Narath Carlile in Articles 5 minutes

The remarkable value of the shutdown ritual

I was struggling to stop working, to not take my work home with me, to not feel constantly ‘on’. Residency and being on call for so many years had not helped. Working in startups, with technology, working from home and the Covid pandemic did not help either.

In exploring productivity and thriving, I had tried out Cal Newport’s Time Blocking Diary and found a lot of it very helpful such as using the time blocks to help create a visual queue for the amount of time available during the day. This paper plan also doubles as an easy way to track changes to that day (almost always required), and as a place to quickly jot down ideas and (potential) tasks, and get them out of my head so that I could just keep flowing.

Something that was quickly mentioned in the book’s introduction to the journal was the shutdown ritual. Cal talked about the power of this in his own life. It was one of those jolting ideas, where somebody shares with you something simple that has worked for them, that is easy to do, that could also really work for you.

And so I tried it, and it has been remarkably effective. It basically gives you your personal time back, your evenings, your time with your family, your time to read before bed, to go for evening walks.  It was quickly adopted by the whole family, including our children. We could easily ask each other if they had “shut down” for the day, and also playfully nag those who weren’t shutting down, encouraging them to do so.

This is what my shutdown ritual currently looks like:

  • blocked off time: 25 minutes blocked off at the end of the day
  • review the day: review and update the day so far (my time blocks and today tasks) - checking off anything I have completed, breaking down further things I’ve learned about, deleting things I no longer have to do
  • move to next: Move every task remaining to my next bucket (this forces me to check the next bucket)
  • tasks for tomorrow: Review my solid goals, and my next tasks to identify what I will work on tomorrow
  • schedule time: Review my calendar tomorrow, schedule time needed for my solid goals. I also make sure I have shutdown scheduled tomorrow, some collaboration/email time in the late morning, and some flex time in the afternoon.
  • last check for important email only: Then I check my VIP email - to see if there is anything urgent that needs to have a quick reply (most often saying I got their message, I will review it in detail and get back to them tomorrow once I’ve had a chance to carefully consider it), and I make a task for this.
  • prep for first thing: I review what I am going to work on first in the morning, and make sure I collect any materials I need for it (usually placing files or needed stuff into a folder for it)
  • complete the ritual: Then I stand up, clear off my desk, bring my hands together and then out to the side (the ritual part), and I’m shutdown!

I don’t practice it perfectly, so I think there is still a lot more value I could get out of this by improving my practice. In particular I need to work on scheduling enough wrapping-up time (where I review my day and week, plan my next day, and tie up any time-sensitive loose ends that might otherwise stress me out overnight). I still all too frequently work and book meetings up until the time I had hoped to shut down. This either makes my shutdown ritual rushed and unsatisfying, or if I still take time to do it properly, makes me late for dinner.

A friend who observed the Jewish sabbath had a wonderful phrase that he would use when leaving work early on Fridays - “celebrating the sabbath is like going to the beach. You will almost always have a good time, but you enjoy it a lot more when you prepare”. The benefits of anticipation in enhancing enjoyment can also play a part in the benefits of the shutdown ritual - prepare well and feel free to anticipate the enjoyment you will have in your free evening.

I’m also experimenting with a ‘welcoming the day’ ritual, as well as a ‘welcoming collaboration’ ritual that could help me to establish a happier, and more focused mindset. I’ll be telling you about those in later posts.

Now, go win back your evenings with your shutdown ritual!