For all its benefits, working remote— as most of our Mediacurrent team does— still has its challenges.
The one that people ask me about the most is, “how do you keep any kind of work / life balance when your work and home are inseparable?” For me, the answer to this has been what I call my “shutdown ritual.” It’s basically just how I try to end my workday every day, but I’ve found putting some thought into a routine has helped a lot to make my evenings more relaxing and my mornings more productive.
In this post, I’m going to cover:
- what a shutdown ritual is
- the benefits of having a shutdown ritual
- my specific shutdown ritual
So first, what is a shutdown ritual?
A shutdown ritual is a set routine of actions that you perform at the end of each work day to finalize your day and signify that your work day is done.
I got this concept from an excellent book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.
His core argument in the book is that the most valuable skill in our economy is deep focused work and that is becoming increasingly rare. If you want to set yourself apart, cultivating a deep work ethic is the way to go. He outlines several rules and guidelines you can follow to start cultivating this habit.
One of the tools he recommends is the shutdown ritual.
The bare outline of the shutdown routine that he outlines in Deep Work is:
- update all todo lists
- read over the todo lists in their entirety (reprioritizing items as necessary)
- review the calendar for the next two weeks, make sure any todos required for events are on the todo list
- write down a plan for the next day
- close everything on your computer
- say a magic phrase, like “Shutdown complete” or “I’m outta here”
Newport also discusses the shutdown ritual briefly on his blog: Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual.
One of Newport’s biggest criticisms of modern workers is that we’re always on, and because of this, our attention and energy is too dispersed. We can get notifications or just compulsively check Slack or email, even outside of work hours. But deep work requires disciplined attention and energy. If you want to do deep work during the day, you need to make sure you are not constantly doing shallow work (even off the clock).
One of the main benefits of the shutdown ritual is having a well-defined end of the workday. Once the shutdown ritual is done, work is done. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t check email. Don’t look at Slack. If you want to be your most productive self, you need to take a complete break until the next work day.
Now it’s time to do all the relaxing evening things like feeding your kids and washing the dishes.
When I tell people I work from home, a majority of them say something like, “You must feel like you’re working all the time” or “How do you separate your work life from home life?” and I have certainly found it to be a bigger challenge to turn off at the end of the day since I don’t really leave “the office.” The shutdown ritual helps define the end of the workday and the beginning of being fully present at home.
It has helped me be more productive during the day and helped me have more focused attention with the family after work.
The important part about the steps in the shutdown routine is giving you confidence that everything you needed to do is done.
If you’re like me, you might be washing the dishes and still be debugging code in your head. Or you might suddenly remember an important email you were supposed to respond to and didn’t. Or you might start thinking about a meeting on your schedule tomorrow that you’re anxious about.
But the steps of your shutdown ritual should help you capture all these thoughts before you end your workday. You want to capture them and write them down somewhere, so they aren’t floating around in your brain all night.
Sometimes, you might be in the middle of your shutdown ritual and remember something that can’t wait until tomorrow. That’s fine, go ahead and do it and then start your shutdown ritual over.
Because once your shutdown ritual is over, and a work worry comes into your head, you want to be confident to say to yourself:
I went through the shutdown ritual. I know that everything important has already been accounted for. Therefore, there is no need to worry.
And move on with your night.
The last benefit I’ll mention is that having a shutdown ritual at the end of the day can be a helpful anchor for other habits.
If you have a well-established habit like a shutdown routine, you can leverage it to help establish other habits. James Clear calls this Habit stacking. The idea is that by pairing a new habit with one that already exists, you make it more likely to stick to a new habit.
Some examples of habit stacking with the shutdown ritual:
- after my shutdown ritual, I will take 5 deep breaths and smile
- after my shutdown ritual, I will put on my workout clothes and go to the gym
- after my shutdown ritual, I will call a friend
A shutdown ritual can help you end your workday productively and launch a new habit or hobby to make the rest of your life even better as well!
Here’s what my shutdown ritual looks like. At 5:15pm everyday, I get a friendly message from slackbot to start my shutdown ritual.
You can set a reminder in Slack like this:
/remind me to Time to start your shutdown ritual! - reconcile timesheet - check email for anything requiring urgent response - add new / outstanding tasks to todo list - check JIRA - skim task lists - check calendar for tomorrow - make a rough plan for the next day Shut down complete every weekday at 5:15pm
For me, this is actually about 45 minutes before the end of my workday. I used to have the reminder for 15 minutes before I signed off, but I could never get to a stopping point and do the shutdown in 15 minutes. 45 minutes gives me enough time to start looking for an exit in my current work and to go through the routine.
Here is what is on my shutdown ritual list:
- reconcile timesheet
- check email for anything requiring urgent response
- check JIRA
- add new / outstanding tasks to todo list
- skim task lists
- check calendar for tomorrow
- make a rough plan for the next day
- Reconcile Timesheets
I take a look at my time tracking software and make sure all my time is accounted for.
I go through my email inbox, responding to anything that is really urgent, and adding tasks to Todoist for anything that is not. My goal is to delete as many as possible.
I open up JIRA to see what tasks are assigned to me, and add them to Todoist, if they aren’t already there. I sometimes remember things I said I was going to do but didn’t (like update a ticket or assign to someone else) so if I can quickly do that I will.
This gives me a broad view of what’s going on. Sometimes I notice a glaring error or remember something that completely slipped my mind, so I add that here. I also sometimes reorder things based on how priorities changed throughout the day.
Next, I check my calendar for tomorrow. Do I have any meetings tomorrow that I have a deliverable for? Did I complete the deliverable? Any conflicts?
The last item on my list is making a rough plan for the next day. This really sets me up for success in the morning, and helps prevent a slow, groggy start to the work day. Sometimes I make my plan in Todoist just by setting due dates for todos for tomorrow and putting them in the order I want. Other times I have a simple text file where I make a list. It kind of depends on what projects I’m on and the kind of work I’m doing from week to week.
I close all applications on my computer. I put the computer to sleep or shut it down. Sometimes I say “shutdown complete”
Sometimes here I tidy up my desk.
I start singing “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood” and change into my house sweater and house shoes.
The work day is done. I’ll be back tomorrow.
And that’s how I end my days productively with the shutdown ritual.