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8 Reasons You Didn’t Finish Your Shutdown Routine On Time with Quick Fixes

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

A workday shutdown routine is a vital piece of your productivity: it ritualizes what can be a stressful time of the day and leaves you in a good position to take full advantage of the next day. If you don’t have a workday shutdown routine yet, take a look at my post about creating one for yourself. But creating a routine is one thing, and implementing it is another. What if you just can’t manage to finish on time?

No one wants to stay late at the office (or home office!) finishing up tasks. Here are 8 reasons why you might have trouble getting done on time, and 8 quick fixes that might help you straighten yourself out.

You didn’t actually set a time for your shutdown routine

One day, while I was running my small group coaching session, I was talking about reasons why people don’t start their shutdown routine on time. One of my most experienced members said, “Oh! Marie! I never really established a time. In fact, I don’t know what time I should start my shutdown routine!” As you might imagine, her daily work bled into her shutdown routine: a recipe for not finishing on time.

To set a time, you need to know how long your shutdown routine takes. If you don’t yet, follow the steps outlined near the end of my first post. Make your best guess how long each step will take, try it out, and adjust as you go.

Quick fix: Set a time! You can’t possibly start your shutdown routine if you don’t know when it should start. And by the way, you don’t need to start your shutdown routine at the same time each day. For example, I like go home early on Friday, so I always plan to start my shutdown routine earlier on Fridays than on other days.

You underestimated the time it would take

Few of us can estimate the time we need to complete a task. It’s called the planning fallacy.

Introduced by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, the planning fallacy states that, when predicting how much time will be needed to complete a future task, people tend to display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few interesting examples from different parts of the world, with different people.

The most famous under-estimation involved the Sydney Opera House. The estimated cost to build it was $7 million, and the time needed was estimated to be 4 years. It was finished 14 years after construction was started, and the final cost was $102 million.

For an example closer to our own experiences, note that Buehler and colleagues asked PhD students to estimate the time needed to finish writing a thesis. The students estimated an average of 27 days for a best-case scenario, and 48 days for a worst-case scenario. In reality, it took the students an average of 55 days to complete their theses. So much for that prediction!

Rather than ask people to predict their future time investments, Roy and colleagues asked them to remember how long a similar task had taken in the past. Their findings showed that people also substantially underestimated the time it took to complete past tasks.

So it’s helpful to remember that we, as a species, are just not very good at knowing how long things take. Whether people are estimating the time needed for a hoped-for future completion, or recalling the time invested in a past project, their estimates were substantially lower than the reality. No wonder it’s so hard to finish on time.

Quick fix: Try using my late father’s formula. Although he was talking about money, not time, it’s worth considering: Make your best guess, double it, and add $500. Totally unscientific, but it was often spot on! To be clear, I’m not encouraging you to give yourself slack. I’m encouraging you to realize that especially if you’ve never done it before — and even if you have done it before — assume that it will take longer than you think. Block out enough time to make sure you can finish on time.

You had a welcome or unwelcome interruption

Oh, yikes, we all get them, don’t we? There’s a leak in the faucet or your kid gets hurt at school or your internet connection craps out. The list goes on, right? And you and I have lived long to know that it’s impossible to proactively avoid all those situations.

Sometimes, that interruption is a wonderful opportunity. This summer, a “virtual” friend called and said she was within a reasonable driving distance from me, and she wanted to stop by. Oh! I was overjoyed! I dropped what I was working on and quickly whipped up a batch of cookies. It was a short visit — and, yes, an interruption — but a delight to meet her in person after two years interacting with her online.

Quick fix: Build in extra time. Try adding about 10% more minutes to each task you’re facing today. That way, you might stand a chance of mostly completing your work, so you can start your shutdown routine as planned and finish on time.

You just didn’t realize what time it was

Oh, isn’t it just great when we get, as Csikszentmihalyi says, “in flow.” Or if you’ve read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, you know what I’m talking about. There’s something so satisfying about getting into that flow and doing that very deep work, isn’t there? As an introvert, I find it downright addictive.

But the next thing we know, it’s time to shut down. And we feel like we just can’t let that brilliant thought go untethered. So, what happens?

We start bumping into our shutdown time.

Quick fix: Set a reminder on your phone or use music to give yourself an auditory cue that you need to stop before it’s “the time.” Meaning, give yourself a few minutes of “cool down” before you jump off the task completely. Think of it much the same as you’d think of working out on gym equipment. My elliptical machine tells me, “Your workout is soon ending,” and sure enough, in 5 seconds it puts me into cool down mode. Do the same thing to your workday to improve your chances of finishing on time.

You didn’t have to accommodate a hard stop

Have you ever noticed that when you absolutely must meet deadline, you get out of the office on time? You need to pick up something before a store closes. Or you need to catch a plane. Right? You know you have something you need to do, and you finish on time. That’s because it’s a hard stop. It’s an other-imposed restraint, and you know delaying results in a consequence.

So how do you create a hard stop for yourself?

Constraints are good. Very good. When we know we have some kind of constraint, we have more efficient planning, better prioritization, and more motivation to finish on time.

Quick fix: Make your own constraints. Such constraints could happen alone, or in connection with someone else. For example, if you’re alone, you can rig your office lights to go off at a set time each day. Otherwise, you could commit to an appointment with someone else. If you’re having trouble starting this habit, try setting up a date with your beloved. (At least for me, that’s a good motivator!) What constraint could you set up today? Right this minute?

You couldn’t say “no” to a client who called with a mini-crisis

Oh, this one happens, doesn’t it? It’s not exactly the same thing as an interruption. Because this is…well, not critical. It’s not like your first floor will be flooded from the faucet problem or your child will be loaded into the ambulance without you, right? But it tugs on your sense of duty. It keeps you late and prevents you from finishing on time.

Quick fix: At least sometimes, just speak your truth. Say, “Joe, could we handle this tomorrow? I’m trying to get out the door, and I’d be more focused to help you in the morning. Is that okay?” To my astonishment, if the client is having only a mini-crisis, not a full-blown crisis, they often say, “Oh, sure!”

You don’t have a separate work area

This can be a killer for those of us who work from home. Your work stuff starts to migrate into your personal space. It opens the door for some serious ambushing of your best intentions for starting your shutdown routine and finishing on time.

Quick fix: Make a clear delineation between your workspace and your personal space. Often, that’s a door. But shoot! It could be just a room divider. Do whatever it takes to give yourself the visual cue that you’re moving on.

You didn’t have a prior intention

I know this sounds a little goofy, but it’s true: We need to do more than give lip service to, “Oh, my shutdown starts at 5 PM.” (Or whatever time you establish.) That’s reflective of a future hope.

An intention is more about the inner relationship with yourself. It’s what you start saying to yourself around lunch time. It’s inner conversation such as, “I need to quit tinkering with this blog post so I can start my next project by 2 PM.” Or, “I need to start wrapping up this phone call so I can start my (other obligation) at 3 PM.” It’s more of an ongoing intention to set yourself up to meet your own expectation of yourself.

Quick fix: Set an intention around lunch time: figure out what tasks you need to start when so you can finish on time. Then stick to that intention as closely as you can.

Be deliberate now to save time later

Maybe this all seems like a lot of work and thought to put into what many people consider as simple as “stop working.” But remember that all this effort will lead you to better, more productive days. It’s a stitch in time that will save nine — a bit of extra work now will maximize your time later, and pay huge dividends!

So if you don’t have a workday shutdown routine yet, or if yours isn’t getting you out of the office on time, take the time to create or refine yours. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re finishing on time every evening and set up to do your best work every morning.

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