Busy after work? It could help you in the office the next day

Step it out after a day's work. Photo: Shutterstock
Step it out after a day's work. Photo: Shutterstock

It can be tempting to sit on the couch after a long day at the office, but new research suggests keeping a packed schedule after work will help you function better the next day.

According to a small study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last week, workers who spend their evenings wearing themselves out by playing sport, or doing other structured activities, are more "proactive" when they return to the office.

“Proactivity” means not just reacting to a situation but thinking ahead, working out what needs to happen, and then taking charge to achieve it, explained Professor Sharon Parker from Curtin University's Centre for Transformative Work Design, who co-authored the study.

Examples of proactivity observed in the study included speaking out with new ideas, introducing new and improved ways of doing things, and being “innovative”.

The benefits were not restricted to those who packed their after-work hours with physical activity: increased proactivity was shown in workers who spent their afternoons doing activities like cooking and reading a book.

Professor Parker said the key distinction between these activities and others was that these activities alleviated stress. Workers who went home and spent their time dealing with conflicts between family members, additional work demands at home, doing chores and disciplining children did not experience the same benefit.

Subjective sleep is highly related to mood the next day: if you feel like you got a good sleep, you do feel good the next day.

"These activities have a knock-on effect for the quality of our sleep and how we should feel the next morning when we go to work,” Professor Parker said.

"They also involve you experiencing learning and a sense of competence, which is likely why they boost your ‘can do’ and ‘energised to’ motivation the next day."

Professor Sean Drummond, lead of the sleep and circadian rhythms program at the Monash  Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, said he was unsure if it was right to draw conclusions from the study about how sleep quality can affect proactiveness, as the researchers did not actually measure sleep as part of the study.

"What we do know is that people who are more active and in better shape physically, sleep better," he said of the possibility that playing sport or going to the gym after work might make someone a more proactive worker.

Professor Drummond said it is true that we can feel like we feel like we have a higher quality sleep after a busy day.

"Research would suggest that, subjectively, that's correct: if we wear ourselves out, we feel like we sleep better," he said.

The data on whether we actually do get a better night's rest after a big day is "much less clear". However, if your primary concern is having a good mood – rather than actually functioning better – this perception of a good night's sleep might just be sufficient.

"Subjective sleep is highly related to mood the next day: if you feel like you got a good sleep, you do feel good the next day. So, it would make sense that, if you do wear yourself out at night, you will feel like you had a better sleep, and that's going to make you have a higher – subjective – mood the next day."

Professor Drummond said this phenomenon "would feed into the proactive, productive behaviours the researchers are talking about".

"If you do something cognitive that is relaxing, that will have knock-on, better benefits for your sleep, particularly if it not just pleasant and relaxing, but also distracts you from negative ruminations."

How to sleep for a productive day

If you want to function well at work, the best thing you can do is think back to when you were a child on a school night and set up a "bedtime routine", said Professor Drummond.

"Basically that's a signal to the brain that it's time to settle down and go to sleep. And adults are no different."

In terms of what your routine should look like, make sure it happens at around the same time each night (give or take 15-20 minutes), and involves things which makes you feel calm.

"Do things that are, at the very least relaxing, and preferably also pleasant, in the few hours before bedtime," said Professor Drummond.

"Some people might read, other people might like cooking: it doesn't matter what it is. It just needs to relax you."