How to accomplish more by working less (Shutdown Routine)


I used to work 24/7. In the morning, I’d open my laptop with no idea of what I wanted to get done. I’d then check my inbox, get distracted by all the new email – and spend most of my day on urgent, yet unimportant tasks.

In the evening, I’d feel guilty about not making progress on the important stuff. As a result, I’d work late. Really late. When I finally called it a day, I couldn’t get work out of my head. It would consume me during my time off.

In short, I didn’t get stuff done at work & felt discouraged and stressed at home. All that changed when I started using Cal Newport’s Shutdown Routine.

What to do

At whatever time your workload permits, systematically move from work mode to non-work mode.

Why it works

With a Shutdown Routine, you’ll accomplish more by working less for three science-backed reasons. First, it improves your focus. Recharging our capacity for cognitive work requires uninterrupted freedom from focusing on such work. According to “attention restoration theory”, working 24/7 robs your attention centers of that downtime.

Second, it improves your efficiency. According to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion”. This is what makes deadlines work, by the way. As it turns out, Parkinson’s Law can work for or against you. Without a set time to call it a day, you’ll probably end up working late. With a set time, you’ll get more done in less time.

Third, it improves your creativity. Giving your conscious mind some time off lets your unconscious mind work on the things that are important to you, according to “unconscious thought theory”. This, by the way, happens before we get flashes of creative inspiration while brushing our teeth or taking a shower.

How to do it

Put a recurring Shutdown Routine on your calendar at whatever time your workload permits. Include three simple steps. First, Do a final email review before shutting down your email client. Ensure there is nothing left that requires a response before the day ends. Second, Update your to-do list with any notes from the day. If you have a designated place for collecting ideas, put them there. Third, review the day ahead on your calendar – and set 1-3 goals for that day.

These simple steps ensure that you don’t miss any deadlines or appointments. This is vital for enabling your mind to move from work mode to non-work mode. On top of these three steps, Newport recommends making a mental statement to yourself as you complete the ritual (the Newportian classic is “shutdown complete”). This provides an extra signal to your mind that there is nothing left to worry about at work.

We “could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work”, according to Newport. Yet, that’s not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for burnout. “If you strictly follow this shutdown ritual”, he writes, “you’ll soon discover that not only are you working harder when you work, but your time after work is more meaningful and restorative than ever before”.

So, instead of working 24/7, end your workday with a Shutdown Routine. You’ll feel less stressed and more relaxed at home – and accomplish more by working less via better focus, efficiency and creativity.

After he developed the ritual as a student, Newport earned a Ph.D. in computer science at MIT. After that, he achieved tenure as a professor at Georgetown University. As a side gig, he published several bestselling books for general audiences.

The best part: He accomplished all this while rarely working past 5.30 pm – to spend ample time with his wife and four young kids. Against this background, here’s a question: What could a similar ritual do for you?