How a Productivity Expert Shifts From Work Mode to Non-Work Mode

Asian woman working on her laptop in her living room.
Photo: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

Most people approach their workday by trying to cross things off a task list in the small slivers of time that remain between attending meetings and reacting to emails and instant messages, often late into the evening. I prefer “time blocking” — partitioning my day into blocks of time, and assigning specific work to each. This systematic approach for working through my daily tasks has been instrumental in my last 15 years of work, during which I earned a PhD from MIT, then tenure at Georgetown University — all while publishing six books, including multiple bestsellers.

Most importantly, I did all of this while rarely working past 5:30 p.m. (I need my evenings free to wrangle my three young kids.)

Whenever I’m discussing my time blocking system, something I make sure to emphasize is the essential step of a “shutdown ritual.” At the end of each workday, your final step, if at all possible, is to shut down work. That doesn’t mean abandoning whatever you’re in the middle of doing but rather, taking a moment to help your mind shift more completely from work mode to non-work mode.

If you strictly follow this after-work routine, you’ll soon discover that not only are you working harder when you work, but your time after work is more meaningful and restorative than ever before.

Record your metrics

Many readers of my book Deep Work, for example, track how many hours they spent working without distractions on cognitively demanding tasks. Some jobs might yield metrics that capture behaviors specific to the particular type of work. Whatever metrics might be relevant to chart your progress, make sure you track them at the end of each day.

Organize uncompleted tasks

In some cases, you may need to add new tasks into your to-do list or task system, while in other cases you may need to update your calendar, or even shoot off a quick message.

Look at the week ahead

For most people, this means taking one last look at your email inbox, to ensure you didn’t miss something urgent, as well as reviewing your calendar and/or obligation-tracking system. When done with these checks, look over your weekly plan and update it as needed.

The goal here is to convince yourself that there’s nothing being forgotten, or missed, or being kept track of only in your brain, and that you have a reasonable plan for the days ahead. All of these reassurances are the precondition for enabling your brain to fully shift its attention from work to life outside work.

Acknowledge “shutdown complete”

I came up with this ritual early in my career as a graduate student, where I would actually say the words “shutdown complete” out loud at the end of my shutdown ritual. It comes in handy later in the evening, when you might begin to feel a generalized background hum of work anxiety. To shut down this type of rumination, you can simply remind yourself: “I wouldn’t have said ‘shutdown complete’ if I hadn’t completed the shutdown ritual that convinced me I’m fine to avoid work until tomorrow.”

In this way, you address the anxiety without engaging with the specific topics fueling the anxiety.

When facing a period of intense work anxiety, I’d find myself frequently returning to the disclaimer for about a week, after which my mind learned I wasn’t going to indulge in any interesting rumination, diminishing its urge to fret. You’ll likely experience a similar effect.

From THE TIME-BLOCK PLANNER: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Cal Newport

Bestselling author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. Associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

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