Can’t Stop Overworking? You Need a ‘Termination Phrase’

A simple technique from Cal Newport that can help you separate work and life

Like many of us, I’ve spent the past several months struggling to separate work life and life-life. Back when I worked in a co-working space, I had a visual cue that the workday was done — usually, it was when others started packing up their bags and trickling out the door — but now the days feel like an endless stretch of time. It’s all too easy for me to check email while eating dinner or take that client call just before bed (curse you, time zones!).

We all know we need off hours. In his TED talk, the psychologist Guy Winch notes that the more we ruminate about work when we’re not working, the more likely we are to experience sleep disturbances, eat unhealthier foods, and have worse moods. What’s more, overworking actually leads to underworking: A study at Stanford University found that after 55 hours of work each week, we’re essentially useless. It’s crucial to take time to recharge.

Having a post-work ritual helps. In an attempt to draw a boundary around that time, I’ve been writing down five things I achieved during the day and then closing my notebook. But Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and the bestselling author of Deep Work, explains that there’s a way to take this practice one step further: To solidify the ritual, end it with a “termination phrase.”

This is simply a phrase that you utter aloud to signify to your brain that your workday is done. Newport’s termination phrase is a bit silly — he says “schedule shutdown, complete,” as if he’s a robot. Throughout the rest of your evening, you can pull up the phrase again if you need to. Writes Newport: “If a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process: I said the termination phrase. 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. Therefore, there is no need to worry.”

Deciding to give this trick a try, I came up with my own termination phrase. After completing my post-work ritual, I now say, “Right, I’m done.” It’s been working. Every time I utter it, I receive the peace of mind I need to switch out of work mode. And I return to that phrase every time I wonder if I should send one more email or write a few more paragraphs of the article I’m working on.

Try coming up with your own termination phrase. You might say “Over and out” or take a page from 30 Rock and yell “Shut it down!” (We’re in a pandemic — lean into the weird.) Then, after you say it, be done, truly done. Even if you’re only moving from your desk to the couch, it’s essential to leave work behind.

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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