Use shutdown routines to leave the stress at work

You know that feeling that you get when you go on vacation? The sense of relief, a weight off your shoulders, the anticipation of lazy days and no worry about work to bother you during the day? If you're anything like me (or the most of us), you also know the feeling you get after you've been on vacation for three, four days - the sense that it's taking you a lot longer to let go of all that stress so you can really relax and enjoy your time off.

Depending on what you do when you go on vacation, letting go of it all can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week (and some people never truly let go). But as we let go of it more and more every day, we realise just how much stress there was, how badly we needed this vacation and how the vacation is always just a bit too short.

Even when we don't know it, we take stress home from work every day. And it affects us whether we know it or not.

Taking your stress home from work

Feeling stress at work is common. We all feel it, and it's not necessarily a bad thing - the right kind of stress keeps us sharp, focused and productive.

But when that stress begins to eat at us inside, when it starts affecting the way we behave, it's no longer a good thing.  It starts affecting our judgment, makes us short and impatient and worry in the backs of our minds makes us less able to make clear, objective calls about important things.

We shouldn't be taking this stress home. We're doing our families and friends a disservice - and most of all we're doing ourselves harm. The stress takes away our enjoyment of life, and without relief from the stress it slowly builds up, like a toxin in our blood, until it becomes the thing that rules how we behave.

One way to let go of that stress at the end of each day is with a shutdown routine.

What is a shutdown routine?

A shutdown routine is a set of tasks you perform at the end of each day. The tasks help you track what you got done during the day, how far you got on your commitments for the week, prepare for the next day and leave work knowing that you don't have to worry about anything until tomorrow.

Cal Newport, author of books like Deep Work and So good they can't ignore you, calls this a shutdown ritual. His shutdown ritual looks different than my shutdown routine, and your shutdown routine (or ritual) will look different again.

The point is that a shutdown routine puts a close to the day. It wraps things up and gets stuff out of your head so you can let it be until the next day.

My shutdown routine consists of six to eight tasks depending on the day of the week (Friday's have a bigger list because I'm also wrapping up for the week).

Let's take a look at how this works.

How do you use a shutdown routine?

There are two keys to an effective shutdown routine:

  • get everything out of your head; and
  • have a checklist so you don't miss anything.

The first key is to get everything out of your head.

Get it out of your head

Every item that runs around in your head is something you have to keep track of. Your brain will - consciously or subconsciously - be tagging each of those items, sorting them, worry that you're going to forget about them and trying to solve those problems. The result: worry.

Worry is trying to solve problems that are inherently unsolvable.

Our brains are really wonderful organs. Even problems that seem unsolvable will find a solution if we let our subconscious work on it. But to do that, we have to get it out of our heads, into a to-do list, notebook or journal, and forget about it so our subconscious can do the heavy lifting.

A checklist so you don't forget anything in your shutdown routine

The next key is to an effective shutdown routine is to have a checklist of the things that you need to do as part of your shutdown routine.

Don't let your brain worry about what you should do at the end of each day - make a checklist. Not only do you then not have to worry about what you need to do to shut down the day, you can also add things to the checklist when you realise it helps to do something at the end of each day.

You can keep your shutdown routine checklist in a journal, electronically or as a repeating task list in an app like Things - but keep it simple and if it doesn't work adjust it until it does.

My shutdown routine

My end-of-day checklist (my shutdown routine) has the following items on it:

  • review my tasks for the day and transfer them to the next day if necessary;
  • check my upcoming tasks for the rest of the week;
  • check my calendar for the next day or two;
  • update my work schedule for the rest of the week;
  • make sure I have an article outline ready (if I'm scheduled to write the next day); and
  • tidy up my desk and pack everything up so I can start with a clean desk in the morning.

On Fridays, I also plan my next week so I can hit the ground running on Monday and take the weekend off knowing that everything is on a list somewhere.

How does a shutdown routine help?

I've been using shutdown routines (and their morning counterpart, the startup routine), consistently for years, and every time I lapse and don't use the routines my productivity takes a nose dive. But even worse, I become more grumpy, distracted and a worry-wart - my head is always somewhere else and I'm not in the moment when I should be.

A shutdown routine will help you:

  • leave the stress at work so you can enjoy the evening at home;
  • sleep better;
  • banish worry;
  • let you be more present in the moment when you're not at work; and
  • be a ton more productive the next day.

Ironically, being productive during the day requires that you plan the previous day - and end that day knowing you're ready to start the next.

But what if I need to take work home?

Inevitably, there are times when we have to work late or even take work home.

When this happens, your shutdown routine can still help you close off the day as much as possible and put a fence around the stuff you still have to do. It's far from ideal - your brain needs rest just like your body does - but if you can limit your take-home work to getting just one or two things done, you will usually get it done faster.

But keep a check on this. Not giving your body and your brain time out to rest will take a toll in the long run.

I've found that a shutdown routine helped me take less and less work home - to the point where I realised that I can get the work done the next day anyway - and get it done faster and better.

What you can do now

If you don't have a shutdown routine, start with one now and try it out for a week. Your first try at the shutdown routine will not be perfect, and you may not follow it every day. But try it for a week and pay close attention to how you feel when you've done it - and particularly how you feel the next morning.

You'll be glad you did.

Life is not just about work. We work to live and if we're lucky our work is fun as well. But give yourself the break you need to perform better at work, and enjoy the life you have with the loved ones in your life. We should enjoy the journey as much as we look forward to the destination.

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