Q: I can't leave work -- or rather, thoughts of work -- at the office. At home, in bed, gardening, the problems of work go around in my head.
I had this problem years ago as a school teacher when I brought home any concerns I had about the kids. Now I'm an office manager for a company that has grown from 12 to 48 people in three years and there's a wide assortment of problems and worries to think about.
How do I get back some freshness, some enthusiasm in my job, when my first reaction to a new problem now is anger?
The people I admire seem to be able to show enormous wit under adversity, confusion and chaos. How can I?
A: It's a joy to work at an interesting job for 40 hours a week, and even a little more, but to think about it every waking moment is to work every waking moment, and that's no fun at all. When you break that pattern, you'll be fresh and enthusiastic on the job, and a new problem will be a challenge or annoyance, but not a reason for anger.
The happy worker you envy is the one who compartmentalizes her life the way she does her wardrobe. She doesn't put on her business suit to plant petunias.
The compartments aren't absolutely inviolate, of course. Everyone ruminates about work problems at home sometimes (and about home problems at work). A little free-flowing exchange is good and inevitable. So are dreams, for they repair the mind, no matter what they're about.
Even daydreams often end with the answer to some problem popping into the mind, as if it was there all along. And in a way, it was. The subconscious puzzles away at a problem and then hands it across to the conscious for fine-tuning. What seems to be spontaneous is really a constant pursuit.
This is how creativity works and it takes creativity to figure out the best way to reprint an office report, just as it does to arrange a musical score or paint a sunrise.
This process can't be rushed by worrying. Your tendency to worry is probably in your nature, which no doubt makes you a careful office manager, but so much fretting on your own time is unproductive. The higher your anxiety, the greater your need to control and the more tense you'll feel when you can't.
As office manager, you can channel the work of others but you can't do much about their personal problems or idiosyncrasies, unless they want to be guided in your direction. You might as well be herding the proverbial mice on a street corner for all the luck you'll have.
Your key to freedom will be your ability to wipe your mind clean when you leave the office. Part of it is a matter of switching your brain from the left side -- the verbal side -- to the right side, which is visual, and you only can do that if you change activities for a half-hour or so. Driving the car or doing a simple home repair can give you this transition and so can a mindless half-hour of TV or a walk, if you concentrate on the architecture or the trees.
Exercise is a great help, particularly if it's aerobic -- oxygen gets the brain going better -- and swimming is probably the best aerobic exercise of all, for you can do more with less effort and because water soothes the soul so well. A daily swim will both relax you and give you energy. Other recreational activities, like tennis, card games or photography, will keep you thinking and talking about other interests.
You also need time to contemplate a world that's bigger than your own office. Treat yourself to some weekends away in some simple place, yet in sight of the sea, a forest, a desert or a mountain, so the grandeur will help you put petty office problems into perspective. And don't say you can't afford it, because this is an investment in your happiness. You can leave early on a Saturday morning and return on Sunday night, sleeping in an inexpensive tourist home or a borrowed tent if necessary, since you'll be spending your day hiking or sightseeing.
If all of this fails, you may need to get into a different line of work. To do this, consider taking the Meyers-Briggs personality test for guidance, a management tool used by many large businesses and governments and offered as a service by many churches and community groups. It's described in Gifts Differing, by Isabel Meyers and Peter Meyers ($14), published by Consulting Psychologist in Palo Alto, Calif.
A similar test appears in Please Understand Me by David Kiersey and Marilyn Bates (Prometheus Nemesis Books), for $11, sent to P.O. Box 2082, Del Mar, Calif. 92014. Here you'll learn that there are 16 basic types of people, and that each type functions best in certain lines of work. It's one more case of "know thyself."
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.