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A Practice for the End of Your Workday

| September 12, 2017

by Jim Bruce

From time to time in the Tuesday Readings, we have talked about practices, small habits, that we can use regularly in our day-to-day activities to improve our outcomes.  For example, past Tuesday Readings have focused on practices (“The Meeting Is Over …” – January 31, 2017, “Resilience” – February 10, 2017, “Questions” – February 27, 2017, “Difficult Conversations” – March 28, 2017, etc.) that readers may choose to work on so that they are routinely available to use as the situation arises.
For example, I have a number of practices around meetings I’m asked to attend.  I expect an agenda will arrive before the meeting with the background materials required for the meeting.  (And, if it doesn’t arrive, I ask for it.)  I carefully review both the agenda and the materials.  If I don’t understand the agenda or the materials, I seek clarification and/or request any additional information I need in my preparation before the meeting.  I make notes on points I want to raise in the meeting, etc.  I depart for the meeting in time to arrive at least 10 minutes before the meeting’s starting time.  I take the time before the meeting to get settled, to have short conversations (renewing relationships) with others who arrive early, to meet individuals I don’t know, etc.  Having done this for years, it is a well in-grained set of habits, practices that have served, and continue serve, me well.
One important set of practices that we have discussed on several occasions centers around planning for your coming week, confirming that plan for each day as it arrives, and making sure that you have set aside time to do the important work that only you can do, etc.  Part of this set of practices is putting everything you plan to work on and accomplish in the appropriate day on your calendar.  Otherwise, it may get lost in the business of the coming day.
Today, I want to introduce a practice of closing out your day.  Neuroscience research has demonstrated that if we stop our work on a task before we have completed it or if we have mentally begun tasks that we anticipated completing in the current work session, there will be “hangover effects.”  I.e., our thoughts on these projects will work to get our attention through out the remainder of the day and evening, sometimes even making it more difficult to get to sleep.  If, however, you make a plan for completing those tasks, e.g., giving them priority by scheduling them on your calendar for tomorrow or sometime in the future, the hangover effect will be significantly diminished. 
So, what’s the plan?  Cal Newport proposes a conceptually simple one in his book Deep Work (which we’ll come back to in future Tuesday Readings), which forms the basis of what I propose here:
1.  Have a firm ending to your workday.  Newport believes that you need to firmly mark the end of your workday so that you can give your full attention to important activities with friends and family and for sleep.  He argues than even the smallest intrusion of work concerns can generate a self-reinforcing set of distractions to your non-work activities.
2.  Before you get to that end point, you need to shut down every incomplete task.  You do that by walking through your calendar, examining every item on the calendar (this is one reason why you put every thing you expect to do “today” on your calendar) asking whether the work on this task is complete.  If it’s complete, you can file it away as done.  If not, you need to identify what was not done, and when in the future you will complete that work.  For you to be able to mentally let the task go, you have to be confident that you have noted the uncompleted task in a way that you’ll come back to it and finish your work.  This will, if rigorously done, permit you to let go of that task.
3.  For most of us, we will also want or need to make a final pass for the day through our Inbox and To Do list to make sure there is nothing urgent there that needs immediate attention.  Do note the word final.  Newport firmly believes that there needs to be an inviolate demarcation to the end of our workday.
4.  And, then we announce to ourselves that the workday is done.  Newport does this by ritualistically announcing, Shutdown Complete.  And, then he leaves his workplace and goes home.
Now, I can hear you already saying “Newport is a faculty member (Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University).  He has the flexibility to not be available 24X7.  I don’t.”  That may be true.  However, I suspect, that you may have more flexibility than you choose to believe you have.  Some of us, including myself, tend to wander by our keyboards and check email “just to see” what’s there.  Too often, we then jump into our mail in ways that are not necessary, helpful, or healthy.  (Confession:  I’m working on this!)
Some of you may be smiling, thinking I don’t go by my keyboard.  I just pull out my smartphone.  If you really want to be able to say Shutdown Complete, you have to silence your smartphone in a way that you don’t get signaled by work related messages and events.
So, let me challenge you to develop a “shutdown” ritual whereby, each day, you call an end to your workday and give some real attention to your family and friends and the rest of your life.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Cal Newport, Deep Work:  Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing, January 2016.
Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo, “Consider It Done, Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfilled goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, October 2014.