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Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual

June 8th, 2009 · 43 comments

Schedule Shut Down, CompleteSchedule

Here’s what happens, without exception, at the end of my normal work day.

First, I make sure my master task lists are up to date. During the day I tend to collect todos in a text file on my computer desktop because it’s fast and easy. I also have a small spiral notebook that I use to capture things when I’m away from my desk. (I always have this with me!) I transfer everything new from these collection bins into my master task lists.

I then read over these lists in their entirety. If something pops out as being somewhat urgent, I set its due date for the near future. Because I use Google Tasks, this means it will show up on my calendar as well. I do this review every day so that I trust that if I put something on a task list, it won’t be forgotten. Without this trust, the tasks would still percolate around my brain.

Next, I review my calendar for the next two weeks. I confirm what appointments and deadlines are coming up.

Then, I review my plan.txt file where I keep my unstructured plan for the week. I often add a little annotation about what got done that day and how I will revise the weekly plan for the remaining days (if needed).

Finally — and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this — I close down my computer and say the magic phrase: “schedule shutdown, complete.”

Here’s my rule: After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process:

  1. I said the termination phrase.
  2. I wouldn’t have said this phrase if I hadn’t checked over all of my tasks, my calendar, and my weekly plan and decided that everything was captured and I was on top of everything.
  3. Therefore, there is no need to worry.

What I don’t do is think through the specific worry. Thinking through a specific worry can trigger stress. The above thoughts do not trigger stress. They’re also pretty damn convincing, and thus tend to banish the original thought. (After a while, my mind has learned to trust this system, so I rarely have such thoughts arise now.)

I call these actions my work shutdown ritual. I initiated it as a New Years Resolutions this past winter. I didn’t have a lot of work related stress at the time, but I liked the idea of getting the absolute most out of my relaxation time.

I’m happy to report that it has worked better than I imagined. I’ve basically eliminated stressful work-related thoughts from my evenings and weekends. As you might expect, this has really improved my ability to relax and focus on other things.

I’m not sure that my particular ritual is right for everyone. But I urge you to consider the general concept. To form a good ritual you just need three things:

  1. A quick series of steps for getting back on top of what’s going on in your student or working life; something you can do in 5 minutes at the end of each day.
  2. A phrase you say when you complete the ritual.
  3. An agreement with yourself that after you’ve said the magic words, the only acceptable response to a work-related thought is to think through the steps required for you to say the termination phrase.

It’s a simple idea that generates big returns. Consider giving it a try.

43 thoughts on “Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual

  1. UkNoW says:

    You’re stuff is weak, Newport.

  2. Sounds like a good idea, but how do you deal with the helpful ideas that pop up?

    I frequently get my best post ideas while walking around. I get great business ideas at any time—sometimes taking a shower.

    Do I have to abandon those as well? I honestly get my best “work” done when I’m not working.

    My current solution is to jot something down in a notebook I always carry, then completely forget about the idea until I get back to actively working.

  3. VTAMethodman says:

    “schedule shutdown, complete.”

    Freakin Hilarious! You should actually record yourself saying that and replace it with the shutdown sound on your computer.

    One quick question, why do you use a digital version of your weekly to do list “plan.txt”?

    I also don’t care for all those high tech toys to get stuff done but I use a 8.5/11 sheet of paper and do pretty much the same things you do, with definitive action steps and all the information I need to accomplish the task (example: writing call John is no good, you should also write down about what, by when and the number you need to reach him at). But I prefer actual paper so that I can stuff it in my pocket or scribble on it some more.

    For some reason I get a cheap thrill out of damaging my to do list, any psychologists have any insights on that?

  4. UkNoW says:

    I’m just kidding dude. I think that often people go on vacations only to obsess over their problems. You see their eyes staring off dully into a distance thinking about what they have left to do and failing to enjoy the moment.
    This is a very zen approach of work when work and play while play.

    One criticism that I do have is that I feel you overplan. You’re stuck in the ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-reaim-aim-aim phase rather than the ready-aim-fire phase.

    In the words of Teddy Roosevelt – “When making a decision, the best thing you could do is take the best action, the next best thing you could do is take the worst action and the worst thing you could do is take no action.”

  5. Ann says:

    Helpful post, Cal. Thanks!

  6. Study Hacks says:

    Sounds like a good idea, but how do you deal with the helpful ideas that pop up?

    It’s funny, I was just having a conversation about this. I keep a moleskin notebook in my backpack and bring it with me on trips. “Big ideas” go in there. I also have my trusty spiral notebook with me in case a new task pops into my head that I don’t want forgotten.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    One quick question, why do you use a digital version of your weekly to do list “plan.txt”?

    Because a lot of my work is done at a computer and I write slowly with pen and paper.

    One criticism that I do have is that I feel you overplan. You’re stuck in the ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-reaim-aim-aim phase rather than the ready-aim-fire phase.

    I’m not so sure. Do I seem like someone who has a hard time getting things done?

  8. Nate says:

    A Staples-branded “That was easy” button works just as well.

  9. MCG says:

    Cal,

    This is a great post. Very helpful. I’ve added Google Tasks to my iGoogle home page. I love it.

  10. anon says:

    Please, just for us post exam losers, video yourself doing that!

  11. UkNoW says:

    Perhaps it works for you and the explanation could be different. But I feel like the Study Hacks strategy which describes “small steps”and this overplanning breaks this state of flow. Have you ever considered batching?

  12. Eric says:

    Sounds like a good idea, but how do you deal with the helpful ideas that pop up?

    This is exactly what came into my mind after reading the article.

    It’s funny, I was just having a conversation about this. I keep a moleskin notebook in my backpack and bring it with me on trips. “Big ideas” go in there. I also have my trusty spiral notebook with me in case a new task pops into my head that I don’t want forgotten”

    But if you shut down your mind from work-related thought after saying the termination phrase, how is it possible for good ideas to not get filtered out along with worries?

  13. casper de tello says:

    Have you ever considered batching?

    Works well for me: buttering the tray, placing the dough in rows…

    Methinks that there is no over-planning, only pseudo-working.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    Please, just for us post exam losers, video yourself doing that!

    You wish.

    But I feel like the Study Hacks strategy which describes “small steps”and this overplanning breaks this state of flow.

    I hardly think that doing a quick review of your world each night qualifies as “overplanning.” It’s about building trust in your system so you don’t have to keep things in your mind. The system itself can be very flexible, which is why, for example, I use a plan.txt, about the least rigid possible way of planning your week.

  15. casper de tello says:

    I hardly think that doing a quick review…qualifies as “overplanning.”

    For what its worth, I was suggesting the same in my comment above – though maybe not as explicitly. I think “over-planning” has no meaning in the context of the already well-established “pseudo-working” concept from the red book.

  16. ek says:

    Cal — Could you talk about how you organize and maintain your Master Task Lists?

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Cal — Could you talk about how you organize and maintain your Master Task Lists?

    Everything is about simplicity for me. I have an MIT, Writing, and Personal list in Google Tasks. That’s it.

    I use Google tasks because it shows up in Gmail, which is the one web site I know I will return to every day regardless of whether I want to look at my tasks or not. Also, there’s a button to automatically turn an e-mail into a task which makes it easier to clean my various inboxes.

  18. Johnny says:

    I use Google tasks because it shows up in Gmail, which is the one web site I know I will return to every day regardless of whether I want to look at my tasks or not. Also, there’s a button to automatically turn an e-mail into a task which makes it easier to clean my various inboxes.

    There are a lot of functions in Gmail Labs. I am interested in how you set up your Gmail (or Google account) to handle your daily works so.

  19. Study Hacks says:

    There are a lot of functions in Gmail Labs. I am interested in how you set up your Gmail (or Google account) to handle your daily work

    See this article for information on how I configure gmail to prevent compulsive inbox checking:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/08/11/monday-master-class-how-to-use-a-monotypic-inbox-to-kick-the-compulsive-e-mail-checking-habit/

    Beyond that, I have my google tasks setup and that’s about it.

  20. Anna says:

    Great article. On the days when I remember to put in the time to do a similar “shutdown” at my desk, I feel so much calmer both that evening and the next morning when I return. The act of putting the work day to rest makes a world of difference for me… when it gets done, that is =)

  21. That phrase is great. Saying out loud that phrase makes you feel even better when you done such things.
    Good advice. And I should start checking out Google tasks, I guess.

  22. Ryan Freed says:

    Great ideas! I do many of the same things. I always write down ideas I have in my laptop or a notebook, so that I dont have to focus on them all day. My most important thing to do is once a start a task I don’t stop till it’s completed and I’m satisifed. This way I have more free time and don’t have to worry about it.

  23. Deidre says:

    I am going to try and follow this but what do you do with all the txt. files at the end of the week?

  24. Study Hacks says:

    am going to try and follow this but what do you do with all the txt. files at the end of the week?

    At the beginning of each week, I add a snapshot of the old plan.txt to an archive folder I keep in my desktop. I add the date to the title to distinguish them.

  25. nXqd says:

    It’s really nice articles. I’ve tried 2 ways of doing your tasks.
    First, get on your todo and do them, do them, relax and get them done. It’s really overwork, I keep working around and I don’t find any relax o.0
    But when I keep my task list in fixed schedule, get them done. It’s really better. I get my task done in time and I have time for relax . Sometimes I mean relax is doing what you like, it’s getting more :P I’ll keep it smaller ^^
    Thanks Cal, great post

  26. Tan Yew-wei says:

    Yeah, nice post. It’s amazing that ironically, people don’t recognise the mind as the asset which it truly is. Perhaps because it speaks to us so often and so loudly, that we take it’s voice for granted.

    Kinda like the way teenagers rebel against their parents and refuse to reconcile the difference. Yet, upon sitting down and simply talking to each other, the problem solves itself.

    Thanks for the post once more!

  27. Chris says:

    I agree with your premise and the nay-sayers have no footing. Being “always on” is a huge problem for those of us with any responsibility. I’d just add that a notepad or sticky notes for those “inspirational moments” can work very well. It’s amazing what happens when we give our amazing brains space to breathe. If it takes a magic phrase, then so be it. Good post!

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