A routine to help you ‘shut off’ at the end of the day

We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.

– Aristotle

Author: Deborah Bright

Source: https://hbr.org/2017/11/how-to-let-go-at-the-end-of-the-workday?

Key Takeaways:

  • Research shows that creating a ‘Psychological Barrier’ between work time and home time has a positive impact on wellbeing, productivity and stress management.
  • Technology has made it harder to create this barrier as the workplace is ‘one touch screen away’
  • There are proven strategies that when embedded as a sequential habit improve our ability to ‘shut off’ from work.


This may be a silly question and one I think I know the answer to… Do you find it hard to switch off from work? I certainly do and during the early part of my career my wife lovingly referred to me as ‘Mr Toshiba Head’ as all she saw of me when I eventually arrived home was the back of my laptop. I just couldn’t shut off from work and when I did close my laptop and rest my Toshiba head on a pillow, I dreamt about work. This article provides 5 proven strategies to support humans to create a psychological barrier between work and home. When you first read them, if you are anything like me, you will think they are impossible and that there is no way you can possibly make this a routine. I challenge you to try.


We “never seem to be able to turn off,” and the article cites a 7-year study on workers’ performance that found an inability to make a break between professional and personal time ranked in the top 10 stressful situations that people were least effective at handling. It is draining and feels like it is out of our control. Technology has made this even more difficult as we all essentially carry work around in our pockets wherever we are in the world as our phones have email which is a direct and addictive link to the work place. The author reminds us that, “The workplace is only a touch screen away.”

The article states that using the following 5 strategies to create an end of day routine supports people to create the psychological barrier between their two worlds. A small study of 26 managers who adopted this routine for a period of time showed that those who identified as effective at managing stress related to ‘shutting off’ jumped from 40% to 68% once the routine was established. Clearly, this is a small sample but a significant improvement – so surely worth a try for us all?

The routine:

Before you leave work –

1) Do one more small task

This ends your day on a high and gives you a burst of dopamine (the feel good hormone of pleasure, learning and motivation). It also links to the research by Amabile and Kramer (blog here) about the power of small wins and the mood enhancing benefits of small achievements.

2) Create a to-do list

This can be paper based or digital but include all the essential tasks to accomplish for the following day. Even better, order these chronologically or in order of significance/importance. Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So plan your toughest task or the one you are trying to avoid for first thing in the morning. The article cites a study carried out on 1000 workers in North East America which found this to-do list practice to be amongst the top 3 strategies for enhancing performance and positively redirecting stress.

3) Straighten up your work area

People who know me and have worked with me will laugh at this as my reputation for a messy desk will last long in the memory. What they won’t know is that within the apparent chaos were some carefully prepared things each evening. My to-do list was always left on the key board of my desktop, my plan for the day was underneath it and my chair was always tucked in. I should have gone further though. The article suggests that putting things away and feeling organised puts us in a better position to start fresh the next day. Qualitative evidence from the study cited above shows that a cluttered work space led to a rekindling of frustration/stress from the previous day. An argument for a tidy desk means a tidy mind.

4) Choose a symbolic action (the author calls ‘an anchor’)

This will symbolise the end of the working day. It could be switching off your computer, closing/locking a door, driving home, getting on a bus, putting your favourite song on – anything you want. For me, it is closing my laptop lid, putting my to do list on top of it and closing the door to my upstairs work space. The key is that it is consistent, and the analogy is that age old image of ‘punching out/clocking off’ at the end of a shift. Having this routine, symbolic action supports in taking control of your emotions and shifting your mental state. The article cites this research (Gino & Norton, 2013) to show ‘why rituals work’ .

5) Start the evening on a positive note

There is a warning in the article that the age-old question of – “How was your day?” opens up the floor for a good old moan and “everyone’s residual work or school stress.” It is advised that you are more specific when speaking to someone at home. Ask about the good and exciting things that happened, maybe ask about something different or new that happened. Anything that opens a positive conversation and takes the focus off yourself.

I was sceptical when I first read this because I have struggled for years to ‘shut off’ at the end of the day. My phone and laptop being close to me during the evening always gives me the temptation to be doing something. Surely doing these five things wouldn’t make any difference to this?

Since reading this article I have been following these 5 steps whenever possible and I can report that when I intentionally and deliberately follow these steps that my ability to switch off is significantly better than when I just ‘stop’ work. Following the routine makes me feel more relaxed; I love the positive conversation with my wife and daughter; having my laptop closed upstairs stops me reaching for it; knowing that my to-do list has planned the start of my next day calms me; and I have taken strategy 1 further, not only do I do one more job, I consciously remind myself and ‘celebrate’ a success from the day. There are rare times I have had to ‘go back to work’ to take an urgent phone call but I have then tried to follow the same routine to re-capture my calm. I encourage you to have a go as I think Ms Bright is on to something.

Challenge Activity

Follow this routine every night this week when you have finished work. Be conscious of how you feel after you have completed the 5 steps. I’d be interested to know if it works for you. Comment here or tweet me @sirmobbsalot

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