Is work overtaking your life? Get your evenings back and improve your performance with this one simple routine.

Try the Shut Down Sequence.

I used to wear my long hours and busyness as a badge of honor. I told myself it was a sign of my commitment, hard work and indispensability. Under that was a deeper worry I was disorganized and slow. These beliefs create the perfect ground conditions for work creep. Work creep is the insidious habit of working nights and weekends to counteract your anxiety and fear that you aren’t quite measuring up.

Left unchecked, work creep is one-way ticket to burnout.

In my last post, I shared some strategies for eliminating work creep before it takes a toll on your health and your performance. Here I want to zoom in on what, for me, has been the single most effective practice for getting work creep out of my evenings. The Shut Down Sequence.

The shut down sequence is a ritual that allows you to finish your workday in a way that brings closure, reduces stress and improves performance.

Change the way you measure “done”. 

Instead of calling a workday over when you have some arbitrary number of tasks completed or when you can’t keep your eyes open, call “time of done” at a preset time of day. It’s a declaration, kind of like calling “time of death”.  Using time of day rather than ‘tasks finished’ to end your workday is a little old fashioned. It has fallen out of favor with the corporate and entrepreneurial set. We equate a 9 to 5 approach to measuring a day of work with time-clock punching, blue collar work. It’s not what managers do and it’s certainly not what leaders do.

I would argue, however, that for office workers and professionals including managers and leaders, this is an old idea that needs a second look.

Adopting the discipline to end your workday on time and making time for rest and recovery, leads to better health, an improved outlook and improved productivity.

Further, rather than robbing your organization of your commitment, you could be saving it money. According to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, workplace fatigue in the U.S. costs employers $136.4 billion annually in health-related lost productive time, an excess of $101 billion compared with workers without fatigue.

Steps to the Shut Down Sequence

If you don’t have a structured “quitting time” in your organization, set an end-of-day alarm.  This can be the same time every day or you can set it at the start of each day depending on what is going on. The alarm signals time of done and the beginning of your shut down sequence.  

Pro tip 1: I have a snooze button on my watch alarm that goes off in 10 minute increments. Because I sometimes don’t respond to the first alarm, pressing snooze and getting interrupted every 10 minutes reminds me I’m in the work-creep zone and I need to stop.

Pro tip 2: This is not a time for opening up. If you use this time to open up email, check social media, or perform other pseudo productive time sucks, the next time you look up, you’ll discover it’s bedtime. 

Try to make your shut down sequence brief (under 30 minutes.)

Shut down rituals are as individual as morning rituals. Below is an example of one that I use.

Step One: Daily Review: Focus on Done

In his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman suggests replacing your “to do list” with a “done list”. 

Including a done list, whether it is written down or in your head, has two benefits. One, it has you focus on done vs. not done, which will make you feel better. Two, it exposes “the gap.” Most of us grossly over-estimate what is doable in the run of the day. This is a big driver of work creep. When you make a habit of reviewing the day and what you achieved, over time you will get a more realistic idea of what you can reasonably achieve in a day.

Step Two: Daily Reflection – Three Questions

Daily Reflection is what gives you a sense of closure and supports your learning. Writing things down makes it tangible and keeps track of patterns that emerge over time. I use these three questions to guide me.

1. “How did I use the day I was given?”

It’s my assessment of how I feel about how I used the day. It also reminds me that life is short and I can’t be certain of the number of days I will get.

I use the question to reflect on the quality of the day, not simply what I did or didn’t get done. Did I work on the things that are most important to me? How was the quality of my focus, the nature of distractions and the quality of my connections? How did I actually feel throughout the day?

I write two or three bullet points. Enough to give me a sense of perspective. 

Doing this over time can has had a significant positive impact on my choices, particularly what I say yes to. Enough really yucky days in a row and I know it’s time to make some changes.

2. “What am I grateful for today?”

“Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with… better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.” From The Science of Gratitude, a white paper prepared by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Of all the practices I recommend to my clients, a daily gratitude practice delivers the most immediate and profound benefits to their sense of well-being. The key to making this a powerful part of your shut down ritual is to reflect specifically on what you are grateful for today. Allow yourself to feel the gratitude.

This can be a useful practice on particularly bad days. And there are days that I just can’t do it. So, on those days, I don’t force it. Instead, I express gratitude for the full range of experience in my life (positive and negative) and allow myself to feel what I feel.

3. What did I learn or what do I want to remember about today?

I save this question for last. Some days, it is difficult to point to a specific learning, so then I focus on something I’d like to remember. But other days, I surprise myself with the insight that this question delivers.

I’ve learned a lot from reflecting on these questions. I’ve learned about the conditions I actually need to be productive (vs. the conditions I think I need.) I’ve learned about the kind of work I love to do and the kind of work I hate doing. I’ve learned about my own unique rhythm and flow and the gap between what I want to do get done and what I can actually do.  As a result, I am more reasonable about what I commit to. And most of all, I’ve learned that a good day does not always have to be a productive one.

Step Three: Make a plan for tomorrow

There are as many ways to do this as there are productivity coaches to work with you. Some of you may have an allergy to planning, but it doesn’t have to be onerous or particularly detailed. Think of it as an orientation tool or map of your day rather than a long complex list of tasks.

For example, I take a page from peak performance research and organize my day into four rounds. Each round is about 90 minutes of focused work followed by a break. I put a quick two or three word description of what goes into each round and I’m done. It takes about five minutes.

If you have a plan for tomorrow, you are more likely to be able to free yourself mentally from the concerns of the day. Further, it will get you off to a quicker, more focused start in the morning.

Expect some early bumps.

If your job is on the line if you don’t finish this report TODAY, maybe today is not the day to try this. But if you feel your job is always on the line for one reason or the other, this is a pattern you need to break.

If you are stressed and anxious, calling time of done at 5:00 p.m. may, in the short term, add to your stress. In the short-term, your output may go down but not as much as you think. The psychological impact of knowing the workday is coming to an end, keeps you focused. It also supports better decision-making about what you say yes to and what you say no to.

A daily shut down ritual that includes a plan for the next day, sends a clear message to those voices of anxiety in your head that want to keep you chained to your desk. It’s a way for you to tell them, “I’ve got this.” It enables you to let go of the day and turn your attention to the other important things in your life because you know you are ready for tomorrow.

Do you have an end of day ritual? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please share the things that have worked or not worked for you in the comments below.

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Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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