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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

7 Ways to (Always) Leave Work on Time

We’re a funny breed. We’re well aware that working long hours has been directly correlated to stress, anxiety, and heart disease—but in spite of that, we continue to give our jobs more and more of our time.

Last year, the average American worked over 45 hours in a given week. One in three professionals work more than 50 hours per week. As if that’s not enough, research shows that 80% of workers spend time “after hours” answering emails and returning phone calls. And all this, for what? It turns out, working longer hours actually doesn’t contribute to higher productivity. In fact, consistently working more than 40 hours a week can make you less productive. Translation: Work more; accomplish less.

Knowing this, why is it so hard to leave work on time? Maybe you get distracted easily, fail to prioritize, or let last minute requests push you into overtime. Maybe, instead of aiming to get everything done within the eight-hour workday, you’ve bought into the idea that you’re supposed to be always on.

Whatever your reason, it’s time to reevaluate. So, stop logging those extra hours and use these seven tips to get out the door on time.

1. Begin the Day With the End in Mind

This sounds basic, but I’m convinced that many people don’t leave work on time simply because they don’t set the expectation that they will. Instead, they simply go with the flow of the workday, working on whatever comes their way and neglecting to block time on their calendar for priority work. Then, at the end of the day, there’s still a pile of work to do—all because they didn’t plan for 5 PM.

So, when you arrive in the morning, identify the time you want to leave that night. Put it on your calendar, set an alarm on your mobile phone, or simply make a psychological commitment to that departure time.

It can also help to join a class or social group that meets at a set time after work, which will give you an extra incentive to manage your day to get out of work on time.

2. Tell People When You Have to Leave

If you start telling people you need to leave at a certain time, you’ll be much more likely to do so. Make the commitment to yourself, and then share it with others: As you discuss plans and assignments throughout the day, tell your colleagues, “I’ve got to be out of here on time tonight, so if you need something, let me know by 3 PM.”

By encouraging your co-workers to give you as much notice as possible for any requests and setting the expectation that you won’t be available in the early evening, you’ll avoid unnecessary last minute assignments or meetings.

Try this method one day, then another, and then the next. Eventually, you’ll retrain your colleagues to expect you to leave on time every day. Plus, saying it out loud and owning your goal to leave on time will help you feel more empowered in your ability to do so.

3. Allow 20 Minutes to Transition

Once you’ve set your departure time, give yourself some practical help achieving it: Block out the 20 minutes prior to that time on your calendar to clean up any last daily details (e.g., filing papers, organizing your workspace, and making sure all essential email is cleared out) and get ready for tomorrow.

Treat these last few minutes like an important meeting with your boss or a client—i.e., don’t let anything interfere with it, and don’t let anybody schedule in one last meeting with you. This is a priority time slot that’s non-negotiable.

4. Do the Most Important Work

Next, make sure your critical work is getting done—and getting done early. Do you work on a C-priority project because it’s more fun or less difficult than an A-priority project? I know—working on email may feel like you’re getting things done, but it doesn’t help you finish the monthly report that’s due or the agenda for the big meeting next week.

To make sure you’re on track, here's a quick check: Create a list with two columns. On the left side, list the three to five most critical priorities you’re responsible for. On the right side, list all the activities you do during the day. At the end of the day, match it up. How much of what you accomplished on the right side was in direct support of your key priorities on the left?

If you don’t have a stellar match-up, you should re-evaluate the work you’re choosing to do throughout the day. Getting your most important priorities done will not only make it easier to leave on time, but will also help you feel more satisfied about the work you accomplished.

5. Stop Wasting Time During the Day

If you constantly find yourself at the office late at night, also take a few minutes to evaluate your work practices during the day. Do you check your email every five minutes? Respond to every text immediately? Leave your instant messaging on all day?

While it may seem necessary to constantly stay in touch with your colleagues, constant distraction can seriously undermine your productivity and focus, and all of these habits can work against you to keep you at work longer.

Instead, challenge yourself to check email only at a few designated times during the day and block time on your calendar when you’ll turn off all your incoming distractions and hunker down to work on your key priorities.

6. Pick Up the Phone

Speaking of productivity: Email is a great tool for many things, but it can also easily become a time-consuming crutch—because often, a phone conversation takes less time and can be more effective.

So if your inbox is cluttered with ongoing strings of messages that never seem to reach a resolution, and it’s holding up your work, then it’s time to change your strategy: Pick up the phone. With a simple call, you’ll save hours of email reading, sorting, and responding.

7. Use Technology to Help You Focus

Yes, some technology can certainly be a productivity killer, but there are also hundreds of apps and online tools that can help keep you focused. For example, 30/30 helps you stay on task for a specific time frame, and Freedom disconnects you from the internet to allow you to work without distractions. (When I first tried Freedom and turned my internet off for 45 minutes, something clicked. Because I knew getting online wasn’t an option, I focused differently—and it completely shifted the way I approached my work.)

At the very least, turn off the dinging alerts and visual icons for your email, texts, and social media messages. Getting out of work on time is about managing that workflow on your timeline, not the other way around.

It’s pretty simple: Life is short; time is precious. Doing great work and giving your job 100% doesn’t have to mean spending hours of overtime at the office. The solution? Prioritize your responsibilities, minimize distractions, set the right expectations—and then, leave work on time.

Photo of man leaving work courtesy of Shutterstock.