Use the ’15-Minute Checkout’ to Save Time — and Your Sanity — at Work and in Life

“It is not enough to be busy,” said Henry David Thoreau. “So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Odds are you can relate, especially at work. You are ever busy, yet at the end of the day, you wonder what you really accomplished. Worse, the next morning, you arrive at your desk already overwhelmed. You feel unfocused and unsure of your priorities, or even with a master plan, you have trouble getting down to business. It’s genuinely frustrating — and, by all means, I get it.

Not long ago, I was managing a rewarding yet highly demanding career as a military officer. At the same time, I was teaching philosophy at a university, pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, and together with my wonderful wife, remodeling a house while, silly us, choosing to live in it. On top of that, I was (and still am) an incorrigible polymath and life tinkerer — never meeting an idea I didn’t want to instantly understand, rework, or play around with incessantly.

It was a lot to juggle, and pretty quickly I learned that I had to compartmentalize my many, diverse roles to do my best work in each one.

While my ‘day job’ in the military had a definite workday — a clear beginning and end — there were always emergencies and other unexpected, high-priority situations. That meant a lot was coming at me that wasn’t on my already heaping to-do list.

At day’s end, I desperately needed a way to evaluate what I had actually gotten done; what I still had to do; and what I could best do to easily pick up from where I left off in the morning. That way, I could truly leave work at work. I wouldn’t mentally take it home or to school with me — where no one would win — yet wouldn’t lose precious momentum the next workday either.

Enter the 15-minute checkout, a simple and easy daily routine that helped save my work — and my sanity. It also saved me at least an hour, and almost always more, every day.

Today, the ‘checkout’ is key to my success, along with the success of countless others. And I’m certain it can help you, too.

At work, you won’t bounce from meeting to meeting, project to project, without properly transitioning to the next thing. And in life, you’ll stop rushing to transport the kids, make dinner, work out, run errands, or simply enjoy life without having really disengaged from work and leaving it behind you.

With the 15-minute checkout, you’ll take a brief pause at the end of each workday to evaluate the day you just had and also set yourself up to successfully start anew the next day. It’s a simple routine that, done consistently, will empower you to reject the everything-is-a-priority mindset so prevalent in today’s workplace. At last, you’ll be able to ‘clock out’ without worries or distractions.

So how you do the 15-minute checkout? At the end of every workday, simply sit down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself three questions.

1. What did I accomplish?

When things come at you throughout the day, you probably don’t add them to your daily to-do list. That means, even though you’ve been working really hard all day, your to-do list shows little progress, with many of the original items still undone. You feel frustrated — and defeated.

By asking yourself this first question, you can take stock of all the things you actually did do. It shifts your focus away from what you didn’t get done — and toward your many wins.

Life is a series of small steps, and if you don’t celebrate the small wins, you won’t be able to build up the energy and will to contend with bigger obstacles later.

2. Is there anything I need to do right now to be able to disengage?

The 15-minute checkout is designed to put a hard stop on your workday. It lets you truly disengage and come back fresh and focused in the morning.

This second question helps you deal with that nagging feeling you’ve forgotten to do something. Check your inbox or to-do list one last time to catch anything that absolutely must get done today. Then ask yourself what would actually happen if it waited until tomorrow. If you’re being honest with yourself, chances are it can.

This second question helps you deal with that nagging feeling you’ve forgotten to do something. Check your inbox or to-do list one last time to catch anything that absolutely must happen today. Then ask yourself what would actually happen if it waited until tomorrow. If you’re being honest with yourself, chances are it can.

Also, if you’re stopping in the middle of a task or project, use the checkout to jot down a brief note about what needs to happen next. Such ‘breadcrumbs’ make it easier to get back into something later, and at the end of a long day, allow your mind to relax.

3. When do I need to do the things I didn’t get done today?There might be a lot of things left on your to-do list, not to mention new stuff that came up during the day. But no matter what you’re telling yourself, they don’t necessarily have to happen tomorrow or even in the next few days. This third question, then, reaffirms that, and helps you clarify things realistically.

Yet rather than adding things to a to-do list — stirring up even-greater feelings of ‘undoneness’ — schedule those tasks into whatever app, planner, calendar, or other tool you like to use. Having a concrete plan for open issues or loose ends helps ease your mind and gives you permission to let go.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking that the 15-minute checkout makes good sense, and that it could surely help you. But you might also be thinking that you don’t have 15 minutes to spare at the end of the day, especially when you could put that time to ‘good use’ on something else.

However, in all likelihood, your end-of-day ritual is to do something more trivial — like checking your social media or chatting up coworkers — in order to mindlessly unwind. In other words, you’re not seriously working or, for that matter, seriously unplugging.

My point? Do the 15-minute checkout instead. At work and in life, you’ll save time — and your sanity!

Charlie Gilkey is an author, entrepreneur, philosopher, Army veteran, and renowned productivity expert. Founder of Productive Flourishing, Gilkey helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters. His new book is “Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done.”

Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books–written by men–barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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