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Note: This article is part of the #BoostingProductivity series, which aims to provide best practices and actionable insights for professionals looking to become better at what they do.
In 2012, cartoonist Tim Kreider fled town.
Alarmed by his endless to-do list, he decided to escape the “busy trap” by retreating to an undisclosed location, with no TV or email access (checking his inbox required a drive to the local library). In a New York Times article, he explained why: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body…it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
While it might sound counter-intuitive, idleness is essential for deep work pursuits – cognitively demanding tasks that require uninterrupted focus. You have a limited amount of mental energy to dedicate each day to the tasks and projects that advance your goals. When you consistently engage in deep work and then fail to rest and recharge, you soon find yourself exhausted and unable to perform at your best.
Unfortunately, in a world where “busyness” has become a badge of honor, it’s getting increasingly difficult to make time for idleness and rest. Confronted with this epidemic, Tim Kreider decided to escape the city. But he recognized that his solution might seem extreme and unpractical, noting that “An ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle.”
Are you looking for ways to inject idleness into your day, but can’t afford to make a grand gesture like Kreider? Computer scientist and author Cal Newport provides a reasonable alternative: create a shutdown ritual.
A shutdown ritual allows you to completely put aside all work-related thoughts, from the moment you leave the office until the next day. This strategy is based on the Zeigarnik effect, a phenomenon first uncovered by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927.
Zeigarnik was dining in a restaurant in Berlin when she noticed that waiters were more likely to remember unfinished tabs than fulfilled ones. Her subsequent experimental studies revealed that our brain is wired to focus on incomplete tasks, which dominate our attention until they are done. Simply put, if you leave the office at 6 pm, but still have unfinished work and unanswered emails, they will keep battling for your attention (and most likely win). With a shutdown ritual, you have a clear overview of when and how you will solve these tasks. This signals to your brain that it’s ok to disconnect. From then on, you are free to fully dedicate yourself to your personal projects and recharge your batteries.
In his book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Newport outlines the four steps of a shutdown ritual.
Most of us can’t resist the urge to check email well into the evening. Unfortunately, this prevents us from fully disconnecting from work. Avoid this by checking your inbox before leaving the office. Write down any tasks that emerge and move emails in the appropriate folders. Most importantly, make sure there’s nothing that requires an urgent response before the day ends.
New tasks and commitments overwhelm us throughout the day. If they haven’t been addressed by the end of the day, add them to your to-do list, along with those that emerged from your inbox. Check completed items off your list, then review remaining tasks and adjust your plan for the week accordingly. Write your to-do list for the next day, including deep work sessions and time slots for admin work. Having a plan already in place helps your mind disconnect for the evening. Moreover, it allows you to dive straight into work mode the following morning.
By reviewing your to-do list and weekly plan, you can also track progress on your most important goals. Use Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method or simply keep a scorecard with your daily accomplishments. Go a step further and celebrate each milestone: treat yourself to a nice dinner with your partner or read for an extra 15 minutes in the evening. Regardless of how you choose to reward yourself, make sure you do, since it will boost your motivation and self-efficacy.
A completion phrase sends a signal to your brain that it is now safe to fully disconnect from work. For example, at the end of his ritual, Newport says “Schedule shutdown, complete!”. Beyond this point, he doesn’t allow himself to dwell on work-related thoughts. The reason? By saying this phrase, he acknowledges that he has gone through all the steps above. He has made sure that everything is or will be taken care of, so there is no need to worry. He is now free to rest and seek idleness.
First, consider your shutdown ritual an algorithm – a sequence of steps that you perform every day. This gives your brain a sense of order and consistency that will eventually evolve into a habit. As such, when you’ll hear “Shutdown complete” your brain will automatically stop all work-related thinking.
Second, commit to not allowing any work-related worries to creep in afterwards. We’ve all been there before: one email is enough to ruin our evening with a request that can’t even be solved until the next day. For your ritual to be effective, you need to respect it and allow no intrusions into your downtime. Take Arianna Huffington’s example: the co-founder of Huffington Post is fully committed to her daily email detox. That means no emails before bed or while she’s with her children and no emails first thing in the morning.
Decades of scientific research prove that our ability to engage in deep work pursuits relies on regularly recharging our batteries. Although it adds 15-20 minutes to your workday, a shutdown ritual is an invaluable asset on your way to increased productivity. Enjoy the benefits of uninterrupted focus without fleeing town as Tim Kreider did.
In the words of Professor Newport: “When you work hard, work hard. When you’re done, be done.”
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