Prof Peter Heslin of Sydney’s University of New South Wales explains what to do when you’ve hit a productivity block at work.
For most of us, 2020 was an exhausting year. The Covid-19 pandemic heralded draining physical health concerns, social isolation, job dislocation, uncertainty about the future and related mental health issues.
Although some of us have enjoyed changes, such as less commuting, for many the pandemic added extra punch to the main source of stress – engaging in or searching for work.
Recovering from an energy slump
Recovery is the process of reversing the adverse impacts of stress. Leading recovery researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz have highlighted the important distinction between recovery activities (what you do during leisure time) and recovery experiences (what you need to experience during and after those activities to truly recover).
Recovery activities can be passive (such as watching TV, lying on a beach, reading, internet browsing or listening to music) or active (walking, running, playing sports, dancing, swimming, hobbies, spiritual practice, developing a skill, creating something, learning a language and so on).
How well these activities reduce your stress depends on the extent to which they provide you with five types of recovery experiences:
- Psychological detachment: fully disconnecting during non-work time from work-related tasks or even thinking about work issues
- Relaxation: being free of tension and anxiety
- Mastery: challenging situations that provide a sense of progress and achievement (such as being in learning mode to develop a new skill)
- Control: deciding yourself about what to do and when and how to do it
- Enjoyment: the state or process of deriving pleasure from seeing, hearing or doing something
Of these, psychological detachment is the most potent, according to a 2017 meta-analysis of 54 psychological studies involving more than 26,000 participants.
These studies found that the benefits of mentally disengaging from work include reduced fatigue and enhanced wellbeing. On the other hand, inadequate psychological detachment leads to negative thoughts about work, exhaustion, physical discomfort and negative emotions both at bedtime and during the next morning.
Here are five tips, drawn from the research, to feel more rested and alive.
1. Pay attention to evidence
There are mixed findings regarding the recovery value of passive, low-effort activities such as watching TV or reading a novel.
More promising are social activities, avoiding work-related smartphone use after work, and engaging in ‘receptive’ leisure activities (such as attending a concert, game or cultural event) and ‘creative’ leisure activities (designing and making something or expressing yourself in a creative way).
Spending time in ‘green’ environments (parks, bushland, hills) is restorative, particularly when these are natural rather than urban settings. ‘Blue’ environments (the coast, rivers, lakes) are also highly restorative.
Even short lunchtime walks and relaxation exercises lead to feeling more recovered during the afternoon. Two of the surest ways to recover are to engage in physical exercise and get plenty of quality sleep.
2. Think about your identity outside of work
Many of us define ourselves in terms of our profession, employer and perhaps our performance. We may also have many other identities related to, for instance, parenting, religion, interests, activities or learning aspirations.
Dan Caprar and Ben Walker suggest two useful ways to prevent being overly invested in work identity.
First, reorganise your physical space to reduce visual reminders of your work-related identities (such as your laptop, professional books, performance awards) and replace them with reminders of your other identities.
Second, do some ‘identity work’ and ‘identity play’, reflecting on the identities you cherish and experimenting with potential new identities.
3. Consider how you manage boundaries
Your boundary management style is the extent to which you integrate or separate your work and life beyond work. Work-life researcher Ellen Kossek has created a survey (it takes about five minutes) to help assess your style and provide suggestions for improvement.
4. Make the time for recovery experiences
Document what you do when not working. Ask yourself how much these activities enable you to truly experience psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control and enjoyment.
Then experiment with alternative activities that might provide richer recovery experiences. This will typically require less time on things such as news media (especially pandemic updates and ‘doomscrolling’), TV, social media, online shopping or video games, gambling, pornography, alcohol or illicit drugs to recover.
You will make it easier to give up activities with minimal recovery value if you supplant them with more rejuvenating alternatives you enjoy.
5. Cultivate new habits
Habits are behaviours we automatically repeat in certain situations. Often we fail to develop better habits by being too ambitious. The ‘tiny habits’ approach suggests thinking smaller, with ‘ABC recipes’ that identify:
- Anchor moments, which are when you will enact your intended behaviour
- Behaviours you will undertake during those moments
- Celebration to create a positive feeling that helps this behaviour become a habit
Examples of applying this approach are:
- After I eat lunch, I will walk for at least 10 minutes (ideally somewhere green). I will celebrate by enjoying what I see along the way
- After I finish work, I will engage in 30 minutes of exercise before dinner. I will celebrate by raising my arms in a V shape and saying ‘victory!’
- After 8.30pm I will not look at emails or think about work. I will celebrate by reminding myself I deserve to switch off
Perhaps the most essential ingredient for building better recovery habits is to steer away from feeling burdened by ideas about what you ‘should’ do to recover. Enjoy the process of experimenting with different recovery activities that, given all your work and life commitments, seem most promising, viable and fun.
By Peter Heslin
Peter Heslin is a professor of management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.