Do You Have a Shutdown Ritual? (And the Importance of Downtime)

Many of us lead busy lives and since the start of the pandemic, the lines between our home and work lives, mostly thanks to remote working, have become more and more blurred. We no longer have a daily commute that would usually signal the end of the working day and the start of an evening when we can switch off.

We need something that can have the same effect, but can work when our commute may be walking from our spare room to the kitchen at 5pm.

Fortunately, an answer was created way before the pandemic, in 2009 to be exact by Cal Newport. He called it a shutdown ritual and is something I read about in his more recent book, Deep Work.

Before sharing my own shutdown ritual, let’s talk about the reasons why downtime is important.

The importance of downtime

For you to fully engage in deep work and to be effective, you need to switch off your brain at other times so that you’re using mental energy in the right way. 

Let’s look at some of the core reasons why downtime is something that you should consciously think about, especially in the context of deep work. 

1. Downtime aids insights

Firstly, taking some downtime and switching off increases your ability to think about and solve complex problems when you’re actively thinking about them. 

This is known as unconscious thought theory, which is when you give your conscious brain time to rest, which enables your unconscious brain to take a shift sorting through your complex challenges. You’re allowing your brain to process problems without you even being aware of it.

You know that feeling when you spend ages thinking about a problem but you can’t solve it, then you step away to do something else and the answer comes to you? Or the common example of inspiration coming to you when you’re in the shower?

This is unconscious thought theory at play.

With your work, the key point to remember is that switching off and taking time out will help you solve problems, even unconsciously.

2. Downtime helps recharge deep work energy

To get the most out of deep work which, remember, can take a lot of mental energy, you need to have enough energy to start with. This means that you need to recharge your mental energy before engaging in deep work.

There is another theory to be aware of here, called attention restoration theory. This is the theory that our attention is finite and if we exhaust it, we will struggle to concentrate. We all know that feeling after a long, hard day or a very intensive meeting where we struggle to concentrate and be as effective as usual. This is when we’ve used up our attentive energy and we have no more to use.

Generally, taking time out and having some downtime can help restore this energy. It has also been shown that being in nature and the outdoors can help restore this energy, too.

You can only take downtime and restore energy if you’re confident that you’re done with work for the day, otherwise your brain won’t relax and recharge its energy. This is why having a shutdown ritual is so important, alongside downtime.

3. Evening work is usually not important

One blocker to switching off and taking downtime can be the temptation to work during the evenings. In a world where we can easily work on laptops, tablets and even our phones, it’s not hard to keep working out of hours.

Not only is evening work a common blocker to switching off, but quite often, the work isn’t actually that important. Either this or our attentive energy has worn out and we don’t do work that is high quality.

If you work deeply during the day, you’ve used up your energy and capacity, meaning that you’re beyond the point of being productive if you continue to work during the evening. 

So not only are we hurting ourselves by not having time to switch off, but the price we pay isn’t even worth it. 

Why we need a shutdown ritual

The key reason why you need a shutdown ritual is because of the Zeigarnik effect. This is:

‘The ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention if you literally stop work at 5pm. You are likely to struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues and they will bottle in your mind during the evening and win’.

Again, we all know how this feels. You finish work, have some food and you still can’t stop thinking about that thing that you didn’t quite wrap up. Or you have your laptop powered on next to you with your email open and you can see it filling up. 

Having a shutdown ritual helps to make sure that when you finish work, your mind is also switched off and allows you to recharge your mental batteries.

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

My shutdown ritual

To give you an example, I’m going to share my shutdown ritual. You don’t need to copy this exactly, but it should give you some inspiration about the kinds of things you should think about doing.

  • Clear all my notes from my desk: I make lots of notes every day on paper and before I finish for the day, I need to write them all up or throw them away if they aren’t useful.
  • Put my glasses away in their case: I only ever wear glasses when working at my screen, so putting them away shows that I’m no longer working.
  • Put post-its, pens and notes into my drawer: I will put away any bits and pieces that are lying on my desk away in a drawer so that my desk is neat and tidy for when I start work the next day.
  • Drink the last of my water bottle: this doesn’t just help to make sure I drink, but again, it signals that I’m done for the day.
  • Line up TrackPad and keyboard: finally, I’ll make my desk neat and tidy by lining up my wireless TrackPad and keyboard, ready for the next day when I start work again.

All of this combined helps tell my mind that work is done for the day. Your routine may be different and you may need to experiment with a few different things, but the goal is to step away from your desk for the day and know that work is done.

Give it a go this week and let me know how you get on.

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