Do you find yourself staying at work later and later?
In the struggle to stay on top of things are you squeezing in ‘one last thing’, only for it to take you an hour past clocking off time?
Or finally managing to catch that colleague you’ve being trying to talk to all day at five to six?
The creep at the end of the day is very real.
5.30 becomes 6 o’clock. Which creeps past 6.15, 6.30 and suddenly you’re leaving the office after 7pm several times a week.
You know it’s bad when you’re congratulating yourself for leaving at 6pm. Such an accomplishment!
In this time of never-ending task lists, workdays getting longer and longer is hardly surprising. And even if you do get out of the office on time, there’s always your cellphone making your reachable 24 hours a day.
It all gets a bit blurred and setting boundaries is tough. Especially after you’ve demonstrated that you will stay later. A dangerous precedent has been set.
So how do you claw it back? What’s the secret to getting into the habit of leaving on time?
Define Your Day
Start time and finish time. If you’re going to uphold boundaries, you better be clear on what those boundaries actually are.
Are you finishing at 5.30pm, 6pm, 6.30pm? Is your finish time the same every day? Under what circumstances can you stay later? Is being on a roll a good enough reason or will you only stay for an unforeseen emergency?
Only you understand the nature of your job, the reasons why you consistently stay late and your motivations for changing it. Which means, only you can figure out what finish time is going to work for you.
I know we’re talking about leaving work on time, but defining your start time helps with upholding your finish time. It’s a bit like if you want to wake up earlier, then you need to go to bed earlier. So then the solution might be watch less TV.
You need to define the ‘bucket’ that is your working day. Do you have eight hours to play with? Ten? Even more? Are you comfortable with implications on your life? Say you want to work a twelve hour day and leave at 6pm. Can you handle the 4am wake-up call to be in the office by 6am?
Now you’ve defined the boundaries of your work day, it’s time to figure out how to spend that time.
Pick Your Top Three Priorities
The biggest driver behind needing to stay later and later is trying to accomplish too much in one day.
We write far too much on our to-do list than is feasibly possible in one day even before we factor in overrunning meetings, unexpected issues and well-meaning colleagues interrupting for a chat.
And after the inevitable happens, we still try to accomplish everything we planned to and berate ourselves when it becomes clear it’s not getting all done.
Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the satisfaction? The sense of accomplishment? Everything we did get done gets overshadowed by what’s left.
I, for one, do not enjoy running my work life that way. So instead I ask myself this:
If I only get three things done today, which three things have the biggest impact on my to-do list?
In other words, three priorities that enable me to tackle something else on my list, negate the need for something on my list or are large, important tasks. Which three actions are going to give me the greatest sense of satisfaction at the end of my day?
It’s easy to say focus on priorities, but there are so many different ways to prioritise that it all gets confusing. I find asking myself this question is the easiest way to decide what to focus on for the day.
Set an Alarm
It’s all very well to choose your finish time and plan your day to fit within the confines of that time but that still doesn’t mean we leave on time.
How often do you lose track of time at work? You’re in a meeting or in a state of flow and look up and it’s over an hour later than you thought it was. Happens all of the time.
You need a trigger to interrupt what’s going on and remind you it’s time to wrap things up.
So set an alarm.
This is the easiest step of the lot. There’s not a lot of thinking or effort required here. Pull out your phone and create a recurring alarm for Monday to Friday.
I do have a couple of bonus tips to make it extra potent.
I labelled my alarm ‘Go Time’ as an extra reminder of what the alarm is meant to trigger. You can call it whatever feels motivating but when you’re deep in work mode and might not immediately remember why your alarm is going off, a label is a great idea.
Set the alarm to be ten minutes before you actually want to leave. The idea is the alarm is a trigger, so build in a little time to wrap up your day.
Have an End of Day Ritual
Speaking of wrapping up your day, have a routine that you follow.
The advantage of having a routine or ritual is it helps quieten your mind that you’ve got everything taken care of. It always you to leave work and actually mentally, leave work.
There are four parts to my ritual:
- I wrap up whatever I’m doing. Even if that is just getting it to a state that is easy to resume the following day. It’s worth remembering that sometimes you’re going to leave things partly done, so just find a good junction and make a note of where you’re up to.
- I add any undone tasks or notes to any.do. Lot’s of things come up in the course of my day and to save interrupting myself, I note them down. I try to action as many of them as I can in gaps in my day but inevitably there is always some hangover. Adding them to any.do means I know I will pick them up in the coming days and my brain doesn’t need to expend energy trying to remember everything.
- I review my calendar to see what’s scheduled for the next day. This lets me pick up any prep I need to do for meetings and gives me a sense of how much time I have to allocate to my priorities.
- Finally, I pick my top three tasks. By picking them the night before, my subconscious can ruminate on them overnight plus I know exactly what I’m doing when I arrive the next day.
This sounds like a lot but it easily fits into a ten-minute window. The only time it doesn’t is if step one takes awhile. Sometimes it can be hard to find a good junction to wrap up, like if you’re in a meeting. Or sometimes I’m not being disciplined enough because I don’t want to interrupt my flow. But as long as I get this 80% of the time (or four days out of five) then I’m happy.
Commit to Being Somewhere Else
Sometimes the only way to create a habit is to increase the consequences.
Commit to a gym class that will cost you if you don’t show up. Commit to meeting a friend for a drink and you don’t want to leave them hanging in the bar. Commit to cooking dinner for your number one.
The idea is to give yourself somewhere else to be. Make it somewhere you want to go so you have extra motivation to leave work. This can be a carrot and a stick all at once.
One the commitments I make is on Wednesdays I go home to cook. My fresh produce is delivered on Wednesday’s so I’m always excited to go home, see what I’ve got and turn it into something delicious.
This step is particularly helpful when you’re initially implementing the other suggestions above. It helps reinforce the good habits you’re building.
It means the alarm doesn’t become something you just turn off and ignore. You get used to the alarm being the trigger it’s intended to be. Then over time you react automatically and don’t need the extra incentive of somewhere else to be in order to leave on time.
Leave Work on Time
Like many things, leaving work is a habit or a series of habits. Maybe you only implement one of the tips or maybe you implement them all. Whatever you need to leave work at a time that suits you.
I hope these tips allow you to take control of your finishing time. That working late is something that is conscious, intentional, deliberate.
Sometimes we need to work late to get a project over the line or deliver a tight deadline. And that’s ok.
What’s not ok is when it becomes the norm. When work leaves little room for the rest of life.
So set some boundaries and create habits to help you uphold them.