Productivity trouble spot: Shutdown routine

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that I am a productivity nerd. I read books and blog posts and listen to podcasts about productivity. I love experimenting with different digital tools and planning systems. I set goals and routinely check in with them. I hold a Sunday Meeting to plan out my week, and start each morning outlining my daily priorities. But try as I might, one trouble spot persists in my carefully constructed routines:

My lack of a shutdown routine.

What is a shutdown routine, you ask? A shutdown routine is a set of tasks you complete at the end of the workday that allows you to reflect on your accomplishments and set the table for the next day. Cal Newport summarizes the concept well. There are many different variations, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, but they all seem to share the same themes: review what tasks you completed, prioritize your tasks for the next day, clean up your physical and digital workspace, etc. This post at Doist reflects these themes nicely.

I’ve tried to institute shutdown routines in the past. I tell myself I’m going to stop work 5 minutes early and reflect on the day before packing up to head home (or in pandemic times, preparing to leave the home office to make dinner and check in with the kiddos). I tell myself I’m going to shut my laptop at 8pm so that I can wind down before bed. I’ve made calendar events and set my phone alarm. Nothing sticks.

I attribute a big part of this to the nature of academic work and to how I tie my self-worth to my work output. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of an interaction from one of our early sessions a few years back, where he asked me to reflect back on the academic year and I spent 5 solid minutes listing everything I’d failed to accomplish that past year, without listing a single win.

Yikes.

While I’m now much better at recognizing my accomplishments and at extending myself some grace, I still feel that pull to do Just One More Thing before I leave the office/home office, or before bed. Sure, I could spend 5 minutes reflecting on the day — or I could try to answer 2 more emails. Sure, I could shut my computer off at 8pm — but that one task keeps migrating from day to day, so let me just do it now. The siren song of checking one more thing off the list hides the fact that there will always be another thing to check off, or three more things to add, or another article to read, or or or….

Thinking back to my pre-kid life — which, admittedly, is hard to do since it’s been so long — I think there was part of me that thrived on the adrenaline rush of working right up until I left the office. Probably because I knew I’d have an opportunity to wind down at home after work, or go off to do something fun just for me, even if I did “have to” work later that night. With kids and a family, I don’t have the luxury of downtime when I come home — I walk in the door and I’m instantly in Mom Mode. But I never unlearned the habit of working up until the last minute. While my commute provides some down-ish time, it’s not the same — and I usually spend it stressing over things that happened at work or things waiting for me at home, or both.

Some recent health issues have me rethinking all sorts of aspects of my relationship to work. In recent years I’ve improved immensely in setting boundaries and saying no, but there’s still much more I can do. I sense that setting, and sticking to, a shutdown routine at this particular point in my life will produce outsized benefits to my mental and physical health. I just need to figure out what that looks like for me, for now.

Do you have a shutdown routine? I’d love to hear what you do and how well it works for you.


I’m trying out something new at the end of my posts. I always enjoy hearing and reading about what other people are reading and listening to, so at the end of my posts I’ll list one thing I’m reading (or have read this past week) and one thing I’m listening to (or have listened to recently).

What I’m reading: Just Work: Tools to Tackle Workplace Injustice, by Kim Scott.

What I’m listening to: “The Agile Academic”, a podcast hosted by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

4 thoughts on “Productivity trouble spot: Shutdown routine

  1. Thanks for this post, Amy. I also suffer from “just one more thing” syndrome, but hadn’t really seen the lack of a “shutdown routine.” What I’ve been trying to do, with mixed success, is to write tomorrow’s to do list before I leave work, since it only takes 5 minutes or so to write.

    This seems to work well when I’m at my desk and what I’m working on reaches a natural conclusion…less well if I’m busy with something up to 5pm and I’m in a hurry to leave. I suppose I could try to accomplish the “shutdown” earlier if I know there’s something on my calendar for the end of the day. I’m going to have to think about what to do with this when I return to teaching in August.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve thought about writing my to-do list at the end of the day, too. But I really enjoy spending the first few minutes of my morning thinking through the landscape of the day, so I’ve been reluctant to do so. I think there is a way to do both, but I just haven’t found it yet.

      Like

  2. I’m a big procrastinator, so it always takes me time to get started in the morning and then I’m “one more thing” in the evening. So now I try to write that task onto a sticky note for next morning. So far with mixed success – it helps me to let go in the evening but I’m not yet at the stage where I can really “remember” (re-feel?) the feeling of wanting to do that “one more thing” in the morning and get started more quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

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