As work increasingly moves into homes and personal devices, the boundaries separating our “professional” and “personal” lives are becoming increasingly indistinct. But we desperately need those boundaries – to support our wellbeing, end unpaid digital labor and deconstruct our culture of constant availability.
While there are a ton of strategies out there for doing this, adding a consistent structure at the end of your workday has to be one of the most effective. Here’s why everyone should have a workday shutdown ritual – and how to create one that sticks.
Work “shutdown rituals” or “shutdown routines” are simply a small set of tasks that you perform at the end of your workday. Requiring around 5 to 10 minutes, they are a cascade of actions that help you take stock of your day and prepare for the next – ultimately, so you can completely suspend all work thoughts for the rest of the day.
This can involve anything from managing to-do lists and journaling, to completing small, self-contained tasks or performing a performative physical activity to signal the end of your work day. The idea is to get all work worries and unresolved tasks out of your head, creating a secure system that reassures you they will get their due attention in the future.
The idea has been floating around for a while now, but has been brought back into sharp focus as millions of employees moved work into their homes for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Georgetown professor Cal Newport coined the phrase “shutdown ritual” over a decade ago, but popular productivity techniques – like Ivy Lee Method – draw on the same idea: knowing when you have achieved enough and drawing a line under your workday.
At their simplest, shutdown routines help you comfortably pause your work and set up to hit “play” the following day. They help you process where you’ve got to, zooming out so you can appreciate the macro picture of your work. According to Cal Newport, a good shutdown ritual achieves this by:
Ensuring that “every incomplete task, goal or project has been reviewed”.
Confirming that “either 1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or 2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited at the right time”.
It’s up to you as to how you achieve that, and you’ll probably want to experiment with a few different approaches. There is no single “correct” routine out there; a good shutdown ritual will reflect your personal work organization system, role, habits and work anxieties. It shouldn’t be too rigid or intense, and it shouldn’t take too long either. Here are just a few pointers you might want to try out when developing yours.
This step is just about putting all unfinished or new business in one neat backlog – like Notes or Google Doc. First list all the tasks you didn’t manage to complete into a task backlog. Then quickly comb through the day’s emails, chat threads (like Slack or Twist), tool notifications and tagged comments to add any new requests or questions. To help your future self out, add links to any related docs or bullet points to note next actions, blockers or important context.
This step creates a plan to stop you worrying about all that unfinished business. Adjust your weekly plan based on your updated priorities, and create tomorrow’s to-do list. Make sure you check your calendar too, so you aren’t surprised by any early-morning meetings. This removes friction and dithering the following morning, so you can immediately pick up where you left off. It also helps mute the Zeigarnik effect – where our brains fixate on a problem until it is solved.
A busy digital space creates “mental clutter” making it harder to focus. It’s overwhelming to start your day confronted by a ton of documents and tabs; it also leaves you open to context switching and distraction, or remind you of a task you’re not yet ready to pick up. Take a minute to tidy your digital workspace, only leaving open the tabs and tools relevant for the next day’s work.
The end of the day is perfect for knocking out a few quick, self-contained tasks or tying up loose threads. It can give you a final mental boost, leaving your workspace tidier and lighter than you found it. Just make sure they really are self-contained (you don’t want to get sucked into any new problem solving).
While you’re pulling all these tasks together, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve actually achieved. Consider what went well and anything you want to improve. This can be as straightforward as taking a look at a timeline of your work day timeline, or as indulgent as keeping a work diary (although the latter will seriously increase the length of your shutdown ritual).
Think about one or two things you want to do with your evening. They don’t have to be overly detailed or exact; they should just give you a general idea of how you want to invest the reset of your day. This acts as a sort of “start-up ritual” for your personal time, helping to shift your thinking from your work to you.
Shutdown actions can help make the invisible borders between work and personal time more distinct, especially when you’re working from home. This could be practically anything: scheduling a workout immediately for the end of your work day, leaving your office to perform a “mock commute” walk around the block, packing away your work gear and placing your laptop in a special “stowage” spot, bashing out a chore, or simply relocating to another room. Cal Newport makes his action verbal – speaking aloud a special “termination statement” to end his day!