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Harnessing the Power of Shutdown Ritualsby@scottdclary
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Harnessing the Power of Shutdown Rituals

by Scott D. ClaryFebruary 14th, 2023
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Do you have a clean break from work at the end of the day? Or does your work life tend to bleed into your personal life, creating a sense of never-ending stress? If the latter is true for you, then it's time to start practising shutdown rituals. Continuing on from last week's topic – the importance of getting proper rest – I thought we'd touch on a profound tool called the 'power-down ritual' (Cal Newport called it the 'shutdown ritual.')  If you felt slightly called out by my last newsletter and want to work on separating your work and personal life, you're in the right place. Let's unpack what it means to power down.
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Do you have a clean break from work at the end of the day? Or does your work life tend to bleed into your personal life, creating a sense of never-ending stress? If the latter is true for you, then it's time to start practising shutdown rituals.

Continuing on from last week's topic – the importance of getting proper rest – I thought we'd touch on a profound tool called the 'power-down ritual' (Cal Newport called it the 'shutdown ritual.') 

If you felt slightly called out by my last newsletter and want to work on separating your work and personal life, you're in the right place. Let's unpack what it means to power down.

End-Of-Day Habits

Here's a question – how easily can you separate your work hours from your personal hours? For example, maybe you've got a standard nine-to-five job and your work computer never comes home with you. If you're an entrepreneur or business owner, however (like most of my readers), I'm guessing that isn't the case. 

Running a company is a surefire way to blur the lines between your work and personal life. You're literally responsible for every aspect of the business; it's your brainchild, the lifeblood of your future. No wonder it's hard to put it down and walk away. 

The result is an endless stream of residual stress that can cause major burnout. With no start and end time, your life feels like one giant workday with intermittent breaks.

It's no wonder that work-from-home employees report higher burnout rates than those who work in an office. You literally never leave the workplace. It's all too easy to forget where your work ends and your life begins.

The Power of Rituals

By now, I'm sure you've read Atomic Habits by James Clear – but if not, the message is very simple. Habit-building is one of the most powerful tools you'll ever use for personal and professional growth. 

In my experience, the best habits are those that signify different phases of the day. For example:

  • When I wake up and get straight into exercise gear, my brain knows I'm about to work out and enter the energetic, alert phase of my morning.
  • I brew a calming tea every night before bed, symbolizing the onset of relaxation and sleep.
  • At the end of my work day, I power down my laptop and set myself to 'inactive' on communication platforms, letting my colleagues know I'm done for the day.

These habits aren't anything crazy – but they break up my day into distinct phases so that my mind is always on the same page as my daily schedule. 

My end-of-workday habit is actually an example of a shutdown ritual. Let's zoom in on that one. 

Shutdown Rituals

In his book called Deep Work, Cal Newport famously said, "When you work, you work hard, and when you’re done, you can be done.” That's the intention behind his concept of the shutdown ritual – to completely separate your work life from your free time. 

Here's what his own shutdown ritual looks like:

  • Update master task list (collated list of immediate and long-term tasks)
  • Review task lists and set completion dates for urgent tasks
  • Peruse the calendar to see what appointments are coming up in the next two weeks
  • Read through the current weekly plan to ensure everything is on track

After all of that, he shuts down his computer and walks away, putting work out of his mind until the next day. 

The idea of a ritual like this isn't just to tell your brain the workday is over. It's to ensure that nothing remains on your mind after hours. You answer every question, tie up loose ends, and resolve anything that would prevent your mind from fully resting. 

The reality is that you can never properly rest if you're thinking about work. Employment is directly tied to your livelihood; it is incompatible with relaxation. A shutdown ritual allows you to make a clean break from work, allowing your mind and body to fully rest. 

Do You Need a Shutdown Ritual?

Reading this, you might be thinking, "I don't need a ritual. I leave my computer at work and I refuse to respond to emails after hours."

Sometimes, however, these measures alone aren't enough. Just because you're not working after hours doesn't mean you're not thinking about work. You might still be worrying and stressing out over the tasks you left undone.

A ritual helps to consolidate your thoughts; you leave work with total awareness of what needs to be done, and you can rest easy knowing that it's all written down. 

Wondering whether it's time to craft your own shutdown ritual? Here are a few signs that your work and personal lives need more separation:

  • You're irritable, overly emotional, or easily overwhelmed
  • You feel tense and anxious when you think about work
  • It feels like you never have time to get through your task lists
  • You feel guilty for taking time away from work

You might recognize these as symptoms of burnout – and left unattended, burnout can derail your career. A shutdown ritual is one way to make sure that doesn't happen. 

Creating a Shutdown Ritual

Cal Newport's ritual is an excellent example of a shutdown ritual, but the best rituals are tailored to your specific needs. Answer these questions to make your own. 

1. What work-related tasks and events keep you up at night?

By this question, I'm talking about the tasks and to-dos that linger in your mind after leaving work. For instance – some people spend all night drafting emails in their head if they don't get them sent during the day. Others feel overwhelmed by their workload if they don't write or review their to-do list. 

2. What can you do to put those thoughts to rest?

I want to be clear that the point of a shutdown ritual is not to get everything done, but to rest easy knowing that the tasks are accounted for. You might not have time every afternoon to write and send all of your pending emails or tick off the tasks on your to-do list, but you can write everything down and leave work with a clear plan for the next day. 

3. What would this look like as a ritual?

Now that you know what tasks and thoughts need to be addressed, it's time to turn them into a ritual. For example – if your shutdown ritual focuses on follow-up correspondence, it might look something like this: 

  • Spend 10 minutes writing and responding to emails.
  • Write a quick to-do list for the next day, including any tasks you weren't able to finish today. 
  • Scan your calendar for upcoming appointments or deadlines. 
  • Take 5 minutes of quiet time before leaving work – use this time to reflect on the day and reset your mindset.

I personally like to add a symbolic element, too, like powering down my laptop or turning off my work lights. It serves as a tangible reminder that I'm leaving work for the day and entering into relaxation mode. 

What If You're Working From Home?

I would almost assert that WFH-ers need a shutdown ritual even more than office workers. The boundaries between work and home are often blurred. Scratch that – they're blurred by default. You need to go out of your way to create a clear break between your work and home life. 

A shutdown ritual is a perfect way to do this. It doesn't have to be elaborate – it could just be something as simple as taking 10 minutes to journal about your day, followed by some light stretching or meditation. Anything that helps you disconnect from work and transition into relaxation mode is fair game. 

I'd warn against keeping the ritual too simple, however. The point is to resolve all loose ends so that you can completely relax without worrying about tomorrow's tasks. A simple yoga ritual might not be enough to achieve this. (It's the perfect post-ritual activity, though!)

Will My Business Suffer?

For my entrepreneurial readers, I want to assure you that taking breaks is okay. It's not just okay; it is absolutely essential for long-term success. It will always be tempting to remain on-call 24/7, but no one can sustain that lifestyle forever. 

Shutdown rituals as an entrepreneur require a bit more preparation. They need to be supported by a culture of delegation; otherwise, you'll never feel confident stepping away for the evening and letting your colleagues handle things. 

Trust me when I say that carving out time for yourself becomes less possible as time goes on. If you aren't disciplined from the very beginning of your startup venture, it will be impossible to practice self-care and meaningful shutdown rituals as business picks up speed. 

Set a precedent by making yourself completely unreachable after certain hours. Don't give anyone the impression that you're the 'on-call' CEO. Make it part of your culture to leave work on time and honor your shutdown ritual. 

The Takeaway

Shutdown rituals are a powerful tool for improving productivity, reducing stress, and creating a healthy balance between work and home life. They're also an important part of maintaining mental health as an entrepreneur or remote worker. 

Start by identifying the tasks that keep you up at night, then create a ritual that puts those thoughts to rest. Whether it's 10 minutes of correspondence or consolidation of your to-do lists, it's important to make sure that your ritual is tailored to your specific needs. 

I'd be fascinated to hear what your shutdown routine looks like. Feel free to share your stories with me – or if you haven't got a ritual to share just yet, take this as your sign to create one. 

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.

Also published here.