The Middle Part Doesn’t Matter All That Much
As a young trial lawyer, an experienced, older attorney took me aside and explained what’s important about closing arguments: “The key is to nail the beginning and the ending, and anything that happens in the middle doesn’t matter so much.”
I would argue that the beginning and end of your day are equally important. Startup and shutdown routines are the way you add structure to your day. Without them, you become adrift in a sea of competing obligations. I know because I have spent too many days adrift.
At one point in my life, I found myself working harder than ever but feeling like I was accomplishing little. The implementation of startup and shutdown rituals fixed that for me. They brought order to my chaos. I want to share those with you here in hopes that you can get a little inspiration and experiment with your own startup and shutdown routines.
Every day at 4:30 PM, I shut down my day. To me, a shutdown has two goals: 1) to bring all the plates from today to the ground so I can walk away from the day without feeling any stress; 2) to set myself up for success tomorrow.
First, I Shut Down the Day
1. Deal with Other Humans
To begin with, I spent about 45 minutes on communications. This is the time of day I deal with email, text messages, the MacSparky Labs, and any other communication channels in my life. I give it 30 to 45 minutes and no more. Except for a brief review of emails in the morning (to make sure nothing is on fire), this is where I spend time communicating with others.
2. Audit Tasks
Next, I review my tasks for the day and look for anything that didn’t get completed and plan it forward. Note I didn’t say I schedule it for tomorrow. Sometimes planning it forward may mean that it waits days or weeks. The point is that after the shutdown, it is safely stowed away somewhere for future action, and I don’t have to try and carry it around in my brain.
3. Project Audit
The end of the day is also an excellent time to audit any outstanding projects and check on their status. I don’t check in on all my projects every day, but I do check in on those that are on my mind. Quite often, it is here where I can remove unneeded tasks or jump-start something that has gotten stuck.
4. Daily Review
I also review my daily schedule and make notes following anything that happened during the day. Often I will catch a few items that I didn’t process in the moment. If I had any meetings, did I agree to anything that needs to get put into the system? If I had new ideas, do they merit further consideration? This is my second chance to catch any loose bits remaining from the day.
Finally, I will spend some time journaling the day. Journaling is a form of self-reflection, and shutdown time is perfect for it.
Then I Plan Tomorrow
I also plan the next day when I do my shutdown. You don’t have to do it this way. You could wait until the morning. For me, however, I prefer to do it the night before. It allows me to go to bed knowing that the next day’s plan is already in place. I’ve also realized that the evening version of myself is much more realistic about how much I can finish in a day. When it comes to unreasonably loading up my day, the morning version of myself is a jerk.
There’s also another reason I plan at the end of the day: My maker mind works best in the morning. Having already done all the planning the night before, this lets me hit the ground when I’m at my best. If you’re a slow starter and need some time to get wound up, that’d be an excellent reason to let your manager mind have the early morning and do your planning then.
1. Consult the Calendar
First, I look at the next day’s calendar for any appointments and other events I should know about. Often I’ll send out confirming emails at this time if I have any meetings planned with anyone else.
2. Set up some Tasks
At any time, I have a lot of tasks in my system. But only a few will be on deck for the next day. Typically, that’s a few big things and several little things. Having just consulted my calendar for the next day, I have a pretty good idea of how much time I’ll have, and I’ll make those tough choices at this point.
3. Return to the Calendar
Now, having chosen some tasks, I return to my calendar and block time into it for the related projects. I’m a big fan of blocked time, and while I don’t always live up to it, blocked time is where I do my best work.
4. Have Fun
There is something special about the quality of your leisure time after you have spent a few minutes properly shutting down and planning for tomorrow. It is just better. You can focus on the people you love, get lost in your personal projects, and even the flowers smell better.
My Startup Routine
My startup routine is much smaller than my shutdown. That’s because I do a lot of the hard work at the start of the routine the night before.
That said, I do have a list.
I am lucky to have a job where I leap out of bed every morning. However, a short meditation each morning helps me center myself and focus for the day. I have friends that have a similar practice with prayer. Regardless, I recommend you find a way to start the day off with a bit of introspection.
2. Morning journal
Next, I spend some more time journaling. I already have the daily priority from the previous evening, but I always spend some time in the morning writing about what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, and my thoughts going into the day. I also pick something inspirational and ponder that a bit. I do a lot of reading, and I highlight everything. Those are my sources for those inspirational bits.
I also spend a little time writing about why I am grateful for something every morning. I added this step a few years ago, and it quickly stuck. There is something very positive about starting the day making time to be thankful. It sets your mind right.
The source of your gratitude could be something grand, like your affection for a loved one, or something silly, like a new ice cream flavor. I like to pick something different every day, and that alone makes the exercise kind of fun.
4. Get started with the middle part
Having done that, I like to get on with my day. At that point, I have a plan, and it’s simply a matter of execution. Now I can spend the rest of the day making great stuff.
Is This Really Necessary?
Now I know what you’re thinking … all of this stuff takes too much time. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time doing your work instead of fiddling over startup and shutdown routines? I thought the same thing when I started these experiments, but I discovered that I get much more done when investing in a startup and shutdown routine. More importantly, I get more done on the critical stuff and am better at avoiding busy work.
Peter Drucker once quipped, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” He is absolutely right. Nothing’s worse than spending a whole day working on the wrong thing.
On reflection, this process gives me nice little containers at the beginning and end of days for my manager’s mind to do the manager bits and frees me the rest of the day from my creator side to take over. It’s liberating.
This is Harder Than You Think
With this knowledge, you would think I live up to my startup and shutdown routine every day without fail. Sadly, no. Even though I have daily, direct experience of the benefits of starting up and shutting down, I still have days where I fall off the wagon.
For me, the cause is usually end-of-day momentum. I get rolling in the late afternoon and think to myself, “Hey Sparky, forget everything you know and ignore that. Instead, keep working, and I’m sure when you’re done and completely exhausted, you will do your shutdown even though every time you try this tactic, you fail.” Then I end up skipping the shutdown and begin the next day adrift.
That happened to me earlier this week. I’m probably a fraud for writing this article at all, but my point is that this stuff is hard. As you build a startup and shutdown habit, use whatever tricks you have to make it happen. I, for instance, use this shortcut that has my HomePod yell at me every day at 4:30 PM and turn the lights on my desk blue. It’s silly, but it works.
What I can tell you is that when I properly startup and shutdown, I always get more of the critical work done, and the difference isn’t small. This is a 2-3 times multiplier for me, and I expect to be starting up and shutting down for the rest of my life. Maybe you should, too.
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