After a long, stressful day at the office, the first thing on your mind might be grabbing happy hour with friends or blissfully vegging out in front of the tube.
And the last thing you probably want to think about are ways to optimize your evening so you can perform better at work the next day.
But what you do after work can have a sizable effect on your productivity, mental acuity, and general performance when you get back at it in the morning. A plethora of research and expert opinions support the notion that being more intentional about your evening routine and rituals can help you be more successful at work—and potentially change the course of your career.
Here are some after-work practices to consider adopting so you can shine in front of your colleagues and boss, and feel good about yourself to boot.
Learn to master a new skill: The temptation to binge watch Game of Thrones or Stranger Things after a hard day’s work is real. But a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that employees who went home and engaged in activities that gave them a sense of mastery — like learning a language, practicing a sport, or volunteering—reported being more motivated, inspired, and capable at work the next morning. They felt more confident to take charge in their jobs.
Meanwhile, a study of 183 full-time tech workers in China found that employees who distanced themselves from their jobs and tried to relax in the evening didn’t experience the same benefits.
“While at times we all need to be able to stare blankly at the television or engage in other mindless activities, the key is to recharge through things that bring us joy and mastery or that activate other parts of our brain,” says Karen Tringle, a Nashville-based clinical psychologist who specializes in personal growth and performance enhancement. “This could be through physical exercise, calling an old friend, learning how to cook a new recipe, getting involved in a mentoring or volunteer program, or playing a game with our kids.”
Cut down your number of daily decisions: A solid body of research suggests that our ability to make good decisions is a limited resource; it tends to deteriorate as the day goes by. This is called decision fatigue. So how do you prepare yourself to make better decisions at work the night before?
“Eat a boring breakfast” and limit your apparel choices, says Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of "Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours." Every evening, Pozen himself sets out his usual bowl of Cheerios (pretty boring, right?) and the clothes he’ll wear for the day.
“Most professionals spend a huge amount of time each day making decisions, so you ought not to spend a lot of time deciding what to eat for breakfast,” Pozen says. “That time and energy is better spent devoted to decisions at work that are significant.”
The same could be said about your choice in dress. Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs have all famously stuck to a very predictable dress code to limit their decision making in the matter of fashion.
While it’s perhaps more challenging for women to adopt this habit, it’s still possible. Renata Briggman, a professional who worked in a real estate office in Arlington, VA, wore black slacks, black shoes, a gray blazer and a white shirt—every day for more than a year. In an interview with Washingtonian magazine, she said “nobody noticed” that she wore the same outfit every day and she received an unusual number of compliments on her wardrobe. It also saved her a lot of time and made her busy mornings less hectic. So even if you’re not wearing the exact same outfit every day, having a handful of go-to outfits can be a great time saver.
Pozen suggests looking out for other aspects of your life that you can “routinize” such as packing your lunch the night before, prepping your coffeemaker, and setting aside your keys and laptop. The idea is to start your morning with confidence and clarity rather being frazzled and rushed, and to limit decision fatigue as the day goes on.
Go over your notes just before bed: There’s plenty of research that shows getting a full night’s rest is critical to your cognitive performance, which obviously affects how well you work the next day. But intriguing research by Notre Dame psychologist Jessica Payne suggests that nodding off to sleep just after you learn new material is most beneficial to recall. So, if you have an important presentation, speech, or assignment for work the next day, you might want to review your notes just before hitting the sack and let the information simmer while you sleep.
“Since we found that sleeping soon after learning benefited both types of memory, this means that it would be a good thing to rehearse any information you need to remember just prior to going to bed. In some sense, you may be ‘telling’ the sleeping brain what to consolidate,” Payne said in the Notre Dame news release.
Get out and play: Of course, you should be allowed to have some fun after work, too. It can’t be all work, all the time. In fact, there’s research that suggests adults get as many benefits out of play as children do, says Melissa Smith, an MBA-trained psychologist who works as an executive coach.
She credits playful activities in adults as a gateway to creativity and an excellent way to combat the stress of work. Smith suggests playing a sport, joining a recreational league, goofing around with children, or getting active with your pets.
“Though seemingly purposeless, there is a lot of purpose in play,” Smith says, citing the research of Stuart Brown, MD, a clinical researcher and psychiatrist who wrote, "Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul." Play "helps us recover, gives us fresh eyes to our problems, helps us to be more productive, facilitates problem-solving, and increases social skills. Adults who regularly play are happier, more mindful, more innovative, more purpose-driven, and better able to cope with stressful work environments.”
“With play, there is a freedom from time, diminished consciousness of self, improvisational potential, and a continuation of desire,” Smith says. “In a nutshell, play is fun!”
In each of these practices, the lesson comes down to being more intentional about how you spend your evening after work. Next time you clock out, consider challenging yourself by learning a new skill or joining a competitive game. Think about how to simplify your routine for the next day. And be sure to have some fun and play!
PHAT X. CHIEM