It’s happened to all of us. Maybe even every day. Your body is home on the couch, or sitting around the family dinner table, or out for drinks with friends, but your mind is left behind at work still swirling over unfinished tasks.

Working people commonly spend their few precious hours away from their jobs unable to fully mentally detach. This inability to stop thinking about work at the end of the day is widely regarded as detrimental to mental health and overall productivity.

And with modern technology blurring the lines between work and leisure time, it’s challenging to ever completely refrain from doing, or thinking about, work during off hours.

That’s especially true when goals are left unmet, according to Brandon Smit, a psychology professor at Ball State University in Indiana. Our brains fixate on things left undone. Many factors may account for inability to stop thinking about work, but one major facet, Smit says, is goal-related stress.

“If you have an important deadline looming on the horizon, for example, your brain will keep nudging you with reminders, which makes it difficult to get a break from work demands,” he said in a release about his study published Thursday in the Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology.

Smit found one effective way to alleviate work-related distractions: Write down a plan.

Yes, that may seem overly simplistic, but Smit found that simply writing a game plan down at the end of each work day helped people leave the job behind. This was particularly true for employees who view their career success as a major facet of their identity.

Smit suggested that before leaving work, employees write down a plan for finishing an incomplete task. He further suggested that the plan be as specific as possible, including when and how tasks would be fulfilled.

When organizing the “when,” Smit expanded in an e-mail that people should avoid “biting off more than we can chew near the end of the workday.” So, to the extent its in your control, don’t start larger tasks near the end of the day when they will be harder to finish.

His research showed that having such a concrete plan in place before leaving work for the day helped people feel more in control and worry less, therefore allowing them to ” ‘turn off’, or at least ‘turn down’,” he wrote.

“This is primarily true for people that already have a difficult time forgetting about work during leisure because their job plays a central role in their life,” he said. “For them, a simple change to their work routine like task planning near the end of the workday would likely make a real difference.”

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