Skip to content

Reframing to Save Your Sanity

Most of us recognize that all work all the time is killing us. It’s killing our productivity, it’s killing our engagement, and it’s killing our capacity for effective, sustained focus.

Recent research from Lanaj, Gabriel, and Jennings (2023) speaks to these issues for leaders, focusing on the impact of mentally detaching from work when the day is done. Here are the take-home points:

  • Leaders who disconnected from work the night before felt more energized the next morning and identified more strongly with their leadership role.
  • Conversely, leaders who continually thought about work after work were more drained the next morning and less connected to their leadership role.
  • Leaders who disconnected were seen by followers as more effective leaders the next day.

Before you dismiss these points as “obvious” (and putting aside the usual caveats of a single study, etc.), ask yourself this: If the benefits of disconnecting are so obvious, why do so many leaders have trouble disconnecting?

Two top contributors leap to mind:

  1. Many organizations praise and promote based more on perceived (manic?) effort rather than sustained excellence and impact.
  1. Leaders differ in their ability to disconnect.

I won’t pretend to tackle point one here, but I do think the lens of personality can shed light on the individual differences between leaders when it comes to disconnecting.

Consider a personality trait like Drive (how pushed we feel to continually set and achieve goals). Driven individuals undoubtedly struggle with unplugging. After all, their drive likely played a key role in their rise through the leadership ranks to this point. Simply “knowing” that disconnecting from work is beneficial is not enough to initiate meaningful change, in part because the perceived evidence to date is that “all work, all the time” leads to promotions.

For those who are particularly driven, a simple reframing might be helpful. For example, the common framing of disconnecting ends up as “do more work” vs. “don’t do more work”. For cultural, cognitive, and emotional reasons “to not to” is not a compelling motivator. But now consider reframing the choice as “do more work” vs. “go on a walk with [names of loved ones] and let my mind rest to be at my best tomorrow”. Here, you have given yourself an actual choice between concrete options. Moreover, you’ve highlighted how a specific activity today is connected to improved work performance tomorrow.

As a second example, consider those with a perfectionist bent who are also likely to struggle with turning the working mind off. Again, a simple reframing might be enough to initiate a sanity-saving turn to a sustainable focus on quality. Instead of choosing between “continue to refine” vs. “stop refining”, try “continue to refine” vs. “put the work down and refine more tomorrow with a fresh perspective”.

In both these cases, the new framing puts real options in sharp relief and makes the better choice clear. There are undoubtedly technological, cultural, and economic factors underlying our burnout, engagement, and focus problems at work. But at the level of the individual, we still retain meaningful agency. Doing less doesn’t just mean “to not”. It means doing something else that still serves your overarching goals while minimizing friction with your natural preferences and tendencies that personality insights reveal.

Reference: Lanaj, K., Gabriel, A. S., & Jennings, R. E. (2023). The importance of leader recovery for leader identity and behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology.