Photos: Penny Gray Photography (Cal Newport) and Ivan-balvan (licensed from iStockPhoto)
Cal Newport was stressed.
In 2008, the 28-year-old MIT student was beginning work on his Ph.D. thesis.
But this wasn’t just any thesis.
According to Newport, the standard practice in computer science at the time was to take the best results from a collection of peer-reviewed publications, combine them, fill in the missing gaps, and “call the resulting mathematical chimera” a dissertation.
To him, that sounded like a waste of time.
So, he decided to do something different and began trying to prove entirely new results.
His research went well for the first few months. But by the following spring, things took a turn.
He’d accepted a post-doctoral position for September, forcing him to move up the date of his thesis defense.
At home, he’d ruminate endlessly about work, “ruining any chance at relaxation.” He started fearing he’d be kicked out of graduate school (and, worse, get stabbed to death “in a soup kitchen knife fight”). His future began to weigh on him.
After weeks of restless nights, he realized things needed to change.
The Shutdown Ritual is Born
Anyone who has experienced anxiety before can empathize.
According to the ADAA, roughly 72% of Americans report stress and anxiety that interferes with their workplace performance, interpersonal relationships, and quality of work. And more than three-quarters say those feelings often carry over into their downtime.
I had read (and even written about) Cal Newport’s work in the past (primarily his early excursion into developing time blocking), but the concept of an end-of-the-work-day shutdown was new to me.
Step 1: Updating your task lists 📝
Newport’s shutdown begins with learning how to make an effective to-do list.
About 15–30 minutes before the end of the workday, Newport recommends taking a final look at your inbox to make sure that there are now messages that require an urgent response.
After that, it’s time to update your master task lists.
Most people, like Newport, probably scribble or jot down tasks in various docs, note-taking apps, or paper notebooks throughout the day.
For Newport, what you use doesn’t really matter. (He previously used Google Tasks because they could sync with his calendar—similar to Bloks—before opting for a more low-tech Google docs file.)
The important thing is to transfer any to-dos that were hastily scribbled down earlier in the day to an official list, so you can quickly review them.
Step 2: Looking ahead at your calendar 📅
“Once I have these task lists open, I quickly skim every task in every list, and then look at the next few days on my calendar,” Newport writes in Deep Work. “These two actions ensure that there’s nothing urgent I’m forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on me.”
For anything that requires urgent attention, Newport dates it as being due in the near future. Everything else, theoretically, gets a later due date or is left unassigned:
“This ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it's captured in a place where it'll be revisited when the time is right.”
Further Reading: Skip the Vacation Calendar—Do This Before Taking Time Off
Step 3: Saying the magic words 🪄
Here’s where things get a bit new age-y:
“Finally—and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this—I close down my computer and say the magic phrase: ‘schedule shutdown, complete,’” Newport writes in his initial 2009 blog post about the shutdown ritual.
“This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it's safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day,” he writes in 2016’s Deep Work, suggesting an alternative could be crossing off a phrase like “shutdown complete” or marking off a checkbox that “indicates completion.”
That may sound a bit woo-woo. But it’s actually not that weird when you think about it.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about a process known as “pointing and calling” that Tokyo railway conductors use that “raises the level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level.” And a Bangor University study found that talking out loud improved control over a task. This is on top of centuries of evidence about mantras being used during spiritual practices to help silence the noise or regain focus.
Clearly, speaking out loud provides some benefits when it comes to quieting inner thoughts.
Further Reading: This Simple To-Do List Hack Could Make You Happier at Work
But what happens after 5 p.m.? 🕔
Again, as anybody who suffers from anxiety can attest, sometimes it’s hard to stop ruminating on future tasks once the workday is done.
“To succeed with the strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention,” Newport writes in Deep Work. “This includes, crucially, checking email, as well as browsing work-related websites.”
Sounds easier said than done, right? Well, Newport is well aware of that.
“The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy,” he writes again in Deep Work, adding that you may want to keep a notebook around to jot down any thoughts or tasks that pop into your mind after the workday is finished. “Fortunately, we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds.”
According to Newport, creating a list of tasks helps combat the Zeigarnik effect (i.e., the way incomplete tasks sometimes dominate our attention) by identifying tasks and getting them down in writing.
“Your mind, in other words, is released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment,” Newport writes. “Your shutdown ritual has taken over that responsibility.”
Obviously, it’s working for him 📚
Since Cal Newport’s shutdown ritual was first written on his blog in 2009, he’s gone on to be a regular contributor to the New Yorker, published a New York Times bestseller (2019’s Digital Minimalism), and become the host of his own podcast (Deep Questions with Cal Newport), all while being a computer science professor at Georgetown University.
With all that under his belt, it’s fair to say that he’s probably wired a bit differently than most.
Like all practical advice, Cal Newport’s shutdown strategy sounds obvious once you hear it, harder to implement than you think, impossible to do when you start, and a life-saver once you master it.
Try it for yourself, and let me know how it goes. Personally, I’ve found dedicating time to organize my task list at the end of each workday incredibly helpful (especially on Sundays before each week begins).
But if all of this seems like a bit much, you can always follow Newport’s more simplified advice:
“When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.”