There are days when I'm just so wound up about things at work - someone or something that preoccupied a lot of active think-time - that even by the time I return home I'm still not able to absorb new information until my brain can settle. Sometimes when someone tells me something during this period, it just never makes it into my long-term memory.
I read a phrase in a book recently that I think captures this perfectly. The book is Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey, and this phrase is used to describe what one of the leaders is thinking when he just returns from a battle after a particularly intense day:
"A man needed a few minutes to digest chaos and restore order to his thinking before he plunged into more confusions."Sometimes, I find that this decompression time can take up to an hour after I leave work. And that's from a job that I like working at! (I've worked at some places where my thoughts never settle and the stresses prevent me from sleeping. You know you need to move onto someplace else when that happens.)
I call this a short-term decompression period -- which is based on the events of a particular day.
Sometimes when the stress and activity level is really high and prolonged at work for several weeks, I notice a different kind of conditioned response happen. My head and body become accustomed to a high-level of thinking and action so that when the stress is removed, my body feels almost lost and weightless for up to several days afterwards. I think of this as a long-term decompression period.
Here's an example. Last summer, we had a particularly difficult software release because the deadline was tight, there was a lot of complex functionality to cover and there was clearly insufficient people to help us reach the target. As a result, my colleague and I put in over 200 overtime hours in the course of a few months in order to help make our targets. When the release finally shipped, I found myself wandering around my office space for a few days looking for a fire to put out, a problem to solve, a meeting to go to, or some late-night that I needed to come in for. But there wasn't anything. So I just had this doe-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look about me for a few days until my brain and body could become re-accustomed to a normal workload and workday schedule again.
Sometimes you may not even be aware that your brain is not ready to process new information until the other chaos had been digested. When I come home from work after a particularly hard day, I try to avoid doing anything that will require long-term memory for a short while. My kids are a great distraction for me.. I can get lost in their world for a short time to help me clear my head so that I can process new information and new chaos from my second career - home life. =)