How to establish a shutdown ritual

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

Do you have a good shutdown ritual? You should! Here’s how to implement one that will work for you…

Writing — like cooking, cleaning and parenting — is a job that knows no beginning or ending. It’s something you do all the time, even in the middle of the night, if you’re the type of person who keeps a notepad on your bedside table.

But don’t you think your life would be a little better if you could draw some boundaries around your writing time, particularly if you’re a freelance writer or an academic? (Or an employee with a crazy boss who expects you to work 24/7?)

To draw a line around your writing, you need a shutdown ritual. A way of telling yourself that you’ve stopped working. I’ve been doing a daily shutdown for about 13 years — from the moment I read about the idea in writer and computer scientist Cal Newport’s blog.

The concept just made so much sense to me! I work hard during the day — don’t I deserve some time off at night? Why should I let worries about my writing work consume my thoughts all the time? 

My daily shutdown focuses on tasks I want to do but that require low energy and don’t need a lot of brainpower. I do them at the end of each day because they let me stay organized and help me feel ready to take a break. 

I list the specific tasks on a chart that I keep on a clipboard to the right-hand side of my keyboard. It is always at hand and it’s set up with tick boxes for each day of the week. My ritual includes eight steps. I take about 20 minutes and I usually do it between 5 and 5:30 pm, although occasionally earlier and rarely later. Since I’ve started keeping this list, I have never worked after 6 pm. And it feels terrific to put a tick mark in each of those boxes every day!

I provide a link to my sheet, below, but before you even glance at it, please understand that my precise list will not work for you because our working lives are different! Like a set of fingerprints or a snowflake, each daily shutdown is unique. Also, the number of tasks I do, eight, is not magical. You might have two tasks or 13. Do what suits you!

Now that you know those provisos, here’s a link to an MS Word version of my shutdown.

More info on the eight items on my list, below. Note that time estimates are rough and vary significantly from day to day:

1-Check latest GID reports & reply (10 mins) 

My Get it Done group is an accountability program for anyone writing a long-form project (book or dissertation) or trying to build a writing habit. This group gets a lot of attention from me because each participant is required to report in to me daily. I check their reports first thing every morning (when I take at least 15 to 20 mins) and again at the end of every day. And I comment on each report. This feedback is essential for group members because it allows them to feel connected and engaged. If you’re interested in Get It Done, the next group starts Feb. 1 and you can read all about it here.

2-Review Feedly (5 to 10 mins)

I follow about 70 blogs each week. This may sound like a lot, but only a handful of these bloggers post daily. The majority are once a week; some are once a month and others are even less frequent than that. Feedly is a free, online-based software that allows me to see all these blogs in one spot and scan through them quickly and efficiently. If the headline tells me I won’t be interested in the subject, I’m able to skip it. But I get many worthwhile ideas for my own blog posts from reading Feedly.

3-Check Disqus (2 mins)

Disqus is the commenting software linked to my blog. If someone comments, I respond. It doesn’t take me long and I like the feeling of connection it engenders.

4-Track today’s achievements/goals* (2 mins)

Each morning I make a paper list of what I intend to accomplish that day (this list is one of the other items that goes on my clipboard). At day’s end, I go through that list and put a DONE or (less often) a NOPE beside what I did or didn’t do. This tracking/accountability to myself means I have a lot more DONEs than NOPEs. (I have put an asterisk beside this item because I think it’s the one task you might copy for your own shutdown ritual as well.) I also write down one lesson that I learned during each day.

5-Shut down my to do list (1 minute)

I keep my to-do list digitally, in a piece of software called Zenkit To Do. (There are both free and paid versions.)

Here’s what I like about it:

  • You can attach a due date to every task and then look ONLY at the tasks due on a particular day.
  • You can sort your tasks into various categories. I put tasks that I can (probably) do in five minutes or fewer into one category and tasks taking 30 minutes or more into another.
  • You can get access to your list account anywhere – on your phone, on any computer so it is always instantly accessible.

To shut down the list, I move any uncompleted task to the next day’s schedule.

6-Update client hours list for the day (1 min)

A few of my clients want to be charged by the hour. If they fall into that category, I record my working time for them on a sheet on my clipboard. Once a day, I transfer that data to an Excel spreadsheet.

7-Prep schedule for next day (1 min)

I prefer to do my daily planning first thing in the morning, so I can get excited about what I’m going to accomplish that day. But at day’s end I create my calendar form the next day, blocking off all the meetings in advance. This will make the next day’s planning go more quickly.

8-Water my plants (1 min.)

I enjoy wrapping up my day with the prosaic but life-affirming task of keeping green things alive in my office. It has nothing to do with my work — except that it makes my working area more beautiful.

One recent addition to my shutdown ritual is that I now say a phrase to myself to mark the end of the day. Cal Newport suggests saying “schedule shutdown, complete,” but I find that comment to be too cold and mechanical for my tastes. It makes me think of something HAL, the robot from 2001: A Space Odyssey might say. Instead, I tell myself, “no more work today!”

This phrase is not only a good reminder to me that I shouldn’t have to worry about work after dinner — it also helps me stop checking my email via my phone during the evening.

Having your own shutdown ritual is a terrific way to end work and will allow you to feel more relaxed and refreshed the next day.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Jan. 16/18.

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Want to develop a truly sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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Do you have a shutdown ritual? How does it work? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Michael Jordan, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Dec. 9/22 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Michael!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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