Opening and Closing Rituals for a Productive Day
When you start or end your workday, do you have any rituals you do? Anything that gets you into and out of the mindset of work? Asking a few of my friends and colleagues, here are some things they said:
- “I get to work right after breakfast and making my coffee.”
- “My workday ends at 5 PM. I have a home office, and when I step out after 5 PM, I don’t do any work.”
- “I walk my kids to work and then walk back home, and consider that my ‘commute’ to the office.”
- “I set up a to-do list at the beginning of the day. After work, I cross off all things I completed, write new tasks, and use that as my to-do list for the next day.”
- “My workday starts whenever I wake up and sit in front of the computer.”
Photo by Raychan on Unsplash
It’s clear that among my friends and colleagues, some of them have things they do to mark the start and end of work, while others use external factors like family dinner, kids, or time to create boundaries around their day.
Laura Vanderkam, an expert in time management, talks about opening and closing rituals in her new book, The New Corner Office, and she advocates for a strategic and conscientious approach to opening and closing rituals. Although I’m on a holiday break from work, one thing I’m going to experiment with is opening and closing rituals to start and end my work.
In The New Corner Office, Laura talks about how the world has since changed with COVID. Most people, whether they had worked remotely or were always in the office, are now working remotely, and they are trying to adjust to this new normal. While as before, many of us had to battle through traffic to get to work, we can now wake up, sit down in front of our computer wearing pajamas, and start working. This means some interesting things:
- Working from home means there are no definitive ‘start’ and ‘end’ times. If you went into the office, you started working the moment you sat down in your cubicle, and your work ended when you left the office. Working remote has its benefits, and one benefit is you can work the hours you want to work, though the trade-off is that you may feel you are working all the time.
- Working from home means you can structure your day around your schedule, routines, and energy. Feel most productive early in the morning? Nothing stops you from waking up early, working from 6 to 9 AM, and then taking a break to help your kids get ready for school or eat breakfast with the family. Are you a single parent trying to get dinner ready? Stop at 4 PM, have dinner with the family, and then continue working after 8 PM when your kids are in bed.
Clearly, an opening (and closing) ritual is important to mark out your workday and to gain ‘balance.’ Laura suggests the following opening rituals to start your day:
- Creating a fake commute, such as walking your kids to school and then walking home.
- Playing music with no lyrics to get into a focused state of mind.
- Meditating or journaling in the first 5 minutes of your workday.
- Taking 15 minutes to check your schedule, jot down your to-do list, and planning out your day.
- Reading for 5 minutes.
Find an activity you enjoy and that will bring you to the right state of mind for work. For most people, the best hours of the day (the most productive) are early in the morning, so you don’t want to ‘waste’ the time checking emails, going to meetings, or doing easy tasks you could do (such as clearing out your inbox, data entry, archiving files) when your energy is lower.
I read one study — I think from one of Dan Ariely’s books — that studied prison guards’ stress levels. Being around inmates all the time, trying to manage and control them, while at any moment, one wrong move could be the end of your life, is quite stressful. The study asked the guards to, at the end of their work, wash their hands, either just before leaving or immediately after getting home. This act of washing their hands reduced the stress the guards felt after work!
While after reading this study, I recognized the importance of an end of the day ritual; I did not quite land on anything that worked for me. I tried looking at my schedule the next day, checking my to-do list for the day, creating a to-do list for tomorrow, journaling, and a few other things. But now that I (and I’m sure many of you) are working remotely, I find my end of workday blends in with my home life, and I can’t seem to stop.
Laura outlines several examples in her book as good closing rituals:
- Reversing your fake commute if you had one
- Physical activity (exercise, yoga, stretching)
- Creating a ‘ta-da’ list (i.e., what you accomplished that day — a term borrowed from Gretchen Rubin)
- Looking ahead at your next day to see where you should spend your time (and declining unnecessary meetings)
- Scheduling social or external commitments near the end of the day (such as an appointment with a trainer or a catch-up call with friends)
One thing I found fascinating and true: Laura says whatever your last activity is, it carries over into your home life after. For example, if you are working on something stressful from 4 to 5 PM and then go off to family dinner, you are going to bring that stress to the dinner. Better instead to use the last 30 minutes or your workday to do something easy and stress-free, perhaps even relaxing.
However, you end your workday, find a closing ritual that is relaxing and puts you into the right state of mind to transition back to your home life. You don’t want to do something stressful for your last 30 minutes of your workday because you carry that stress into your life after work. Also, use external commitments to give an ‘end’ to your day, but also to boost your productivity by reducing the time you have to work (or similarly, reducing the time you have to procrastinate).