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Work Less to Work Better: My Experiments with Shutdown Routines

My dissertation. The pages shown here are from a proof that caused significant consternation.

A Novel Dissertation

I began working on my PhD thesis in the summer of 2008. I defended a year later, in early August, 2009.

There’s nothing unusual about this timing. What was unusual, however, was my approach.

By June 2008, I had a fair-sized collection of peer-reviewed publications. The standard practice in computer science would be for me to take the best of these results, combine them, fill in the missing details, add a thorough introduction, and then call the resulting mathematical chimera my dissertation.

To me, naive as I was, this sounded like a waste of a year. So I decided I would prove all new results.

This strategy worked fine for a while, keeping me engaged and happy, but then, in April, 2009, things took a turn toward the difficult. It was during this month that I accepted a postdoc position that would start in September.  This meant that I had to defend my thesis over the summer. Suddenly the allure of tackling all new results began to wane.

Here’s a scenario that became common:

  • I would be working during the day on an important proof.
  • At some point in the late afternoon I would find a flaw.
  • A helpful voice in my head would point out that my whole future depended on finding a fix — without a fix, it argued, the thesis would crumble, I would be kicked out of graduate school and end up homeless, likely dying in a soup kitchen knife fight.
  • After heading home, I would continue, obsessively, seeking a fix — ruining any chance at relaxation that night.

After two weeks of this exercise, I decided something needed to change.

It was then that I innovated my shutdown philosophy…

Schedule Shutdown Complete

In the spring of 2009, I adopted the following ritual to cope with thesis anxiety:

At the end of the work day, I would look over my calendar and tasks. I would then check in on where I stood on my major projects (which, at this point, meant my thesis). After taking in all this information, I would come up with a smart plan for the remainder of the week.

Once I was satisfied with my plan, I would say a quick mantra to officially shut down my scheduling for the day. For me, this was “schedule shut down complete,” which is a phrase with no particular meaning; it just happened to pop to mind the first time I tested the ritual.

The shutdown, however, was not enough by itself. The ruminating part of my mind would still fire up and propose worries about broken proofs and knife fights. This brings me to the second part of the ritual. Whenever I began ruminating on my work schedule after my shutdown, I wouldn’t engage the specifics of the rumination, but instead respond to myself with some variant of the following:

“I completed my schedule shutdown ritual today. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to complete the process if I didn’t trust that my plan makes sense. Therefore, I’m not worried.”

The key point here is that I didn’t try to ignore the urge to ruminate — which rarely works — but I also didn’t engage the specifics of the rumination — which tends to make things worse. My response was logical but also non-specific.

In less than month, the urge to ruminate on these issues had reduced to become essentially non-existent. So long as I did my shutdown each day, my mind had been trained to release work-related anxiety.

The Craftsman in the Cubicle Project

This story came to mind recently because I’m currently in another period of big changes: I’ve had a year now to get used to my new job as a professor, my wife and I bought our first house, and we’re expecting our first child.

The brand new Study Hacks HQ.

The time is right, I’ve decided, for a serious round of self-assessment and improvement.

One target of this scrutiny is my professional life. I write often about my career craftsman philosophy (and in fact even have a whole book coming out on the topic), which emphasizes treating your work as craft: focus intently on developing a small number of valuable skills, then leverage these valuable skills to push your career in a direction meaningful to you.

I want to see how far I can develop this idea in my own life.

Over the next month or two, I’m launching a series of experiments designed to re-focus my working life towards a satisfying, craftsman-like concentration on a small number of powerful skills, and away from open inboxes and continuous low-grade distraction.

I’m pretty good at this already. But I want to discover how much better I can become.

This mission will require logistical changes — e.g., how I structure my day or manage organizational obligations —  as well as skill changes — e.g., how I integrate deliberate practice into my work.

I call this the craftsman in the cubicle project because it aims to regain a spirit of craftsmanship in a knowledge work era defined by distraction.

Experiment #1: A Better Shutdown

This brings me back to shutdown routines.

As I move into a new phase of adulthood, a rock solid shutdown ritual is more important than ever before. If I can’t get away from work and recharge effectively with my family, then I won’t be able to consistently achieve the true hard focus needed for a craftsman-style working life. With this in mind, as my first experiment in this project, I’m revisiting my shutdown routine. I want to soup up the graduate student version of this ritual to one that can handle a life with many more serious obligations at work and home.

Here are three specific upgrades I’m trying:

  1. Shifting to Paper
    When I introduced this ritual, I would send my daily plan to myself as an e-mail. I knew that my inbox was the one place I would definitely check everyday, preventing my plan from being ignored.The downside of this strategy is that it forces me to check my e-mail in the morning. This often proves disastrous, as logging into Gmail has a way of context-shifting me away from craftsman-like focus, and toward aimless Internet tinkering. In other words, a ritual that was designed to support a craftsman lifestyle is simultaneously subverting this goal.
    Fortunately, I’ve been practicing this habit long enough that I’m no longer worried about ignoring my plan. To avoid the distraction of my inbox, therefore, I can confidently shift my daily rundown from an e-mail and into an old-fashioned notebook. Chris Guillebeau recently gave me a nice set of moleskin-style ledgers, one for each month of the year. These should serve perfectly for my purpose (and, as a bonus, after a year, I can easily go back and review my planning process).
  2. Disconnecting my iPod
    I don’t have a smartphone, because I like being bored when I’m away from my house (building comfort with boredom, in my weird mathematician world, equates to building one’s ability to focus). I do, however, have an iPod Touch, because I like to download podcasts without having to go through my computer. Some time back, my wife configured my iPod so that I could check my e-mail easily when I’m at home and connected to our network. I hate this temptation because it often wins — ruining my shutdown. Earlier today, as part of my efforts to upgrade my shutdown routine, I deleted my e-mail accounts from the iPod. Checking-in online now requires me to plug in and boot up a computer — something that’s just difficult enough to easily resist.
  3. Committing to a DMZ
    In my experience, a shutdown is most successful when you can downshift your mind from the high-energy, tackle all problems state it occupies during the workday, to a more relaxed, present state that works best when at home. This transition can be hard. One method I’ve been toying with is a dedicated meditation zone (DMZ) — which I define as an extended period (at least 20 minutes) of focusing on either a single, non-work related thought, or giving your full attention to a podcast or audio book. The focus on a single thing helps the other parts of your brain shutdown and cool off. As part of my ritual upgrade, I’m committing to a DMZ everyday, immediately following my shutdown. During a normal workday, I’ll use my commute. On a day when I work at home, I’ll use my daily dog walk and exercise. The key will be consistency.

By explicitly eliminating my shutdown ritual’s ability to cause distraction during the workday, and then striving to maintain its integrity after work is done, I’m hoping that it will remain muscular enough to handle this new phase of my life.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, onward to more experiments…


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills.


43 thoughts on “Work Less to Work Better: My Experiments with Shutdown Routines”

  1. Congratulations on the new life changes! I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time, thanks for the thought-provoking content.

  2. In the mid-1970s I talked with a friend who managed the DMZ by taking a shower after work to create an interrupt and a state-change from workday to evening. Some days I’ll have a mini-DMZ in the middle of the day. I’ll go out to run at the Baylands, and I’ll SING in the car. Singing uses a very different part of the brain than editing dissertations, particularly if the music inspires heart and soul (samples at About once a month, I’ll drive 40 miles to San Francisco to run, singing all the way – a weekly DMZ that creates a big change of state and refreshes body, mind, and soul.

  3. First off, congarts on the upcoming baby! I have started practicing DMZ as well. Started 9 months ago. The transformation is amazing. The ability to focus can then be transferred in all other parts of life. I get totally zoned in when I am doing surgery, or reading or listening to a meditation podcast before going to sleep. But its still far from perfect-there are days when my mind doesnt cooperate. I let it wander then and once calmer, it gets leashed. Have to tell you, its still extremely difficult to be even 99% focused without being distracted by my own thoughts or by external stimuli. Ultimate focusing is fundamentally harder than running a marathon! Thx for sharing your schedule!

  4. Hey Cal, for starters, congratulations on the wife, upcoming child, and home (very nice home btw :D)!

    Second, this new philosophy of yours seems worthy of an attempt. I like your whole “shut down” ritual because it allows your brain to calm down, which is essential or your brain’s ability diminishes after a certain period of time and a hardcore “recharge” is necessary. Also, is your thesis done yet? And which university are you a professor at? I’m looking forward to becoming a professor one day too :P!

  5. Thank you – and congratulations!

    As someone currently consumed by uncharacteristic anxiety over an incomplete thesis and imminent postdoc position, this couldn’t have been timed better. Thanks 🙂

  6. Congratulations on your baby! this post is so timely for me as I’m currently working on a honors thesis which has been a significant source of stress for me… (for one, i at least changed my topic a hundred times, thought of quitting a hundred times and still am pretty vague on what exactly im doing even though im at the moment at the site of my research). i will definitely try this shutdown ritual. hopefully i’ll be less stressed and more productive.
    i look forward to your new style of updates!

  7. This is a wonderful post; I’ve been subscribed to your blog for some time, inspired by a post long-since forgotten, but this is the first post since that time that actually stopped me in my tracks and forced me to read it through to the end – perhaps because I too have reached a time of new life challenges, a fact I have only now consciuosly recognised. I’ve since started trawling through this blog in an effort to learn more and your concepts are very exciting to me (Hard Focus; Craftsman-like practice in a modern working era…). I am very much looking forward to learn how you continue in this project, as I am certain that this has inspired my own.

  8. Congrats on the baby–they are a blessing and LOTS of work!

    When you mentioned you wanted to have some “skill changes,” I seriously thought you might take up cooking, optimal diaper changing, or to master those books on child rearing 🙂
    Alas, those did not show up on your list.
    You’ll find that babies, by nature, are pretty good helping your mind forget about work once you get home!

    And about the DMZ, does listening to sports talk while driving back home count? Because I do quite a bit of that.

  9. Reading about your personal changes, it strikes me that you haven’t said much at all on your blog – or for that matter, in your books – about how one ‘succeeds’ at one’s personal life. Certainly, it’s not hard to see how the principles you expound can be extended to that; and if one does follow your craftsman fixed-hours schedule, one’s personal life should fall into place. But still, I for one would like to see you bring to bear on the thorny area of managing one’s personal relationships the kind of analytical dissecting that you have so brilliantly on studying techniques / lifestyle design.

  10. Congratulations on the house and baby! Wish you and your family all happiness!

    And I would like to ask one question if you don’t mind. Could you tell us how you make your plan for the week? I struggle with this myself, since there is always so much to do and when unexpected things happen (like an experiment or proof that takes much longer, not disasters or something) I often let myself get derailed and not finish my task list that I had set for the week.

  11. About once a month, I’ll drive 40 miles to San Francisco to run, singing all the way – a weekly DMZ that creates a big change of state and refreshes body, mind, and soul.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of ultra-DMZs, like your SF journeys, as part of developing high-end skills.

    Also, is your thesis done yet? And which university are you a professor at?

    Yes. I defended in 2009. I’m a professor at Georgetown University.

    I’ve been subscribed to your blog for some time, inspired by a post long-since forgotten, but this is the first post since that time that actually stopped me in my tracks

    Music to my ears. Hopefully I’ll keep your attention as I continue this series about my own shift to better craftsmanship.

    You’ll find that babies, by nature, are pretty good helping your mind forget about work once you get home!

    The ultimate DMZ! I am, of course, dedicating quite a few cycles to child rearing books, etc. I’m keeping the focus here on professional topics for now, so as not to scare away too many readers 🙂

    Reading about your personal changes, it strikes me that you haven’t said much at all on your blog – or for that matter, in your books – about how one ‘succeeds’ at one’s personal life.

    This is something I give a lot of thought to. I’ve been hesitant to be too personal online. But some of that hesitance is starting to give away. Think of this series as a gateway to some potentially less-professional self-development type stuff.

    Could you tell us how you make your plan for the week?

    Search my blog for a post on “freestyle planning.” I’m been using it since I wrote that post (many years back). It’s the only thing flexible enough to handle the reality of life.

    So how did you finish your thesis?

    Old fashioned hard work. The shutdown routine prevented me from worrying at night, allowing me to attack proof’s fresh during the day. Bit by bit, I solved what I needed to solve.

  12. I believe there are three major factors to changing habits, new behaviors is key, but so is changing your environment (you might try adding a physical space to your DMZ), and also the story behind the old habits (the why you do things the way you do is often, no lie, a useful story to uncover and reinvent).

    On the behavior front, I recently interviewed a teacher who worked with an autistic boy for 5 years, helping him change his habits through redirection and micro movements, learning the tiniest pieces of a system before putting them together. This may also be helpful.

    Thanks for making your article a little more personal and a little less “professional.” I’m going through a similar revamping. I’m eager to follow your progress.

  13. There is a reason paper has been around for 4,000 (or more) years and still works. Now, especially with your work style it is more relevant than ever. Why? It is a zero distraction focusing method as opposed to the infinite distractions of a connected computer. It is totally a blank canvas. Everything on it HAS to come from the author. Looking backward to move forward?

  14. Just had to say congratulations and a big ol’ thank you for a blog that I have been hooked into for quite some time. Reading your post this morning just made me feel so good to be alive. Happy for you and so grateful too.

  15. I read your post this morning, and then a few hours later, the following from p22 of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

    It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it.

    Timeless wisdom, worth reflection and rediscovery!

  16. With your work and shutdown routine, what do you with administrative tasks (i.e., answering e-mails)? Does this fall under your work time or shutdown time?

    And congrats!

  17. Hey Cal,
    I found your blog when the year started as I was looking for a better way of handling school work (Was studying Physics). I opened tens of tabs on firefox, all from your blog. I’m reopening a few now that I’m starting classes again.

    I find it very hard to wind myself down. My mind is always hyperactive, I’m always filling my time with productive things to do… and I sometimes feel anxious about doing stuff that doesn’t help me go “forward”. Last semester I found myself falling short of my learning and life objectives. I am almost sure it was because I didn’t give rest it’s proper importance. My mind couldn’t handle tens of projects without resting and internalizing what I was learning and doing.

    I start tomorrow and pausing and reflecting is something new I will do this semester. I will be smarter in how often I let myself wind down, to improve my performance.

    Your post today is like a good sign to me, a nice reminder of my new mission and goals.

    I look forward to hearing about your experiments! and congratulations for book, baby and everything!

  18. Cal, I’m a long time lurker commenting for the first time on this great post. You’ve inspired me to begin my own craftswoman in the cubicle project. Thanks for all you do and congrats on the house and baby. I will eagerly look forward to your next installments on this project. Cheers, Suzanne

  19. Caffeine Scheduling & Shutdown:

    Assume that hard focus can be driven by different sources of motivation. For example, hard focus may be motivated by loss aversion, which is anxiety-inducing, or hard focus may have an appetitive source (e.g., novelty or mastery).

    Next, assume that caffeine can work as an affective reinforcer– if you’re doing something that makes you antsy when you caffeine-up, your dose will amplify and maybe perpetuate your anxiety. Alternatively, if you start your daily coffee intake with something recreational (e.g., reading a chapter of a novel), you may be able to carry over the lower-anxiety affective state to your work. If you can motivate hard focus via an appetitive mechanism, maybe you will have an easier time shutting down.

  20. Been following your blog for about a year now. Thought I understood what your philosophy was all about but it took a turning point in my personal life before it dawned on me that this is really the moral way to lead a life.

    I clicked instantly with the notion that skills override passion in developing a meaningful professional life. My own way of putting it is “it’s not what about what you like, it’s about what you’re good at.” I’d just finished an undergraduate degree in Life Science in Singapore with GPA of 4.46/5 (that’s close to 3.8 in the US) but I was always uncomfortable with the fact that the course didn’t provide me with rare and valuable skills, just a hamster wheel of textbook knowledge. I’ve always had a sixth sense for statistics, so throughout my course I’d sign up for research opportunities that have a strong quantitative dimension such as microarray data analysis in order to gain numerate skills that felt more ‘useful’. Upon graduation I interned in a statistical genetics lab while scrambling to get a place in a reputable postgrad biostats program in the UK.

    But while at the lab I met someone (let’s call him Y) who shattered all my assumptions about what it takes to be ‘so good they can’t ignore you’. He graduated with worse than mediocre grades in an engineering degree but had been assigned a far more complex project by our boss (a hotshot young professor as far as Singapore goes). Turns out that he was an extremely competent programmer. So what happened? He took a 7-month hiatus after graduation to pick up programming skills, all by himself.

    So what does this all have to do with my personal life? You see, the fact is I’m gay. Problem is I’ve always been uncomfortable with this side of myself and hid it from everyone. But hiding does horrible things to you. I have a history of broken relationships with close friends because I took offence too easily. Thing is, I’d developed feelings for Y but my demons were threatening to tear everything apart. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to speak to Y anymore over nothing so I made the decision to come clean with him and with everyone in the lab.

    I’ve realized this since then: the reason why I was so sensitive in the past was because I was fixated on presenting an alternative identity that could substitute for my true self. I’d be excessively nice to people in order to be seen as generous, but I’ll go crazy because they do not reciprocate at the same level. Just like how in a previous post you describe how packaging and perfectionism provide the least worth but cause the most stress, curating your self-image is obsessing over an embellishment that is most times just not necessary. ‘Just be yourself’ simply means to stop worrying about who you are!

    The same thing applies for my professional development. I have the right instinct in wanting to be useful first and passionate second, but I did not realize this was just another aspect of me obsessing about my identity. I was adamant that I needed the best accreditation for my skills in order to be truly qualified, and then only for a certain set of skills ‘because I’m a stats geek’. Y showed me that this was folly. Once you stop worrying about ‘who you truly are inside’, you realize that your only purpose in life is to contribute, and you will be liberated to find how best you can achieve that. I think this reconciles one of the main paradoxes identified by studyhackers: how to maintain Steve Martin-esque discipline in honing a small set of skills, while also adopting ultra-learning which is mastering new techniques all the time. If your only worry is how best you can contribute, then you will always want to try out new skills (to see if you can do better), and because you only wish to contribute you will diligently do all it takes to master them. Personally for me, I will continue with my biostats program but I’m also picking up Linux and database management by myself.

    And I think the reason why “follow your passion” is such popular advice is because it comes from the right place: you need to know how best you can contribute. Problem is, most people are too busy finding identities they can put on that they forget that the whole point is so they can contribute better, nothing more.

    Forget worrying about who you are, just focus on what you do.

  21. Cal,

    Regarding your section with emailing your whole day planner so that you make sure that you are going to have to look at it (since it will sit in your inbox), I have one question. Do you, with the shift to paper, avoid checking your inbox complete in the morning? How do you check email from other people?

    I am going through an interesting phase in my life, where being too “connected” started giving me serious headaches and problems and I am now shifting to paper. I guess checking your email once or twice a day will pretty much ensure that you answer emails quick?

  22. How do you balance the improvements you make in your life with the influence of others in your life?

    Do you make these plans with your wife? Do you schedule family time? Do you end up scheduling an activity and then not doing it because you realize you need to spend time with your wife?

    I’m in a slow transition from bachelor life to moving in with my significant other, and bringing our worlds together while maintaining/balancing my own life goals (which she doesn’t necessarily share for her own life) is one of my major struggles right now.

  23. Everything old is new again. 🙂

    No Offense, but how is a DMZ any different than someone working out, watching TV, playing video games, etc. after work?

    A DMZ seems to be nothing more than a “Winding down” that the majority of the population currently does after 5pm.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but am I missing something?

  24. A DMZ seems to be nothing more than a “Winding down” that the majority of the population currently does after 5pm.

    I can see that. I tried Cal’s method for the past two days, and the biggest difference I noticed was the sense of mental calm I get from Cal’s method vs. the standard shut down routine. When you shut down, yes, you’re playing video games or chilling out, but your mind is still racing about the things you didn’t do or need to do. That doesn’t happen when DMZ is implemented.

  25. Why not use a textfile for planning? It’s so much faster to write, edit and change your plan. (Also, just save the file instead of e-mailing it.) One advantage with paper is the focus it brings to your mind, and although constructing a plan requires thought it is not that hard.

  26. Pingback: Shutdown routines
  27. Great post and congratulations on all your new life developments!! Things are shifting here, because my daughter is now in 1st grade and a fully functional human being who is way above average. I am stressed, so I need to re-focus. Dissertation due. Job apps. School starting and final round of TA’ing due to money needs. Argh but good because being on campus means work getting done. Removed email from my phone this summer and it feels so great. I almost forget to check email. Using paper. Need more real work time and not To Do List time. Publications due as well. I will try a shutdown routine before I pick up my daughter though I seem to be pretty good at this. Also, with my extended family, whose eyes glaze over every time I mention anything academic or dissertation related. Shutting down and parenting seems pretty easy for me, though I do have a nagging sensation I’d like to be getting more work done all the time which is why I don’t even try during family time. Curious about how to maintain academic focus which seemed easier during early years of grad school and seems to be getting harder. Hoping to add a boyfriend soon and seconding what Dave said above.

  28. With a constant balancing act between a part time job, wife and two kids and an ever asymptotically elusive dissertation topic, I find that shutdowns are vital, coupled with good structure during the work period. Otherwise the latter end up cannibalizing all of the above.

  29. This phrase “building comfort with boredom, in my weird mathematician world, equates to building one’s ability to focus” really resonated with me. I’d love to read more about this idea of being comfortable with boredom. I’m not sure if you’ve written on it already, but it’s something that I’ve been discovering with myself and I would love to know your thoughts about it! Thanks for the wonderful post, Cal!

  30. At 5:00 , i have an invisible time card i flourish, insert into my invisible time clock (clunk , clunk) & announce to all ” I am clocking out !”

  31. Love the content on this blog! At first I had to read it several times to understand what this was about. Then, I realized what I was reading and started to read it with pleasure that we will start improving our lives by incorporating little changes like these. Have you heard of Tony Schwartz? You remind me of his teachings. Thank you. is our site, we are about personal development.


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