Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How Ending your Work Day Right Can Boost Your Productivity: Take Stock and Stop Working

I have been known to go on and on about starting my day right – with two hours of writing. And, I still believe that two hours of daily writing is one of the “open secrets” to my success.

It is also important for productivity to end your day in the right way, and to be sure that you do end your work day.

The first step is to decide when to stop your day

We are not machines, and we cannot work 24 hours a day. At some point, we have to end our days. It is much less exhausting to consciously end your day and decide ahead of time to stop working than to try to keep working, but find your mind, eyes, and fingers diverting you to other tasks.

Personally, I end my day in steps. I stop writing before lunch. I stop answering work emails and doing administrative tasks after 6pm. I stop all Internet activity at 8pm. And, I stop reading when I get sleepy.

It might sound counterintuitive, but deciding when to stop working (and to actually stop working) can make you more productive.

Stop working so you can be more productive?

Yes! I stop writing before lunch because my ability to write clearly and quickly after lunch is extremely reduced. If I try and write after lunch, I am only half (or perhaps even less) productive than I am in the morning. Since I have lots of other tasks I need to attend to, it is much more productive for me to do those tasks and get back to my writing the next morning.

I stop answering work emails and doing administrative work after 6pm for two reasons. The first reason is that, by that time, I am tired. This means I am prone to making mistakes. Making a mistake over email usually means I have to either rewrite the email later or, even worse, spend two or three times the amount of time cleaning up the mess I made. So, it is not productive for me to respond to work-related emails in the evening. The second reason is that I need to consciously end my day so that I can take stock of what’s done and what is not done so that I can plan and prepare for the next day.

Each day, at (or around) 6pm, I look over my to-do list for the day. I cross off what I have done. Then, I make a new list for the next day that includes the items from my weekly plan for the following day as well as anything that either didn’t get completed that day or that came up during the day. That way, even if I didn’t complete all I intended to complete in a day, I don’t have to let my unfinished tasks take up mental space. Instead, my tasks are written down on a piece of paper and I know I will attend to them the next day.

David Allen writes about the importance of getting things out of your head and onto paper to clear up mental space, and I find this to be true. Once I write down what I need to do the next day, I don’t need to worry about forgetting to do it or making a plan for when I will do it. I know I will attend to the task the following day. And, if not, it will just get bumped to the next day. And, so, life goes on.

I also try to enforce an “all screens off” policy in my house at 8pm. Since I start writing early in the morning, most days, I am on the computer nearly all day, and I need plenty of time to recuperate. Thus, even though I might think I find it entertaining to read the news or the blogosphere, shop on Amazon, or mess around on Facebook or Twitter, the truth is that these activities are not actually relaxing. Instead, turning off all of the screens is beneficial both for me and for my kids.

After the screens are off, my kids and I can talk, finish up homework, make art, or read. The only work I will do in the evenings is reading – there is always more to be read. I try to treat myself to a novel when I can, but academic work is so much better at putting me to sleep!


  1. Very helpful reminders; I'm self-employed and often need to consciously construct barriers between "working time" and "rest of life time." Codifying it may be a very useful exercise!

  2. I've also been trying to apply some David Allen ideas to my workday. I just put up a website to help myself stay on task. It's pretty basic, but maybe you'll find it helpful: http://workdayclock.com

  3. Dear Tanya, I like your ideas. I've thanked you before; you have helped me with two r&rs by now:) turns out I'm also starting my T-T position at University of Kansas! I know you moved, but what a coincidence!

    1. Congratulations! Lawrence is a lovely town. I am sure you will enjoy it there. It was a great place for me in many ways.

    2. Thanks Tanya, I am glad to hear it. Again thanks for your blog. The r&r post especially helped me quite a lot. Good luck with the new job! Lucky you have a partner who travels where you go!

    3. Dear Tanya, when you have time: I had read previously in your 40-hour work week post that you walked to campus from your house. I do not drive; is there any neighborhood in Lawrence you would recommend within an easy commute to campus (preferably quiet and not populated by undergrads)? Also, I noticed the closest airport is Kansas City: how would one commute from the airport to Lawrence without driving? Any advice would be appreciated.

    4. There are shuttle services to the airport for about $40 and you can get a private company for about $80 each way.

      There are three neighborhoods in walking distance - East Lawrence (east of Massachusetts there are fewer students); Old West Lawrence (north of 9th street there are fewer students); and the neighborhood close to Cordley Elementary school. I like the first two neighborhoods - East and Old West because you can walk both to campus and to downtown. East Lawrence is cheaper and more diverse. Old West Lawrence is more quaint and expensive.

    5. Dear Tanya,

      Many thanks. I wish I had you as mentor! You have been incredibly helpful to me. I just responded to your other post about social life in Lawrence. I will take these points into account. Perhaps I should contact you via my academic email; I also work on migration policies and we seem to share research interests. Just reading this blog has made an incredible difference to how I perceive academic life! Wholehearted thanks!

    6. Hi! Ah, yes, please do be in touch. And, congrats again on your new job at KU! It was a brilliant first job for me.

  4. A brand new concept for me... deciding when you stop working. Thanks for that!
    I tried to switch the computer off at 9 p.m., was successful at it for a while, but returned to wandering through the web... Now I'm more inspired to have a full rest! Thanks a lot.