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Making a Break . . .

| April 6, 2018

by Jim Bruce

. . . Between Work and the Rest of Your Life

Many of us have a difficult time of putting down our work to turn to the rest of our lives – time with family and friends, attending sports or other activities our children participate in, taking a walk in the woods, …  It’s a long list.  And, it’s made ever more difficult by the increasing functionality and presence of our smartphones.  And, even when we argue that it’s in our hand to do something personal – like using Apple Pay to pay for coffee, or to check a personal text message – it’s all too easy to check to see if we have email from the office, etc.  And, often with that one check we get sucked in.
A recent Harvard Business Review essay, How to Let Go at the End of the Workday,1 brought this topic to my attention again.  In this essay, the author Deborah Bright, author of several books and president of an executive coaching and training organization, Bright Enterprises, Inc., suggests that creating end of work routines may be an effective way to create a psychological barrier between your world of work time and your personal time. 
Last September, in my Tuesday Reading, A Practice for the End of Your Workday,2 I outlined a process that Cal Newport, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, uses at the end of each day.  It’s simple (in theory):

  1. Have a firm ending to your workday.  Newport argues that even the smallest intrusion of work can generate a self-reinforcing set of distractions to your non-work activities.
  2. Shut-down every incomplete task in a way that you can come back, start where you left off, and finish it.
  3. Make a final pass through your Inbox and To Do list to ensure that everything urgent has been dealt with.
  4. Announce to yourself that the workday is done.  He does this by announcing out loud “Shutdown complete.”

Bright’s essay provides a similar five-step process:

  1. Do one more small task.  This permits you to end your day with a note of positive satisfaction.  Amabile and Kramer, in their book The Progress Principle:  Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, report that even “small wins” can enhance your mood.
  2. Update your To Do List.  This way you leave with a sense that you know what is before you for your next day at work.
  3. Straighten up your work area.  Putting things away and organizing your “piles,” position you for a fresh start for your next day.
  4. Choose a specific action that will symbolize the end of thinking about work.  For example, shut and lock your door.  
  5. Start the evening off on a positive note.  Instead of greeting family and friends with the question “How was your day?” ask, instead, about the good and exciting things in their day, about things they are grateful for happening in their day.

A small study by Bright and her colleagues suggests that having and following a shutdown ritual may increase the likelihood of you successfully transitioning from work to non-work from about 40% to 70%. 
If this is an issue you are dealing with and want to make a change, give one of these processes a try or invent your own.  I’d be interested in learning how you make out.  Just remember, whatever you do, you must make it a habit.
Having mentioned the smartphone in the first paragraph, permit me one further comment.  If ignoring work email, text messages, and phone calls on your smartphone is a problem because you also receive personal messages and calls there, I suggest that you consider doing something an increasing number of others do:  First get a personal smartphone for personal activities and then leave your work smartphone locked up in the office.
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.

  1. Deborah Bright, How to Let Go at the End of the Workday, Harvard Business Review, November 23, 2017.
  2. Jim Bruce, A Practice for the End of Your Workday, Tuesday Reading, September 19, 2017.
  3. Cal Newport, Deep Work:  Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing, January 2016.