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How to Always Leave Work on Time Every Day (No Matter What)

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Are you regularly staying late at the office? You might think it's the productive, and career-advancing thing to do. But in reality, you don't have to sacrifice your personal life to be a productive employee.

Gallup’s 2014 survey of more than 1000 U.S. employees revealed that 4 in 10 of them worked more than 50 hours a week. Lots of employees also answer emails and calls after hours.

Always at work
If it seems like you're always at work, statistics show you're not alone. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

But busyness doesn’t always equal to productivity. In fact, The Economist’s study of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries revealed that countries that put in more hours at work are less productive.

While flexible work schedules and location-independent jobs allowed more employees to control where and when they worked, it’s the same flexibility that stops many employees from disconnecting or logging off at work. 

Unchecked, this always-connected attitude chips at the time you need for activities that feed your physical and mental being. Social gatherings, exercise, your personal me-time, and even the time you need to take care of your family and run errands are often, though not intentionally, pushed aside because it’s hard for many of us to quit work on time.

In this tutorial, you'll discover how to always leave the office on time and still get your job done. Leaving work on time makes time for those important personal tasks. 

The Mindset and Habits of a Well-Balanced Employee

This guide will show you how you can accomplish more with less, and why working 40+ hours a week isn’t going to increase your productivity.

Reading this will also help you develop the right mindset about the hours you work, and how that relates to your productivity and well-being. With practice, you'll no longer feel pressured to take work at home with you or feel guilty for leaving work on time.

1. Start and End of Day Routines

Have you ever had a whole day go by without accomplishing anything of importance? Life, much like work, just happens to you when you don’t have a routine.

A routine gives you control over your day, so you don’t get tangled up in your inbox, busywork, and the needs of everyone around you.

Example Start of the Day Routine

1. Plan your day. Sit down with your organizer or calendar and decide on the tasks you'll complete to make this day successful. Prioritize important tasks that will further your goals, but be realistic in what you can accomplish given the limited time you've got each day.

2. Exercise. Get your heart racing. Exercising before you go to work lowers your stress level and gives you an energy boost, so you won’t feel sluggish at the start of your day.

3. Take care of distractions. Avoid the “known distractions” in your office before they actually disturb you. If you've got chatty co-workers, invest in a good headset that subtly tells them you’re busy. You can also find another place to sit in if your desk buddy insists on chatting. 

Internal distractions, such as needing a coffee break, checking Facebook, or using your phone can be used as a reward for the time you spend working. For instance, you can make a deal with yourself that you can run to the vending machine for a quick snack if you finish a task before 10 AM. This “if-then” reward system conditions your brain to look at internal distractions as something that’s within your control, instead of accepting them as unavoidable time wasters.

4. Evaluate meeting invites and decline when possible. Read the meeting’s agenda to see if your presence is required, or if you’re an observer invited for the sake of not leaving anyone out. Politely decline the meeting if the topic isn't related to your tasks, or recommend a co-worker who can better contribute to the conversation. If you must, cite a task that needs to be completed within a certain deadline.

Some meetings are done weekly and comprised of different groups, so if that’s the case, you can just attend part of the meeting that’s relevant to you then excuse yourself once the conversation has moved outside your scope.

End of Day Routine

Think of this as a wind-down routine that signals to yourself and your co-workers that you’re about to leave work in a few minutes.

  • Save all the documents you’ve been working on and close all the tabs on your browser.
  • Review the tasks you completed and take note of pending items that need to be included in tomorrow’s agenda.
  • Review what went well and what went wrong, and what could be done to avoid the same problem in the future.
  • Do you have one task that you’ve been avoiding for a few days? Break it down into manageable chunks.
  • Optional: create an easy win task for tomorrow.
  • Turn off your computer and tidy up your desk.

2. Set a Non-Negotiable Quitting Time

It’s hard to leave the office on time when your co-workers are still hard at work. Your employer’s company culture may make you feel that going home on time may affect your career.

Leaving work on time isn’t a sin or a privilege. Unless your job contract states you’re required to work overtime regularly, no one can stop you from going home. Leaving early from work doesn’t mean you worked less than your peers. It’s just a matter of perception.

Re-frame what you think or feel about quitting time. Instead of thinking you’re “leaving work,” think of what you’re going to do next to shift your focus to other tasks just as important as your job.

Examples:

  • “I’m going to an event with my friends.”
  • “I’m going home to cook and eat dinner with my family.”
  • “I’m going to the gym because exercising keeps me fit and healthy.”

Better yet, schedule an appointment immediately after your quitting time to force yourself out of the door.

Get Important Tasks Done So You’re Not Forced to Work Late Hours

Of course, all of the strategies above won’t be effective if you don’t get any of your important tasks done. Your manager won’t allow you to leave work early if the report you’re supposed to deliver isn’t finished. If you're wasting time that can keep you from completing your work. The strategies below will help you prioritize and focus on what matters, instead of wasting time on non-essential tasks.

3. Prioritize

Below is an easy way to prioritize your tasks:

1. List all of your tasks for the day. Don’t worry about the number of items on the list or the order it will get done as that will be decided later.

2. Identify urgent, important, and urgent AND important tasks. Urgent tasks are those that need your immediate attention, such as items due at the end of the day or those already overdue. Important tasks are those that contribute to your career goals or will have serious consequences for you, your boss or the company if not completed.

Tasks that aren’t urgent may be left off for the next day or delegated to someone else. Focus only on completing urgent and important tasks then move on to urgent tasks afterward.

3. Assess the task’s value for your career and employer. Sometimes all of your tasks will be urgent or urgent and important, making it hard for you to pick one task over another. That’s when it helps to assign a value or weight for a particular project.

In most cases, tasks for clients are more important than internal work because those clients paid your employer and have certain expectations. In general, high-value tasks affect more people, the company’s revenue, and reputation.

4. Cut unimportant tasks. Either do them later, find a way to automate them, or delegate them to someone else.

Itemize your list according to the system above, then focus only on the high stakes and urgent items and work your way from there. Leave the busywork from when you've got extra time or on days when it’s easier to start with a warm-up task before diving into deeper, more complicated work.

4. Refocus

Set your alarm to ring every 90 minutes. When it does, stand up and take a deep cleansing breath, or walk around the office for a few minutes to clear your head. Do this for three to five minutes.

Use this time to evaluate how you’ve been doing your work so far. Did you spend the last hour productively, or did an email from your boss distract you? Either way, use this short break to mentally re-calibrate your to-do list and commit to focus on what you’re going to do during the next 90 minutes.

Stopping from work every 90 minutes isn’t a waste of time. Done properly, this quick five-minute break will prevent you from daydreaming or spacing out, which sometimes happen even if you’re working on something. It can also help you take a step back and focus on what’s important after you got distracted. 

5. Just Start

Getting started is the hardest thing to do, but when you do, it gets easier from there. Stanford University Researcher B.J.Fogg created his Tiny Habits program around this concept. According to his program, starting a habit (or any task at work) doesn’t need to be a battle of wills, if you just focus on the baby steps. Setting the bar low is the easiest way to remove any friction you feel against working.

For instance, instead of pressuring yourself to read the whole creative briefing for a video shoot, tell yourself it’s okay to just read one paragraph—or one sentence if you like. Fogg’s experiment shows you’re more likely to keep going once you get started.

6. Stop Trying to Multitask

Your brain isn’t good at multitasking, despite what you think. A study from the University of California Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes for a person to regain focus after switching tasks. Multitasking might make you feel productive, but the context switching what you’re doing is slowing you down and affecting the quality of your work.

Not all distractions or task switching is bad though. The study notes that if a distraction takes only a few minutes, and isn’t something you've got to carefully think about, like signing a paper or going to the bathroom, it won’t cause a major disruption in your thought process. 

You’ll save more time (and brain power) if you focus on one task at a time. You’ll also produce better quality work and avoid the risk of ideas getting all mixed up in your head.

7. Block Distracting Sites and Apps

Use website or app blockers if you've got trouble staying off distracting sites. Extensions like StayFocused and SelfControl to limit or block use entertaining but time-wasting sites during work hours. Turn off notifications for apps you can’t uninstall, or put them on silent at least so they don’t disturb you.

Still getting distracted? Put a “distraction pad” beside your computer, so you can jot down thoughts, ideas, events, or anything that distracts you as they come. Doing this offloads the distraction from your brain and into the paper, so it’s not weighing at the back of your mind like a random thought that keeps popping up when you’re busy with important tasks.

8. Check Your Email Only a Few Times a Day

Did you know the average employee checks their inbox a whopping 36 times an hour? Whether you believe that or not, I’m sure you check your inbox more than is necessary. You might even do this out of habit because your email account is always open in your browser.

Check your email only at specific times to save time and avoid distractions. When possible, check your email only after you’ve finished at least one important task that day, so your attention doesn’t get diverted to non-essential tasks.

Fight the urge to respond immediately to emails that don’t require your immediate attention. You can also prevent back and forth email discussions by providing choices or as much information about the topic of your conversation up front. For example, when setting appointments, give two to three schedule options instead of just one date and time, so your correspondent can easily choose a time that also fits the schedule. The same logic applies when choosing a meeting venue. When talking about any type of task, including the who, what, when, where, how, and every relevant information you can think of, before the recipient asks for them.

4 Tips for Setting Expectations about the Time You Leave Work

The strategies listed below will be helpful if your office culture pressures you to stay late regardless of how much work you finished.

1. Tell People When You Plan to Leave Work

Casually tell your co-workers and manager when you intend to leave hours ahead of your quitting time. Subtly steer the conversation towards your departure time as you talk about the day’s work, like 

“I have to leave work by 5 PM today, so if there’s anything else I need to finish ASAP, let me know by 2 PM.”

The script above accomplishes three goals:

  • It sets the expectation that you'll leave work on time, so co-workers won’t feel that you left without notifying them.
  • Forces your manager or coworkers to prioritize the tasks that they'll hand over to you
  • Prevents last-minute tasks and gives you a valid excuse to decline such requests

You might be anxious about what your peers will think of you leaving early from work. If that’s the case, mention the important tasks that you’ve accomplished for the day while announcing your intent to leave work early, to ward off potential allegations that you’re lazy or not a team player for leaving early.

2. Start Meetings at Least One Hour Before the Official End of Day

This will only work if you've got a say in meeting schedules, of course. But if you do, take this opportunity to start meetings at least one hour before you go home. Starting the meeting time at 4 PM is a good idea if your meetings are only 30 minutes long and if you intend to go home at 5 PM. Move the meeting time 30 minutes earlier if you think it’s going to last at least an hour.

3. Ask Your Manager for their Priorities

Some managers aren’t good at prioritizing that’s why they just hand you tasks as they're requested or needed. So, it’s up to you to ask them to rank all of your pending tasks from most to least important. If your manager is having trouble prioritizing the tasks, ask for the deadline of each task instead or use the prioritization method described above.

4. Say "No"

Decline requests for help or any task that doesn’t require your expertise if your plate is already full. Don’t immediately agree when someone asks you to do something. Think about all your pending, recurring, and future tasks first to avoid regrets later. 

You’ll Still Have Work to do Tomorrow

No matter how hard you work, there will always be emails to answer, fires to put out, and items on your to-do list. It doesn’t stop whether you’re at the office or at home, so you might as well leave work on time and recharge yourself. 

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