3 min read

How to think about thinking about work

It’s important to set strong boundaries. But what about the fact great thinking happens outside of work?
How to think about thinking about work
Photo by Justin Scocchio / Unsplash

Sustain issue #94 (Get Sustain in your inbox next Thursday)

I serve on the alumni board of directors for my university and last week had the opportunity to head back to campus. As part of the agenda, we got to hear from faculty doing interesting work in the metaverse, on advancing student-athletes, and from a number of students dreaming about what’s possible.

It was a good reminder about the power of staying curious and learning about areas that might be outside your comfort zone. It keeps you energized and can give your work a new perspective.

Thinking in the shower

“As soon as I stepped into the tub, it’s as if the water unleashed another part of my brain. Out of the blue, a flood of words and sentences poured forth.”

This is the way one writer described going from having no clue how to start their blog post to a tightly packaged idea. A quick break and a shower. Voilà.

Maybe you’ve experienced this too? I know I have.

But wait. Isn’t the idea behind this whole community about creating strong boundaries and redefining your relationship with work. How are we to reconcile this? I’ve said many times, work when you work, don’t when you don’t. But where does that leave thinking about work?

How to think about thinking about work

Is thinking about work outside of work good or bad? My sense is that it can be good or bad depending on the circumstance.

1 - Bad is stress spiral thinking. This is the email you’ve been thinking about for hours. The presentation you’re dreading. The bad news you know you need to deliver. Stress spiral thinking weighs you down and goes round and round in unproductive circles. It also happens at all the wrong times like when you’re trying to fall asleep.

2 - Good (or at least ok) is thinking outside of work like the writer in the shower whose blog post outline just came to her. This is problem-solving thinking. It’s the one where you’re trying to create a new process. You’re planning how to communicate something. The one where you’re putting a project plan together. Problem-solving thinking tends to happen at more opportune times.

Thinking about work outside of work

So, is it ok to think about work outside of work? I’m a strong advocate for not doing work tasks when you’ve popped on the closed sign for the day. No email. No Slack. No quick tweak to the presentation slides you’re building.  

However, to do your best work and achieve traditional markers of success, you’ll sometimes need to think about work when you’re not actively engaged in work. To come up with the most creative thinking, you need to give your brain the best conditions to do said thinking. And that doesn’t happen when you’re parked in front of a computer for eight hours a day.

Researchers call this activating your brain’s default mode network (DMN). It’s exactly what the writer in the shower experienced. The DMN comes alive when your brain is engaged but mostly on autopilot. Activities like a shower, going on a walk, gardening, or washing the dishes all take brain power but they don't require complete focus. This allows your brain to wander and chew on more complex problems.

Work doesn’t need to dominate your outside-of-work DMN time but it’s healthy and good for your career to not resist work thinking outside of work. Your brain needs this time and space to create the knowledge that you’ll be rewarded for at your next performance review.

Logged off accountability report (Jan. 23-28)

Here are my work stats from last week. Use it as a point of reference to help plan your work week and maybe provide some inspiration for your Three Good Pockets.

Total goals my work supported ~ 2

➡️ How to use goals as your greatest defense against overwork

Total hours worked ~ 20 (two days PTO) / Total hours in meetings ~ 12

➡️ How to work 38 hours a week

Upcoming days off ~ Today + tomorrow

➡️ How to take your time off actually off

Three Good Pockets highlights ~ Weekend in Eugene, OR / seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade / walk along the Puget Sound / breakfast out with my wife

Ready to downsize your relationship with work and quit burnout?

Hi, I'm Grant Gurewitz. I'm on a mission to eliminate burnout at work. I've been in tech for 10 years (ex-Zillow, current: Qualtrics) and suffered deep burnout and came back from it even though I never found a playbook for doing so. So, I'm writing it myself.

🗄️ See the past issues of Sustain