Originally published in Inc. Magazine.
Does this sound familiar?
You've just finished a long day, full of emails, Zoom calls, deadlines, and to-dos. You're now making the shift from work mode to family mode. But, for some reason, you just can't seem to turn it off.
You keep thinking about that meeting, that call you need to make, or all the things you weren't able to get to. You're living in yesterday, tomorrow, and five years from now, finding it impossible to slow down and be here now.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Psychologist Linda Stone calls this uniquely modern experience the state of "continuous partial attention." Never fully on. Never fully off. Unable to place our full attention on the things that matter most: our spouse, our kids, or even just the sight of the sun setting, the wind stirring, or the birds chirping outside our window.
So how can we make this transition from work to family time more skillfully? Here are four research-based techniques.
The neuroscience is clear: Most of us have developed a behavioral addiction to our phones. Each time we pick up the device in our pocket, we get a small hit of dopamine, the brain's primary neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. This momentary high keeps us coming back for more. That's why it's not enough to just say, "I'm going to try to stop checking my phone tonight." Like any strong addiction, getting over this attachment to our devices requires radical restraint. Put your phone in the other room. Put it on airplane mode. Lock it in a safe if you have to. Do whatever you need to do to release yourself, even if only temporarily, from its grip over you.
The pace of the modern workday leaves a mental residue. We spend all day planning, strategizing, and trying to extract the maximum amount of productive value from each moment. It's the perfect mindset for being productive at work. It's a disaster for family life. So it's worth ending the workday with a short period of transition. Take a few deep breaths. Take a walk around the block. Experience the scientifically validated benefits of meditation. Do one thing at the end of each workday that opens this space for shifting your mindset from optimizing productivity to optimizing presence and connection.
A growing body of research shows that the experience of anger, irritation, and anxiety is closely tied to the way we breathe. When we're feeling tense and tired at the end of the workday, in other words, our breath is like a mirror of our mental and emotional state. Just like your anxious or irritated mind, you may notice your breath is short and tense. The upshot of this research is that all we have to do to change our state is change our breath. And the simplest way to do that is by taking longer, smoother breaths through the nose, lengthening each inhale and exhale to somewhere around five seconds.
Slowing down your breathing is a great first step. But you can take this one step further. Try the practice of slowing down everything you do. This isn't what we normally do at the end of a workday. We usually allow the frenzied pace of our work to carry over to our pace at home. So as you're preparing dinner, eating your meal, or doing the dishes, intentionally slow down. See what happens when you turn each evening into a kind of mini-vacation, a time to relax, unwind, be present, and experience the rare opportunity to be with the people you love most.