Work Culture

Why detaching from work can actually make your work better


Published on February 17, 2022

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As a digital product designer, Benjamin Strak can spend months working on new features or functionality. Strak works for the digital-first U.K. bank Monzo, and the app features he designs help people budget, save, and invest their hard-earned money. He throws himself into each challenge, combining hypothesis-driven research with intuition and creativity. The hope is that users will love every new idea, prototype, and release. But of course, not every one is a hit.

For those in creative roles, this can be a tough pill to swallow. Creatives often see their work as an expression of themselves—of their creativity, feelings, and ideas. Inevitably, criticism can feel personal, like a direct attack. “We link our behavior, our performance, our productivity, with our self-worth,” says licensed therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks in an interview with PsychCentral. Failure or rejection—even when it’s an integral part of the creative process—can gnaw at our self-worth. 

But for Strak, the experience is different. When users shoot down one of Strak’s solutions or ideas, it doesn’t feel like a body blow. Instead, he rolls with the punches, learning from the failure and using it to inform his next idea, iteration, or project.

Don’t mistake Strak’s humility for disconnection. He’s still passionate about his role, but the key difference is where he pushes that passion. “I try to take my ego out of design decisions,” Strak says. "I'm more emotionally invested in [our users] than in whatever artifact I've created.”

This kind of humility can be incredibly valuable. It’s related to a wider theme of emotional detachment, which different cultures have embraced throughout history. Modern researchers are finding more and more evidence of its benefits—like how it can create the emotional space necessary for innovation, ideation, and creativity. And how it can help you achieve more without driving you to emotional or physical burnout.

“I try to take my ego out of design decisions,” Strak says. "I'm more emotionally invested in [our users] than in whatever artifact I've created.”

“A healthy detachment creates space for a sense of objectivity that makes general productivity better, and in self-reflection helps people explore their own needs,” says Dr. Carly Claney, a psychologist and director of Relational Psych, a Seattle-based group practice specializing in psychological testing and psychodynamic therapy. “It’s beneficial because by maintaining a sense of distance from events one cannot be emotionally harmed by them.”

While detachment can be a helpful tool when it comes to work, it’s more complex than simply not caring. So how can you find the balance between caring too much or too little to achieve the necessary distance between self and work? 

Caring too little, caring too much

Consider the last project you worked on—a report, design, illustration, feature, code component, whatever. If you received any negative feedback from a stakeholder, think about how it made you feel. (If all you received was glowing praise, imagine someone criticized your font choice.) It likely triggered negative feelings like anger, shame, or embarrassment. But detachment can help you process those feelings in a productive and controlled way.

“Detachment is when you are able to recognize, acknowledge, and finally let go of emotions such as anger, hurt, or sadness, without becoming consumed by them,” explains Claney. Unburdened by hurt feelings, people can objectively receive feedback and recognize that more refinement or new solutions may be needed.

That cool-headedness and emotional distance can be a boon for work. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Giessen in Germany compared the problem-solving performance of those in varying emotional states. The research showed that “participants in negative moods performed worse than participants in positive moods, but both groups were outperformed by the neutral-mood reasoners.” Just as Ben Strak could calmly pick through user feedback, so too could the study’s more even-minded participants cooly solve complex problems. 

In another study, Sabine Sonnentag, Professor for Work and Organizational Psychology at University of Mannheim, investigated the connection between psychological detachment and psychological wellbeing. She discovered those with high levels of psychological detachment could withstand demanding jobs and workloads without psychosomatic complaints. On the other hand, those with low levels—in other words, those overly attached to their work—endured emotional exhaustion (indicative of general burnout) and psychosomatic effects like cardiac issues, sleep problems, and bodily agitation.

“Our study provides first longitudinal evidence that psychological detachment actually works as a moderator and suggests that job demands such as time pressure are less harmful when employees mentally disengage from their job during off-job time,” she wrote. “Thus, psychological detachment can be seen as a protective factor in the stressor-strain relation.” That holistic benefit means detachment can also be beneficial beyond work.

Career coach Irene McConnell once endured such an overly intense connection to her job. Her mind was constantly filled with worries about upcoming challenges and tasks. Work concerns crept out of her office and into her home, interrupting her family life and downtime. But through conscious detachment, she created separation and distinction between aspects of her life. “Detaching myself from my job helped me realize that I am not defined by my work and have a life outside of it too,” she says. “I could see the benefits of detachment instantly. My mood was better throughout the day and I worked much faster and improved my work quality as well.”

Although detachment helped create balance in her life, McConnell advises caution. People often mistake detachment from work with not caring about it at all, she says. Detachment doesn’t mean disregard or show indifference. To borrow an idea from Aristotle, the virtue of detachment is the mean point between the two extremes of excess and deficiency.

“Detaching myself from my job helped me realize that I am not defined by my work and have a life outside of it too.”—Irene McConnell

Detachment is a learned skill

Walking the line between excess and deficient detachment is not easy. Veer too far toward the former and your judgment becomes blurred; too far toward the latter and you lose any happiness and reward from good work. Mastering the nuance of detachment requires conscious effort and regular practice.

Whether you want to validate your judgment with an objective perspective or release yourself from an unhealthy connection between work and self, there are a few practices, techniques, and strategies experts advise us to call on.

Focus on the objective of your work. The purpose of creative work is rarely to solely elicit praise. In Strak’s case, for example, his goal was to build features and products that help people achieve their financial goals. Attracting praise along the way was a nice addition, but every user interview, product prototype, and feature iteration came back to his overarching goal. Keep your ultimate objective top of mind. Include it in your project evaluations. When reflecting on your work, ask yourself, “Did my efforts drive progress towards my goal?” not “Was everyone happy with my work?”

Explore what makes you you—beyond your job. There’s a psychological concept called self-complexity. First coined by Patricia Linville, an associate professor of business administration at Duke University, it’s the idea that people contain multitudes of identities. For example, you may balance various social identities (friend, parent, sibling), recreational roles (committee member, squash player), and professional selves (team manager, designer). According to Linville, those with more complex self-representation are more resilient to “the negative effects of stressful life events.” In other words, if you build your entire identity around your job, disruptions to that identity (career change, job loss, and so on), will feel amplified. To create a more complex sense of self, pursue deep, meaningful relationships. Explore passion projects. By all means, keep hold of your work identities because they’re still important and valuable—but complement them with additional parts of your whole identity.

Create strict boundaries. For people who work from home, it’s inevitable their professional lives and personal selves will intertwine. Without separation, work is always with you and it’s difficult to practice detachment. Claney recommends people create strict boundaries around working hours and locations (like cutting off work after 5PM, having unplugged dinners, and avoiding spending relaxation time at your desk). “Sometimes, a simple vacation will allow you to have the physical and mental distance from your work to allow you to come back to it with a fresh perspective,” says Claney.

Practice mindfulness and metacognition (the practice of thinking about thinking). In her book ‘The Objective Leader,’ business founder turned professor Elizabeth R. Thornton shares a handful of probing questions to audit one’s own thinking: “Are there topics about which you’re particularly argumentative or which get under your skin? Are there situations where you routinely overreact?” If everyday work disagreements cause outsized emotion reactions, it’s a strong sign there’s something else going on.

With detachment, there are no easy shortcuts or one-size-fits-all cheat sheets. The reality is, work, self, and detachment are intensely personal concepts. What works for one person may not work for another. To cultivate the skill, experiment with different techniques, reflect on what works best for you, and select the best options for your personal circumstances. Although developing the ability to step back from work and dispassionately evaluate feedback is tough, the potential it unlocks is more than worth the effort.

Getting over your ego

No one wants to fail. In fact, we’re biologically programmed to avoid failure at all costs. But receiving feedback of any kind is still a crucial part of the creative process. Removing—or at least distancing—yourself from the act of creation means you can focus on overarching objectives and shared goals, rather than the bumpy road that leads there.

“My absolute priority is helping a customer solve their problem or achieve their desired outcome and pretty much everything else is subservient to that,” says Strak. “It's more important to get a customer to the right outcome than it is for me to be right all the time.”

It’s this kind of dissolution of ego that shows how useful detachment can be when it comes to both individual work and working with others in mind. With a little bit of distance, criticism might eventually stop feeling like a personal attack and begin to feel like a tool—and a powerful tool, at that.