How to leave the office at 5 p.m. (guilt free!)

FullSizeRender-15When it's dark and sleeting, an evening at the office doesn't sound so bad. But with May almost here, and the days getting longer and warmer, many of us start to feel restless. Enjoying an evening outside can feel like a vacation in the middle of the week. There's just the matter of getting out of the office on time.

As I study people's time logs, I see a phenomenon that's echoed in data from other tracking sources: mornings tend to be regimented for people. They leave for work at the same time daily. Evenings, on the other hand, can be all over the map for those who don't have contracted hours. I have people tell me this: "I aim for the 5:15 p.m. train, but sometimes I take the 6:05 p.m., or if I'm working late, then it's the 6:50 p.m. …" Car commutes lack even these discrete choices, and so can really start whenever.

The good news in all this is that if quitting times are flexible, then it might be possible to aim for earlier in the range more often than not. Here are 7 strategies for making that happen, and not second-guessing yourself about it.

1. Identify what has to happen today. Plan your upcoming work week on Friday afternoons. Figure out your top priorities, both the "important but not urgent" and the more urgent variety. Working with this list in mind, you can assign yourself a list of most important tasks for each day. Try to keep it under 5 if you can. Rework this list before quitting time each evening, based on what you've gotten done, and what's come up. Knowing a big deadline is coming up next Tuesday can help you pace your work before then, to minimize the sense of emergency that has people staying late.

2. Schedule tasks around the "hard landscape." When you've got your list of priorities for the day, look at what appointments are already on the calendar (what David Allen calls the "hard landscape."). Figure out roughly how much time each non-meeting priority will take, and then see where it can be scheduled in. Something that takes 45 minutes is good to schedule between a meeting that starts at 10 a.m. (and ends at 11 a.m.) and lunch. Something that takes 2 hours is best done before the 10 a.m. meeting — but if you don't know to start it right when you show up at 8 a.m., you can lose this block of time (and need to tackle the work later, when it will be harder to get a 2-hour block).

3. Match your toughest work to your best time. This is another way to make work more efficient. A document that might take you an hour to write in the morning could take you 2 hours to write if you start it at 2 p.m. when you have less energy. As much as possible, schedule work that requires more focus for times when you have focus.

4. Plan your breaks. If you're trying to leave the office by 5 p.m., you're not going to take a 2-hour lunch. That said, resist the temptation to work straight through. Pretty much no one can focus for 8 or 9 hours straight. You'll take breaks, but they won't be as rejuvenating as if you'd thought about them. Map out a quick lunch break, and a mid-afternoon break, and what you'll do during these times. Combined with natural breaks (e.g. going to the restroom) these breaks will help you achieve peak productivity during the hours you are working.

5. Check in early. If you work with other people, then other people often have things they need from you, or want to discuss. They don't necessarily mean to dump these things on your lap at 3:30 p.m., but if that's when they see you, that's when they'll think of you. You can head some of this off by checking in with any colleagues you actively work with much earlier in the day. Right after lunch is good.

6. Do a 4 p.m. triage. Revisit your must-do list about an hour before you intend to leave. Is there anything undone? Tackle that first. The nice-to-dos can wait for later.

7. Just go (because you'll log back on). If you're not being paid by the hour, and you've done what you need to do for the day, then there's often no real barrier to leaving at a reasonable hour — other than the psychological one. It's hard to leave if other people are still there. This is even more true if the other people includes your boss. It's always a good idea to have conversations about expectations. My sense from working with a lot of managers in my corporate workshops is that if someone is performing above expectations, the hours are a lot less relevant. It's when there are problems that the hours come up. That said, you can ease the guilt a lot by doing a quick check-in later at night. Answering a few emails at 9 p.m. makes leaving at 5 p.m. seem more reasonable. It will also reassure you that you didn't miss anything crucial.

Do you leave your workplace before your colleagues? What do you do to get out the door on time?

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8 Responses to How to leave the office at 5 p.m. (guilt free!)


  1. Jen says:

    I guess I’ve been working in such a flexible environment for so long that it amazes me that people feel guilty for leaving at 5! My department/division (IT in a non-profit healthcare system) is pretty relaxed in general when it comes to arriving and leaving for the day, and my boss is even more so. I just negotiated to work 6-3 two days a week starting in the fall when two of my kids start school, but I’m pretty sure he would have let me work 8-3 those days as long as my work gets done.

    And I think that is the key: even in my relaxed working environment, there are more-efficient and less-efficient employees,. Some people by nature are quick and disciplined and can get more work done in less time. I’m like that, and I have a ten-year history of producing quality work, so I am rewarded, in a sense, with flexibility.

    (It also helps that skilled knowledge jobs are a buyer’s market where I live in Northern New England. I guess I could be fired for leaving at 4:30, but it would take a while to hire and train someone to replace me.)

    • @Jen – I’m with you. But I do know there are workplaces and work cultures where leaving at 5 p.m. raises eyebrows. And guilt is a very personal thing. Sometimes people who work from home even feel guilty about, say, walking their dogs during the day. Sometimes working as you want requires courage, but I tend to think it’s a risk worth taking.

      • Eileen says:

        I love the last sentence of your comment! That could be the title of a post (or book!) right there….

  2. Ruth says:

    I work in state government, and our agency has very flexible hours (it’s a perk for not making as much as we might “outside.”

    I start work at 6:00 a.m., take a 1-hour lunch, and leave at 2:30. In a couple of weeks I’ll start an alternative work schedule where most days I’ll work 6:00 to 3:30, and get every other Monday off.

    Some people come in at 9:00 and leave at 5:30, or 6:30 with every other Monday or Friday off.

    It’s really helpful for people with children.

  3. Sue says:

    I have a recurring appointment in my electronic calendar at 5pm, titled ‘go home’. it pops up at 4.45pm and reminds me to tidy my desk, clean the coffee mugs, shut the computer down.

  4. Melanie Keel says:

    My biggest problem is colleagues. I am a professor and even if I make rounds early in the day to touch base with colleagues to ensure I leave on time. I often have to say I have an appointment if I don’t so they don’t hold me captive in my office just to chat at the end of the day. What is more frustrating is sometimes when they are all gone I am still working especially if they dropped by earlier in the day to chat. I try to continue responding to emails so they get the hint while they talk, but they don’t seem to get it. I hate to shut my door during office hours so students feel like they can come in, but sometimes I have to.

  5. Jerry says:

    I currently have a pretty flexible schedule. “Flexible” work hours is something that our organization is offering as an employment benefit. We struggle, as a non-profit, competing with some of the wonderful salaries that other, exciting computer software companies are offering SW engineers today. But, we try to make up for it in “quality of life” / work environment, as best we can. I work a “nine-nines” schedule, where I take every other Friday off. It’s very nice having the long weekend every two weeks. As far as leaving at the end of the day, no one, including my boss, monitors that. It’s like the other person said. Hours-worked is a minor metric compared to quality and quantity of work. If your work is sub-par, even if you work 80 hours a week, if won’t compensate for poor work.

  6. Shiraz says:

    See, whilst my official contractual hours are 9-5pm, I struggle to ever leave at 5, though for a period of time this year I managed to leave at 5 or thereabouts simply to jump straight to the gym. Now with a few deals ongoing and clients chasing me for odd requests, I feel somewhat inclined to stay back – even though I am not paid for the extra hours. I would like to feel not so guilty leaving at 5 and actually doing my own thing in my own time. Any advice in that domain?

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