A Guest Post by Dr. Katy Peplin
A lot of productivity and life-hack blogs are focused on the beginning of the day: the Miracle Morning, the 84 things successful people do before five AM, and six ways to supercharge the first hour at your desk. I understand why this is a seductive idea. If you manage to execute the first few hours of the day perfectly, the rest of the time will be easier to manage, and you only really have to pour your planning and willpower into a small portion of the day.
But what if you simply cannot get up before dawn consistently? What if you are a caretaker, chronically ill, or simply uninterested in forcing yourself to work against your preferred daily rhythms? I myself am a chronically ill scholar, and while I would love to be able to rise with the sun, journal, and exercise daily, I simply cannot rely on having the consistent energy and manageable pain levels I would need. Does that mean that I won’t be able to have a solid routine?
As a coach, I work with people every day who come to me wanting a specific tool to work. They want a solid morning routine, to be able to use the pomodoro system to manage their time, or to use a specific piece of software or workflow. When we troubleshoot why that tool isn’t working, I often start by asking, "What do you want this tool to DO for you?" or "What are you trying to make easier by using this tool?" These kinds of questions get at the intention behind our efforts and often open up other avenues for satisfying that intention.
When I think about why I want morning routines to work so badly in my own life, I find that what I want are fewer decisions to make in the morning (when I am often foggy or in pain). I want more clarity about my priorities for the day. I want a little bit of pleasure! And most of all, I want to be able to arrive at my desk with a sense that I haven’t already lost my window to be my best scholarly self.
Experimenting with Routines
With those intentions in mind, I began to experiment. I tried different routines in the morning to see which I liked. I tried sticking with the routine, whether I did it at 7 a.m. or 2 p.m. My most powerful observation was that I had the most clarity at the end of my work day; after being stuck into the project for a few hours, it was familiar and clear to me in a way that it was not in the morning. So why not capitalize on that clarity and see if I could bring it forward into the morning without having to create it from scratch?
Over the years, both for myself and for clients, I have found that focusing on what you do at the end of the day can be just as, if not more, powerful than what you do to start your day. This is especially true for anyone who may not be a morning person, has variable mornings, or has a little resistance to sitting down and working without a warm-up; ending well might just be the key to starting up smoothly.
I have found that focusing on what you do at the end of the day can be just as, if not more, powerful than what you do to start your day.
Strategies for Shutdown Routines
Here are some ideas for things to do at the end of a work session—combine a couple of them to make an unshakeable ending routine!
Save the last pom (25 minutes) or half hour of your work session to wind down; building it into the work instead of scrambling to do your routine as you're rushing out the door sends the message that the routine IS part of the work.
Close tabs you don't need. This is controversial! But as a reformed multi-hundred-tab opener, hear me out. If you open up tabs to save them for research or reading later, process them in batches regularly so that you can keep your browser more clear. Ruthlessly deciding if you actually need to read something or if you opened it out of anxiety or boredom Do you need that site open for constant reference? In Chrome, you can pin that tab so that it takes up less space but remains open. Common references that you don't need constantly—put them in a bookmark bar. But closing unneeded tabs from day to day can make your computer run a little better (even marginally) and give your brain the sense that you are moving forward and not just carrying a trail of information behind you, ever growing.
Make notes about what you were doing and thinking. There is nothing worse than sitting back down at your desk and not knowing what you were writing last or what you meant to do. Keeping a notebook (bullet journal or otherwise) or a Google Doc open can give you a place to record that little stuff (the reference you meant to look up, the errand or appointment you need to schedule, or the new idea that occurred to you while writing) so it doesn't disappear and makes starting again easier. One client shared with me that she always leaves her writing in the middle of a sentence so she knows where to pick up again—genius!
Review your schedule for the next day and the rest of the week. Having a quick glance at what's due tomorrow, what you have scheduled, and where you might squeeze in something fun Knowing what's coming before you sit down for the day can give you a chance to correct any problems with a little notice and give you a sense of what your day will look like tomorrow.
Set your priorities for the next day. If you have a sense, or better yet, if you write down what your priorities for the next day are before you leave, it makes it that much clearer to start the day when you sit down again. Also, this can act as insurance against people putting tasks on your plate; sometimes things come up right at the last minute, but planning your priorities before you open your email, for example, can make it easier to stick to YOUR schedule and workflow.
Clean up your workspace. Put the pens away. Deal with mugs, coffee cups, water bottles, and snack wrappers. Organize your papers, tidy your lab sink, and check your supply levels. Make your workspace a place that you can return to with some sense of willingness instead of dread at the mess.
Take a few moments to write down something that went well or something you're grateful for. If you're only going to pick up one end-of-day habit, I strongly recommend it's this one. Ending the day reflecting on something that went the way you wanted it to, something that helped your day be better, or someone or something that you're grateful for can help shift your mindset (even a little) from a day that also had tough or frustrating parts. Any time you remember the good inside the bad and that days are rarely 100% of any one emotion, you train yourself to be just a little bit more nuanced in how you view your days.
Ending well won’t guarantee starting well, but it does make it just a little bit easier to start with more clarity and maybe more intentionality. For those of us who need a little warm-up, it can make a huge difference to shift your focus away from the start of the day to the end, because it means that there’s less of a chance that you’ll torpedo your whole work day by lunch time. Building on the momentum of a day you gave yourself a chance to ease into can feel more sustainable and have lower stakes than trying to create that momentum every morning from scratch.
Ending well won’t guarantee starting well, but it does make it just a little bit easier to start with more clarity and maybe more intentionality.
Ending On Purpose
But perhaps most importantly, ending on purpose (as opposed to vaguely drifting away from your workspace, brain still in the project, body floating from chore to couch) sends a clear signal that work is not the default. You start work, but you also end it. Scholarly work is so brain-intensive, and many of us do not have the luxury of safe, separate work spaces, so it can be hard to transition from thinking about work to thinking about something else. Shutdown routines add that break between modes and allow us all the chance to move away from the "work as default" mindset so prevalent in the academy.
Dr. Katy Peplin is the founder of Thrive PhD, a business born out of her own journey through the PhD, and the joys and challenges of being a grad student and a human at the same time. She earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan, with a dissertation centered on animals on film and media. Throughout her degree, she also worked as a teaching consultant at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, practiced yoga regularly, and lived with chronic illness and anxiety. These days, she's super into knitting, colorful water bottles, and helping graduate students around the world treat graduate school like part of their career and life, and not just the holding period before the real stuff begins. Learn more at thrive-phd.com