Guy Winch: How Can We Maintain Healthy Boundaries Between Our Work And Personal Time? Many of us are feeling weary and exhausted all the time. Psychologist Guy Winch shares ways we can both prevent and recover from the all-too-common experience of burnout.

Guy Winch: How Can We Maintain Healthy Boundaries Between Our Work And Personal Time?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, revitalize - how we restore what is broken, dilapidated or exhausted. And we'll start with our own psyches.

GUY WINCH: When it all feels like another chore, it's because you're burnt out. You're not engaged. You're not excited. You just feel angry and resentful because you just feel drained.

ZOMORODI: This is Guy Winch.

WINCH: I'm a psychologist and author and speaker. And I write books, and I have a private practice.

ZOMORODI: Early on in his career, Guy had an incident that helped him see that the way he was working was totally draining him.

WINCH: It was my first year of my practice. And when you're starting a practice, you work really hard to fill it. And you kind of do whatever you need to do. And in doing so, I really lost sight of how much I was doing and how troubled I was by - am I doing enough? Am I doing a good enough job with my patients? And I didn't realize that I was getting really burnt out because even though I closed the door at the end of the evening to my office, that does not mean I closed the door in my mind.

And so what happened was it was a - it was the one-year anniversary of my opening my practice, which is supposed to be celebratory. It was July. I was walking home. It was New York City. It was really, really hot that day. And I got into the elevator in my building with a neighbor who was a physician in an ER.


WINCH: And the elevator rose a couple of floors, then shuddered and stopped. And then my neighbor, who deals with emergencies all day, literally started poking at all the buttons going, like, oh, my God, this is my nightmare; this is my nightmare. And literally was having a panic attack. And I, who am usually a quite compassionate person, found myself rolling my eyes and saying, and this is my nightmare.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

WINCH: And he looked at me. He was so...

ZOMORODI: Oh, did you say it aloud, not just in your head?

WINCH: I kind of mumbled it. And I...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

WINCH: You know, like - and he just turned, and I was - I just felt so, so bad. It was horrifically insulting and unkind. And I knew what to say to calm him down. I could have done the thing I should have done. And that's what made me think like, wow, what happened? And I was - I realized I had nothing left. I was so depleted. And that's what made me realize, wow, I'm really burnt out. I'm a year in, and I'm burnt out. That's a problem.


ZOMORODI: That feeling of burnout, it's become really familiar.

JAMES DALY: It's a sense of being stuck, I guess, as if it will be like this (laughter) for the end of time.

ZOMORODI: Many of you have told us you're feeling it, too.

KANG HUH: I find myself, you know, becoming very high strung...


HUH: ...And irritable at worst.

LAKSHMI SARAH: I mean, I'm teaching to little, like, square boxes. Like, I don't even know if people are actually behind those boxes.

HUH: It's a feeling of, I can't.

SOUCEK: My brain is full. Like, I'm like, how did I get here?

ZOMORODI: It really can feel like hope is hard to come by. So how do we start again, see things anew? Well, today on the show, we're exploring ideas about revitalization, from rejuvenating our exhausted minds to abandoned buildings, broken-down bodies and even sluggish economies. It won't be easy, but maybe we can bring what is dormant back to life.

For psychologist Guy Winch, that moment in the elevator made him doubt everything. Here he is on the TED stage.


WINCH: For a few terrible weeks, I questioned whether I'd made a mistake. What if I had chosen the wrong profession? What if I had spent my entire life pursuing the wrong career? But then I realized, no, I still loved psychology. The problem wasn't the work I did in my office; it was the hours I spent ruminating about work when I was home. That's the interesting thing about work stress - we don't really experience much of it at work. We're too busy. We experience it outside of work - when we're commuting, when we're home, when we're trying to rejuvenate. It is important to recover in our spare time to destress and do things we enjoy. And the biggest obstruction we face in that regard is ruminating.


WINCH: And the problem with rumination, unlike healthy forms of self-reflection, is that it actually activates a stress response because the difference between emotional distress and physical distress is that if I ask you to think back on a time your tooth hurt or you broke your leg, one thing I can promise - your leg won't hurt in the recollection, neither will your tooth. But if you think back to something that really distressed you - either irritated, annoyed, upset, hurt your feelings - and you really get into that, your feelings will be hurt. You're going to activate that wound. You're going to feel distressed and upset again.

So when you ruminate, you are swirling that up over and over and over. And you're not getting anything out of it 'cause you're not learning anything new. You're just in this emotional hamster wheel going round and round.

ZOMORODI: So you gave your talk before the pandemic. But how much do you think that rumination has actually gotten worse, in that we don't have breaks anymore. There's like - like, I go from one Zoom session to another. I don't have my subway ride anymore to kind of, like, sit and think about what's happened, process it and move forward. Do you think that, in some ways, that might be exacerbating rumination for some people?

WINCH: Absolutely. You gave a great example. I don't have my subway ride to process what happened. And the idea there is that you do that on the subway ride home. It's a limited amount of time. And then I'm assuming you get off the subway, and then you shift your mindset to, I'm coming home and the kids and the family and all of that. And so there was an automatic, OK, once I get home, it's time to start the evening, time to pivot to my personal life. But without that delineation, that becomes much harder to do. And we don't have the intentionality, most of us, to do it, so we often forget to do it.

But you don't really have the option now to not be mindful about that separation. You really have to pay attention to having this break, a psychological break, artificial break, having some delineation. It's the engagement in the things that bring us pleasure and emotional nourishment, and that means relationships, and that means passions, and that means socializing. And that - and to do those things well, you have to be present and have your mind present.


WINCH: Now, habit change is hard. It took real diligence to catch myself ruminating each time and real consistency to make the new habits stick. But eventually, they did. I won my war against ruminating, and I'm here to tell you how you can win yours. To convert a ruminative thought into a productive one, you have to pose it as a problem to be solved. The problem-solving version of, I have so much work to do, is a scheduling question. Like, where in my schedule can I fit the tasks that are troubling me? Or, what can I move in my schedule to make room for this more urgent thing?

All those are problems that can be solved. I have so much work to do is not. Ground zero for creating a healthy work-life balance is not in the real world. It's in our head. It's with ruminating. If you want to reduce your stress and improve your quality of life, you don't necessarily have to change your hours or your job. You just have to change how you think.

ZOMORODI: All right, so take me - let's do an ideal sort of day. If I was your client, and I was like, listen; I just can't switch off at the end of the day; I'm having trouble sleeping; I'm exhausted; what should I do?

WINCH: So a couple of things - first of all - and I can tell you what I do. First of all, I do have guardrails I have defined for myself. And I think people should to the extent that they are able to with the expectations of their work and their employers, but people should define when the day ends. You have to be strict about really staying with, at the end of the day is the end of the day.

Now, let's say - people say to me, well, I have to check emails. I'm like, great, but if you're finishing at 6 or at 7, then designate. OK, 9:15, I'll spend 15 minutes checking emails, and that will be it. So I'll give myself the 15 minutes, but the people around me will know it so that we can plan accordingly. And if we want to watch a movie, then maybe it'll be 10, but I'll let them know. And that means that I am not dealing with it in between. Those guardrails are important.

I also think it's a very - it's very important to ritualize the transition from the end of the workday to your start of your home life. And for the many people, that is, I'm still in the same place on the couch, so not a lot has changed. But what can change and what I suggest you change are, for example, your clothes because we tend to - our clothes can have a big impact on how we feel. You know, there are studies that show that you put a lab coat on someone, they become more - you know, their attention to detail gets better. So, you know, change clothes. Have the clothes that are your house clothes versus your work clothes. Change the lighting. Put on music.

Have a way to really change the atmosphere, especially if you're working from home and you don't have those opportunities. There's one person I work with who at the start of the pandemic left their - you know, finished work at 6 every day, went outside, got in the car, drove around the block, came in and said...

ZOMORODI: Oh, come on.

WINCH: No, no, no, seriously. For them, it was really symbolic. It just - and then they announced that they were home. And their young kids looked up like, yeah, you just left. But for them, it was super useful because it was like, this is what I'm used to doing. This is what - when I say I'm home, I - they get excited about coming home even if they've I've been home. It's like - it's a mental exercise they do. But it was useful for them.

ZOMORODI: I will say, though, I mean, I think we need to acknowledge that it's not always possible for everyone, especially people who have had very difficult circumstances during the pandemic - essential workers, parents struggling to also take care of their kids and work.

WINCH: Right.

ZOMORODI: And it does - you know, there just aren't enough hours in the day for a lot of us. How do we find time to rest and revitalize?

WINCH: So start by really asking yourself, you know, if you could snap your fingers and freeze the world right now and freeze everyone around you and steal hours out of the day, what would you really like to do? You know, like, what's the thing that will feel revitalizing to you? What's the thing that will make you feel like you?

It's much easier once you've identified that thing that you're missing or that you would love to have to then go to the powers that be in your home or whoever that would be or your partner or even yourself, if you're a single parent or whatever it is, and say, like, I need an hour or two a week to do this; where can I find it? Once you know what it's for, it's a little bit easier to zhuzh things aside.

I know a lot of couples that really tag team. And they take their kids out for long walks just to give the other person some quiet time or some privacy time. You know, there's - there are ways to go about these things. And it will be effortful at the beginning. But the goal is to find the things that really do rejuvenate you, that really do feel different and really do make you feel like, oh, wow, that felt like a break.

ZOMORODI: That's psychologist Guy Winch. He's the host of the podcast "Dear Therapists." And you can hear all his talks at Today on the show - revitalize. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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