The Importance of Having a Shutdown Ritual

If you have a 9 to 5 job, you may have trouble preventing your professional life from interfering with your personal life. Considering the omnipresence of technology in our lives nowadays, it can feel like we’re always on the clock, especially if you’re a student or a knowledge worker (lawyer, accountant, teacher, executive etc.) of some sort. That’s why you need a shutdown ritual.
shutdown ritual

Even if your work mostly involves manual labor, with a clear cut-off time, it probably still occupies your mind after your shift is official over. Whether it’d be because you’re thinking about the things you have to do the next day or about co-worker interactions, work has a tendency to weigh heavy on the mind.

I’ve recently been exposed to the idea of shutting down at the end of the work day, to be more fully engaged in our personal life and responsibilities once we live the office. I’ve implemented it and it has had a great impact.

What’s a shutting down ritual

I first came into contact with the idea in Professor Cal Newport’s excellent book, Deep Work. Deep Work essentially champions the idea that any important, meaningful activity, professional, creative or otherwise, should be performed during periods of distraction-free concentration. In the future, I’ll write more about some key concepts of the book and of Professor Newport’s ideas, particularly scheduling and time-blocking.

But back to the topic at hand, in one chapter of the book, Professor Newport describes the importance and benefits of having a shutdown ritual to ensure that when your work day ends, it really ends:

Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the work-day to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or projects has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed 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 when the time is right. […] When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates complete (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”).

As you can see, the concept revolves around performing a work brain dump at the end of day and making sure that any lingering tasks or to-do is planned for or scheduled at a specific time in the future.

How I do it and how you can too

I started implementing a shutdown ritual to the end of my current day job (I’m a lawyer) about two months ago, and it’s been great. The most visible impact it has had on me is that I rarely feel the need to recheck my work emails late at night, because I know that anything that needs to be taken care of is planned or scheduled and will be dealt with at some already decided point in time.

The way I do it is simple: 15 minutes before leaving work, I’ll stop working and go over my to-do list for the day and calendar for the week/month. Anything that’s left on my to-do list for the day or that was added to it during the workday is scheduled in a time slot for the next day(s) or simply discarded if it’s not important. I will then complete a quick and concise to-do list for the next day, which I will usually review and adjust the next morning as part of my morning ritual (more on that in other article). To complete my shutdown ritual, as I walk away from my office, I’ll say my own personal cheesy shutdown sentence “Shut you down.” (I say this as if I was signing the hook of an old school rap song from The Alchemist).

And that’s it.

I strongly recommend you try it too at the end of your school or work day:

  • Review the remaining tasks and upcoming tasks you have to do;
  • Discard the ones that have become unnecessary;
  • Schedule the ones that need to be taken care for specific times in the next day(s);
  • Write down a quick version of tomorrow’s to-do list in your notebook (I use this one, I like to use a notebook since I’ll review it in the morning at home before heading to work);
  • Say a set (cheesy) phrase that marks the clear ending of your working day.

Do you have a shutdown ritual? What else do you do to strictly end your school or work day? Let me know in the comments.

You should read Professor Newport’s Deep Work.

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