When 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?