Cal Newport’s Shutdown Ritual Could Help You Stress Less After Work

The bestselling author’s three-step strategy—popularized in Deep Work—takes less than 30 minutes and is known to reduce excessive worrying at night.
Matthew Ritchie
February 6, 2023
8 minute read
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.

According to Newport’s blog and his book Deep Work, an end-of-workday shutdown ritual involves three steps that you should “always conduct, one after another.”

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.

Further Reading: Want to Sleep Better at Night? Psychologists Say to Write a To-Do List

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.? 🕔

Good question.

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.”

To read more about the tactics and strategies used by leading productivity experts, check out our blog. A longer version of this post originally appeared on Medium

Whether you’re a sales superstar, in-demand consultant, busy recruiter, or someone who simply needs to schedule a lot of meetings, one thing’s for sure—you’ve probably booked a lot of them over the past two years.

Hybrid work has forced the majority of our meetings online, and while we appreciate being able to wear sweatpants during normal work hours, the time-consuming ballet that is sharing your availability, finding a time to meet, and adding it to your calendar isn’t quite as enjoyable. 

Speaking with everyone from solopreneurs to seasoned professionals, it seems like a lot of people find meeting scheduling software either costly, impersonal, or just plain boring. And Calendly and other alternatives don’t always cut it.

We hear you. 

Everyone is different, and so is how they work. Making good first impressions is important, and you shouldn’t have to pay a premium for them or basic customizations and integrations with your meeting booking system.

Nook Calendar’s meeting proposal feature is already used by tons of high-performing teams for selecting and proposing meeting times outside of their organization. 

Now, we’re making things even easier by letting you build personal pages with shareable calendar-booking links, right in Nook Calendar. Add them to your LinkedIn profile, email signature, website, or messages when finding a time to meet.

We think it’s the best meeting scheduling software out there, and we’re excited for you to give it a try, so let’s get started.

Here’s How to Set Up a Personal Booking Page in Nook Calendar

First off, if you’re new to Nook Calendar—hello! (If you’re already a Nook user, you can skip ahead.)

You’re going to start by syncing your calendar—either from Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook—and entering your work email address.

Once you approve any necessary permissions, you’ll set up your People Bar. Search for any connections and add the people you interact with the most when scheduling meetings.

From there, you can add any additional calendars you want to see (add your personal one, if you like, to further prevent any overlaps when scheduling meetings), integrate with Zoom (so you can launch calls straight from your calendar), and choose your preferred display setting—select Match OS, Light Mode, or Dark Mode.

Launch Nook Calendar, and you’re ready to set up your online meeting scheduler.

Now, the fun begins

You’re going to start by claiming your unique URL for sharing your meeting availability page. 

Your first name appears by default, but really, it can be anything. We recommend using your full name (e.g., /john-smith).

(You can always change your URL in the future, as long as it’s still available.)

From there, you want to complete your profile. 

Your profile pic is automatically pulled in from your Microsoft or GCal account.

But you can add your name, job title, welcome message, and links to social media profiles or professional website, so guests know a bit more about you when booking a meeting. 

Then, you can start setting your weekly availability.

Nook Calendar defaults to traditional time blocks—9–12 a.m. and 1–5 p.m. These are the hours someone can book a meeting from your personal page. Adjust them based on your availability. 

Your timezone is automatically set to your local time, but you can change it if you primarily work with people in a different timezone and it’s better to visualize that when setting your availability.

Choose which calendar you want to accept meetings in—it can only be booked in one, but Nook Calendar will automatically reference your availability in other calendars you’ve synced to prevent double-bookings when someone schedules a meeting.

Now, it’s time to set up some paramaters. 

You can set up your preferred meeting duration in either 15, 30, 45-minute or one-hour increments (or a custom time).

You can also add buffer time to give yourself a break between meetings, or set a lead time of up to 24 hours, so no one can book any last-minute meetings.

And you’re all set! You can preview what the page will look like, then share it with contacts or add it to your LinkedIn profile (we suggest adding it as a secondary URL), email signature, and anywhere else you do business.

Once someone books time in your calendar, you’ll receive an email and get a notification in the Pulse.

If you ever need to make any changes, you can access your personal meeting page in the bottom of the Magic Panel and make any adjustments—either to your weekly availability or personal information.

You can also remove your availability by simply creating events in Nook Calendar and marking them as Busy to block off time and prevent any bookings.

Nook Calendar’s new personal pages for sharing meeting availability are available on Web, iOS, and Android. 
If you have any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear them. Hit us up in our Slack Community or contact us through Support.