Project deadlines. Pressing emails. Team meetings (again). There is always so much to do at the office, so how can we ever leave work on time?
In our society, we associate working long hours with busyness and commitment to our jobs. We applaud employees for their dedication when they put in overtime.
However, working too much can eventually cut into the time we use for other activities we value, such as exercise, personal hobbies and spending time with people we care about.
Most importantly, the hours we spend hunched over, typing away to the point of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, are actually contributing to our development of serious health effects such as heart attacks and strokes, panic and anxiety attacks and Type 2 diabetes.
However, even if we understand that working overtime can be detrimental to our health, what can we do if we have a to-do list as long as the Treaty of Versailles?
According to one study by The Economist, a negative correlation was found between working hours and productivity per hour between the years of 1990 and 2012. This means that the more time people were putting in at work, the less they were actually getting done.
The proof is in the pudding. Just think back to how your brain feels late in the day. Are your thoughts crystal clear or are you just blankly staring at your computer screen (and hoping that the report will go away?).
This means that sometimes it’s just better to leave things unfinished on your list (if they are not urgent). It’s better to start fresh and tackle them the next day, rather than staying late to push through them. I strongly consider you leave work after you’ve put in your dedicated hours (9-5 is the norm in North America).
By the way, in Sweden, they have been experimenting with 6 hour work days in effort to improve work-life balance. The trials showed that some people actually took less sick days and increased their health and productivity.
In the end, having a concrete time when you leave work, and sticking to that time, actually takes a lot of self-discipline. So here are four steps that will help you get out of the office on time.
1. Do the Most Important Thing First
The first thing I do when I get into work is go through my emails and write out my to-do list for the day. I truly adhere to the mantra “Do the most important thing first, each day”. This is because, in the morning, my brain isn’t clouded by all of the distractions and stress the work day will bring. By doing my number one item on my list and completing it, I will have reached my goal of accomplishing something for the day.
With this method, I do not have even give myself the chance to procrastinate the task. It also minimizes my chances of being in a frantic situation near the end of the day.
2. Watch the Clock aka Time Management
Throughout the day, I’m watching the clock to make sure that time isn’t running from me. For example, if a colleague asks for my help on a project, I’ll quickly double check that I have enough time to assist without getting caught up in too much of their project details.
With the goal to leave work firmly at 5 pm, I start to watch the clock like a hawk around 3 pm. I make a mental note that I have 2 hours left, becoming wary of starting new items. Since I have already tackled the most important items at the start of the day, by now I’m working on tasks with lower priority. However, if I’m working on a long project with no end in sight, I try to find a spot where I’m comfortable to pause, knowing that I cannot finish everything.
By 4:30 pm, I start to wrap up my tasks and I leave the last 15 minutes to roughly plan out the next day’s agenda before I head home.
When the clock strikes 5, I’m out the door.
3. Dealing with Last Minute Requests
Getting a task request at the end of the day is tricky.
“Hi Vanessa, do you mind reviewing this report? I would really appreciate it, thanks.”
Quiz time! Which of these choices would you go for if you received this email at 4:40 pm?
a) Open the document, and decide that you’re going to finish reviewing it so you don’t have to deal with it tomorrow, no matter how long it takes.
b) Take a peek and start working on it while being mindful of the time.
c) Email her back and ask when she wants it back since you are about to head out.
d) Delete the email and pretend you never received it.
I understand that some people might not want to let things hang over their head for the next day, but the thing is, at work, you’ll probably never going to finish everything on your plate. There is always going to be something coming down the pipe for you to do.
Besides option d, my preference is option c. If it’s almost home time and I’m just wrapping up loose ends, the last thing I need to do is to wake up my brain and start a new task. Chances are, there will be some back and forth communication to clarify the requirements anyways.
Things usually take longer than you think to complete.
So unless I get a notification that the project is urgent, you won’t be seeing me hanging around to finish a last-minute request.
Putting it All Together to Leave Work On Time
Eventually by going to work 5 days a week, 320 days of the year, you will end up developing a habit for when you leave work. As mentioned in in Charles Durhig’s book “The Power of Habit: What we do in life and business”, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business a habit starts as deliberate choices and develops into a loop.
A habit loop is made up of a cue, routine and reward.
Read more: Title of Donut Addiction
Over time, their loops become so ingrained into our lives that they become automatic.
Therefore, to help yourself leave on time, develop the habit to:
1. Look at the clock one hour before home time and mentally prepare yourself to start wrapping up the project you are working on (CUE)
2. Actually, start wrapping things up 30 minutes prior home time (ROUTINE)
3. Leave and breathe in the fresh air at set time (REWARD)
Going with this strategy takes time and training. However, if you start getting into a habit of leaving work on time, your body and mind will thank you.
A bonus of getting into this habit is that others at work will know your routine, so eventually, you’ll be less likely to receive those “annoying” I mean, thoughtful emails, near the end of the day demanding more of your time.
Overall, leaving work on time is important for that work-life balance thing everyone is always talking about. Remember, your health is a priority. So if you’re reading this article at the office (quick, hide your screen before your boss comes by!) try out these tips and see if they work for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.