequently communicate at inopportune times with my team, but hey, communication isn’t work." 

Many of us are constantly available for communication. If you want to leave your work in the office, you can introduce digital office hours.


This means that you don’t take any business calls after you leave the office, you don’t check your emails in the evenings or the weekend and you are only available for absolute emergencies outside of office hours.

In the next seven days, test how often you read work emails after office hours and at what times of day you send messages. 10:35 pm? 6 am? Do you make work calls on the way home or while you are preparing dinner? Do you check your work’s group message just before going to bed? Truthfully analyze how your communication behaviour influences the separation of work and free time and then come to a decision for yourself.

If you truly want to leave your work in the office, then you should allow yourself this digital detox.

Problem: High level of identification with your job

"My work is my passion."

This is the most interesting point in this conversation. Most young people search for their calling, their purpose or their passion. We want to make a positive difference in the world, use our talents to do something meaningful and love what we do. That is wonderful and a good end goal. But when your job becomes a calling, many people begin to soley identify themselves through their job.

A high level of identification always means that you are hooked. What do I mean by saying that? If you identify with your business side, then you relate all of your work experiences to yourself. You lose distance and along with that, a clear vision of yourself and your life. Successes become a boost to your self-esteem and experiences of failure become a personal crisis. Losing your job would lead to an identity crisis and your talents can only be used in one particular context. All decisions are made in accordance with your calling. ‘Holiday? I can’t now. There is too much to do at work.’ ‘Children? Would be nice, but starting a family would be way too much for my nerves and anyway they need me at work!’ ‘Travel? Maybe in two or three years, hmm, well later anyway!’ ‘I am so tired. Sleep in? No I can’t.’

It is totally normal to have phases in life where your work is important and takes up a lot of space. The danger lies in one-sided identification.

Are you your job or do you have a job?

There is a small, but important difference. Do you draw conclusions about your self-worth based on your successfully completed tasks or comments from your co-workers? Or does your self-worth remain untouched by life’s diverse ups and downs? Who are you without this job? Would you still like yourself? Do you see yourself as worthwhile? Loveable? Competent? Useful? Answer these questions honestly.

You should realize that you and your job are a separable unit.

It would be interesting for you to ask yourself, who are you outside of your work context? What qualities do I have that I want live and that have no place in my job?

I know business executives who paint large colorful paintings, social entrepreneurs who put time aside to look after their friendships and founders who illustrate children’s books in their free time. You are more than your job. It’s as simple as that.

Make some room for all the other things that inspire, challenge and excite you as much as your job does. As soon as you are no longer only interested by the concerns of your job and your feeling of self worth is no longer dependent on your success, influence or knowledge, then you will open yourself up to everything that you are. You can finally leave your work at work.


So how about allowing for more playtime in your life? Follow your curiosity and desires. If you enjoy the feeling of your hand in moist soil, work with plants. If you like the feeling you get in your  fingers when they suddenly find their way while playing an instrument, then grab your old sheet music. If you like being aware of your body and climbing, then visit a rock wall. You can embrace the Zeigarnik effect by not quite finishing your replanting after a successful workday, not playing the piece of music to the very end or by waiting before tackling the most challenging climbing wall. The next day when you return home from work, there will be a fantastic uncompleted task awaiting you, something that will require your full attention. Have fun switching off.

I would love to hear from you and how you manage to switch off after work. What tricks do you have to share with our fantastic community? Write to us at!

About the author


Elisabeth Hahnke studied Communication and Cultural Management at Zeppelin University (Master of Arts) and founded the renowned Social Franchise ROCK YOUR LIFE! with two friends. She and her team have received numerous awards for their work including MTV Voices Award. Elisabeth is a Responsible Leader for BMW foundation and campaigns for personal and social change with her work. She is currently the head of the potential developing program BILDUNGSROCKER and also works as trainer and coach. She is an expert in the field of coaching, MBSR/Introvision and potential development.

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Originally published June 12, 2017