Ever snap at a spouse who asks "How'd the day go, honey?" Do pressures of the job linger through dinner and into bed? Can't leave those unfinished tasks on the office desk and out of your mind?
"Take a bath with Nancy Reagan," advises Barbara Mackoff, who prescribes getting into hot water with the first lady (metaphorically, of course) as one of dozens of techniques for breaking the habit of hauling workday stresses, problems and tasks home after punching the clock.
Borrowed from Mrs. Reagan's 1980 confession that she cleanses herself from daily frustrations by attacking her husband's political enemies with imaginary conversations while soaking in the tub, the tactic is "not only a wonderful image," says the Seattle psychotherapist, "but the idea of talking back in the bath really helps stop people from passing on the anger they feel toward their colleagues and clients to their loved ones. It finishes the emotional business of the day."
The author of Leaving the Office Behind (Dell, $3.95), Mackoff trains corporate clients at IBM, Hewlett-Packard and the American Bankers Association, among others, to recapture their personal and private lives.
"This is the survival skill of the coming decade," says Mackoff, 37. "There are so many of us more working now. And because both spouses often are at work during the day, there is no one managing our private lives anymore. If we don't leave the office behind, we're leaving the rest of our lives to chance. And chances are it's not going so well.
"I consider the ability to leave the office a professional skill, in and of itself."
Suggesting that Mozart was probably terrible dinner-table company when brooding over an unfinished symphony, Mackoff acknowledges her own life hasn't been immune to the trickle down of work to home. "My husband, Jeremy, is an architect who comes home talking about the downtown development plan, a house in Alaska, a bank on Mercer Island . . . ," she says, admitting she has come home thinking about "my therapy practice, communication training for the city and stress reduction for bankers.
When I went through a period of life of all work and no play, I think I became a very dull person."
Some hard-edged professionals, however, call Mackoff's ideas "well-intentioned fantasy." Twelve-hour days and Saturdays behind the desk is a fact of work life for corporate attorneys who want to "make partner in this lifetime," says one Washington lawyer.
"If you leave the office behind . . . at 40 hours a week," says Richard Ekfelt, executive vice president of Electromagnetic Energy Policy Alliance, headquartered in Washington, "You'll probably be leaving the payroll behind soon, too."
Mackoff has heard those arguments before. "Washington and New York people have statistically a smaller amount of free time than people in other towns and cities," she says, adding that Washington has a reputation as a city where people are more likely to ask "Did you work this weekend?" than "How was your weekend?"
"That's why," Mackoff says, "it's all the more important to leave the job where it belongs." She tells of a recent seminar she conducted for IBM in Atlanta: "A senior vice president stood up and announced that he had 'unplugged his home computer.' Everybody applauded. He meant, of course, that he had disconnected home life from work life."
Urging clients to examine the "habit of overworking" to see if it is appropriate or necessary, Mackoff recommends what she calls "The Briefcase Check":
"Too many of us, toward the end of the day, start to stuff things in the briefcase that we'll get to tonight. You start to label everything as an emergency. Ask if you are really going to get that done tonight. Is it really an emergency? Can it be delegated? The real question is, are those over-hours really productive? You can't stay on-line all the time and keep your creative juices flowing."
Long hours and leftover tensions aren't the only hindrances to a private life. Even more sinister, says Mackoff, is the tendency to take home the task-oriented routines of the workplace: "If you have no time to make love, to be silly and be passionate, if all you did this weekend was put up the screen windows and take out the garbage, you've carried your job routine into your private life."
Mackoff says each of us needs "only a handful" of techniques to become more effective at making the work-to-home transition. Here are three she recommends as "widely effective":
Participate in a closing ceremony. "This takes the form of kissing the office goodbye. For some people, it is a behavior like locking your desk or turning off the lights in your office or saying goodnight to colleagues. It is like playing taps."
When the door closed behind a West Coast accountant, he imagined it, she says, as a 200-pound steel door that couldn't be opened again. "We've got to make it deliberate and really draw the line. These are rituals of closure -- they change the situational frame and say, 'I'm not working now.' It really makes a difference."
Revive your sense of humor. "Usually by the end of the day, the sense of humor is nowhere in sight. One of the quickest ways of gaining distance from a frustrating day at work is to reappraise the day with a humorous eye. Borrow comic perspective to look at your day. How would this day look through the eyes of David Letterman, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby?"
Turn your thoughts toward someone you care about, someone outside of your office framework. Picture them safe. Try and imagine and visualize what that person's day may have been like. "For most people, when you begin to think of someone that you love, you start to reconnect with that part of your life. And you reconnect with the warm, the vulnerable, the sexy side of your life that doesn't come out with your job.
"We're living in career-conscious times. But all of these companies that had encouraged a working-'round-the-clock attitude are starting to recognize that people can't maintain alertness, stamina and creativity on the job without that self-renewal that comes from having a rich life after work."
On the Job Gearing up for the job search? Northern Virginia Community College offers these Career and Life Planning workshops this month to help you identify career options and conduct a skillful job search:
"Your Unique Self," tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.; "Job Market Investigation," April 15 at 7:30 p.m. and April 17 at 12:30 p.m.; and "Job Campaign Strategies," April 22 at 7:30 and April 24 at 12:30 p.m. Alexandria campus. No registration. No fee. (703) 845-6301.
The Influence Industry If policy and persuasion is your bailiwick, The Washington Representative Program at GWU schedules two lobbying courses starting this month: "Lobbying the Executive Branch and Regulatory Agencies," April 16 for 12 Wednesdays, 7 to 10 p.m., $395; and "Grassroots Lobbying," starting April 21 for four Mondays, 7 to 10 p.m., $135. (202) 676-7216.
Professional Planning More help in plotting your career moves: Mount Vernon College's Department of Adult Education is sponsoring two free seminars -- "Resume Writing," April 23, noon to 1 p.m., and "Job Interviewing," May 14, noon to 1 p.m. (202) 331-3539.