How to stop working when there’s always more work to do

Knowledge work is open-ended. For every task you finish, there are two more you could start. Deadlines, competition, and genuinely interesting problems conspire to keep you working but rest is paramount for long term performance. Here are three ideas to help you put a hard stop to the work day and go off to recharge.

Image credits: Simon Abrams on Unsplash.

Knowledge work is open-ended. There are always new problems to solve and new iterations to try. In the long run, this leads to fulfilling careers and rich intellectual lives. But on the day-to-day timescale, the never-ending stream of things to do can make it hard to stop working and enjoy some well-earned rest.

There’s always more you could do. And it’s not just because our inboxes have become infinite. Knowledge work is creative. Some work problems are more akin to puzzles. They are genuinely fun to work on and hard to put down. There’s little difference between my “I’ll do just another code review” when it’s close to dinner time and my son’s “Just five more minutes” when it’s time to stop playing with LEGOs and help to tidy up.

I’m not here to preach about work-life balance. Nor am I shouting against the robber barons of the 21st century exploiting their knowledge workers for every minute of productivity they can. But I am interested in exercising autonomy over my schedule and properly unplugging from work when I decide it’s time to.

Let’s put a utilitarian hat on and pretend we don’t care about family, friends, community, and all the other things that make life worth living. Even if work were the only thing that mattered, overworking wouldn’t be a productive strategy. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang elaborates in his book Rest, downtime is not only healthy, it also fosters creativity and problem-solving.

Here are three techniques I found useful to cope with the “there’s always more I could do” problem and help transition from work to not-work.

Make a plan

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly said, “Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.” The quote expresses the value of foresight and hard work, but planning can also help you work at a sustainable pace.

To write any plan worth its salt, you need a decent understanding of how much work your project requires. The planning process also helps discover how to sequence and organize the work in subsequent steps. Once you have a plan, you can strategically spread the project workload over time.

Plans help ease our minds out of work mode. You can look at your plan and know that today you did what you had to, what you should work on tomorrow, the day after, and so on. The voice in your head that nags to do “just more thing” becomes quieter when faced with the reality of your progress.

Plans don’t need to be hyper-granular or overly rigid. In fact, it’s best to factor in some slack and flexibility to update the plan as you learn more or when outside forces change your priorities. What a plan really needs is honesty and rigor so that you and, more importantly, the subconscious part of your brain that keeps track of unfinished tasks can trust it.

Perform a shutdown ritual

What do you do when the work day is over? In his seminal book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests to perform an explicit shutdown ritual to reaffirm your “commitment to shutting down.”

A shutdown ritual, you might have guessed, consists of a series of actions to wrap up your workday. It should include one or more steps to 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 will be revisited when the time is right.”

The value of this process is twofold. First, when you’re at the end of the day and review all the incomplete items on your plate and either action them or track them in a trusted system, you put yourself in the best position to pick up where you left the day after.

Second, the ritualistic aspect of the performance nudges the parts of your mind that have a mind of their own to let go of the problems from the workday. Once your ritual has been established, it can have great psychological benefits. If you work remotely, the shutdown ritual could be the first step of your virtual commute.

Info dump when interrupted

Having a plan and performing a shutdown ritual assume your day follows a predictable, relatively fixed pattern. But what happens when your partner shouts for help because the kids decided the kitchen bench is the best place in the whole house where to play just when it’s time to prepare dinner? If there’s one way to make sure work will be on your mind away from your desk is to drop something halfway and run to do something else.

Unfinished tasks have a tendency to remain in our mental foreground, something technically referred to as Zeigarnik effect. Planning helps mitigate this effect by splitting work into steps that can be started and completed in a single session. As for the shutdown ritual, when you process unfinished items, you effectively move them away from your mental foreground, or at least push them out of the spotlight.

When faced with unexpected interruptions, we can mitigate the Zeigarnik effect by putting down on paper (or on a digital medium, if you prefer) what’s on our minds. Say that you are in the middle of coding a UI interface and get interrupted. You could write, right in the code, “next make button background orange.” As an aside, leaving raw text in code will make it easier to find it later because the compiler or runner will bark at it. Another example: You were interrupted when drafting a document. In that case, you could run an emergency info dump by adding a few bullet points to suggest how to finish the paragraph and how to open the next one.

A quick info dump before leaving work because of an interruption simulates some of the closure you’d get from finishing the task. Writing down your next moves also helps you resume work when you finally get back to it.

Athletes know that rest and recovery are vital for improving performance. As knowledge workers, we are athletes of the mind, so we should take rest as seriously and strategically as sports athletes do.

To rest effectively, one first needs to stop working. Having a plan helps you pace yourself day after day because it clearly identifies how to sequence the work and how much progress you have made.

However, moving away from the computer might not be enough to actually rest. The problems we’ve been working on often follow us out of the office and into the rest of our day. Performing a shutdown ritual can help you unload the tasks you’re tackling from your working memory to your subconscious so that you can be present in whatever you have going on after work.

Processing active items and identifying their next steps is a crucial part of a successful shutdown ritual. This technique can also be deployed as an emergency info dump when faced with unexpected interruptions. Quickly write down what you were up to and what you planned to do next to help you transition from your work in progress.

Productivity should be measured over long-time horizons. From that vantage point, it’s clear that we need to integrate ample rest into our schedule.

How you work is crucial. But so is how you stop working.

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