The Key To a Happy Work Life Is Knowing When To Shut Down

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As a busy CEO, it’s all too easy for me to fall into a work-around-the-clock schedule if I’m not careful. True, a strong work ethic is invaluable in the professional world. But to do your best work, avoid burnout and thrive as a well-rounded human being, it’s equally important to know when and how to shut down.

Even when you’re just starting out in your career.

Numerous studies show that overworking can lead to increased stress, anxiety and even depression. It can also jeopardize the successful life you’re supposedly working toward in the first place. Who wants that?

Indeed, our brains are designed to take breaks to refuel and recharge, and research shows performance increases after breaks of all durations. Author Tim Kreider sums it up nicely:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Of course, shutting down is hard in a time of pervasive technology and work demands that seem to always increase. But restful breaks are important — and about every day, not just when you’re kicking back during a vacation week at the beach.

I’ve found that making the most of your non-work time requires a specific course of action. Much like a person who wants to get in shape usually is more successful when they follow an exact exercise program, you should develop a plan for a robust life outside the job.

Here are ones that guide me.

A healthy end-of day ritual: Dinner with the kids.

I have an inviolable rule: Every day (unless I’m traveling), I leave the office around 5 to have dinner with my wife and three young children.

I believe that family dinner is crucial for two reasons: it helps to remind me of who and what I work for — grounds me, really, after a long workday — and it ensures I’m present in my kids’ lives; with them for their most important moments.

I’d recommend this even to younger professionals that don’t have spouses or children — an end-of-day ritual that is entirely separate from your workday and your job, just for you and no one else. A yoga class, an instrument, a volunteer work, it can be anything! What matters, ultimately, is that you make the time to disengage and decompress.

Unplug the devices.

It’s the sort of thing that’s easier said than done, I know, but it’s worth doing all the same: shutting your devices completely off — your phone, your tablet, your laptop. It’s just too easy for an incoming message notification or what have you to interrupt, say, a conversation with your son about what he learned at school today. And it’s too tempting to fall into the trap of checking your work messages “just once,” which misses the point.

Of course, this level of disconnectedness isn’t practical for everyone. Some work items are truly urgent and don’t follow a 9-to-5 schedule — — say a deadline project with a colleague in Germany. But there are still ways you can help yourself. I bought an Apple watch and use that to ensure I receive critical notifications during off hours with my family. This allows me to put my phone away and not be checking it all the time. Think of it as using technology to free yourself from technology, at least partially.

Read a book.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I never have time to read”? You actually might if you strip away electronic distractions and make the time. Books are great for the brain and reading before bed helps most people sleep better.

Don’t send emails at odd hours.

Barring anything truly urgent, if you send an email, say, at 2 PM on a Sunday, you’re not only stealing from your own weekend relaxation time but also that of the co-worker who may feel obliged to respond to it. Try to keep work emails to standard work hours.


Busy professionals have an especially acute need to manage stress and keep their minds sharp — and staying healthy physically is an important component. So shut off the iPhone and hit that daily pickup basketball game or Pilates class. Me, I make time for hockey where I can, and of course, basketball with my kids.

Knowing how to disengage from work, and doing it regularly, is a quality whose value cannot be understated. Only by doing so can you maintain the energy and passion throughout your career — and more importantly, really enjoy life along the way.

Written by

Andy MacMillan is CEO of Act-On Software, a marketing automation provider.

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