Many of us can't wait to pack up and head home at the end of a long workday: we count down the hours and as soon as our shift is up, we're out the door. For others however, there's a stigma to leaving on time, or worse, we have a difficult time forcing ourselves to leave the office, even if we have no love for our work. Here are some ways to break the cycle of working late and get your evenings, and sanity, back.
You might not have the willpower to just leave on time at the end of every day, you may feel like you have to stay late, or maybe you're on a roll or your coworkers are still there. Still, there are ways to coax yourself to leave.
Make Leaving Worth Your While
If you provide yourself an incentive (or by contrast, a punishment) to get out of the office on time, you can trick yourself into wrapping up your work every day at the same time. It may not cut to the core of why you get lost in your work, or feel like you have to work late, but it does provide you a reason to get out of the office on time. Here are a few suggestions:
Have a family member call you each day: If one of your primary concerns about working late so frequently is that you're missing out on time with your spouse, partner, friends or children, one great way to get that jolt back to reality is to have one of them call you when it's time for you to head home. You'll need to sit down and talk this over with your family, and you're explicitly telling your family to force you into coming home every night, but those are good things if they achieve the desired goal. Talk it over with them and ask for their help.
One of my colleagues at former job used to get a call from his wife or daughter when they knew he should be packing up to head home. It wasn't enough to have dinner ready when he got home, he needed a bit more motivation to actually stop working and leave the office. Hearing his daughter's voice at the end of the day was just enough motivation to make him want to go home and see her. Alternatively, enlist some friends to call or SMS you to remind you that it's time to leave the office-or to meet you after work. Photo by traaf.
Schedule an activity right after work, every day: If you've been meaning to get into shape, take a yoga class, or volunteer at a local charity, making sure you sign up for activities that will force you to leave the office at a regular time every day is a great way to stay active, do something with yourself outside of the office, and give yourself incentive to leave the office every day on time.
For some people, getting a gym membership is enough to encourage them to not waste the money they spend every month and get out of the office and to the gym every day. For others, it takes a little more: meeting a friend at the gym every day at the same time, for example, or signing up for a sports league or volunteer shift that begins at a time that requires you to pack up and leave the office at the end of your day if you want to make it to your next obligation on time. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Set Up Your Workflow so Leaving is Easy
As much as external influences can help you, they won't always be there to help. Your friends may need to cancel your regular appointment at the gym, and you don't have to be doomed to working late all the time if you don't have a spouse or family waiting at home for you. If you'd rather take control of the problem yourself, here are some tips to help.
Set an alarm: For most people, it's not really this easy, but it's a good way to get started. If you're the type who just gets lost in their work and forgets to look up at the clock to see when it's time to go home, let the clock come to you. You can use one of the many break timer apps we've covered here, like Break Timer or Breaker, or any old alarm clock application on your phone or desktop to go off when its time for you to go home for the night. You may even want to set multiple alarms—one for when you're supposed to pack up, another for when you really need to pack up, another for when you should be headed to the car, and so on. Don't give yourself just one thing to ignore, because odds are, you will.
This serves the same function as having a friend or family member call you when it's time to go home for the day, but it doesn't rely on someone else's goodwill to work. Just make sure you switch up your alarm or your notification method: it's too easy to get used to the same alarm and eventually ignore it or disable it because it's more annoying than helpful. At my last job, I used our cleaning staff as a kind of alarm clock: they always came to clean my part of the building at the same time every night, and when they appeared I knew it was past time to pack up and leave. They eventually got the drift, and would say hello when they arrived and noting how late I was working. Even that brief conversation shook me from a "heads down" mentality and reminded me that I should be headed home. Photo by Digitpedia Com.
Schedule a daily task review for the end of the day. The concept of the daily (and weekly) review is important in the GTD productivity system. We've discussed various productivity techniques before, but even if you don't embrace all of the specifics of GTD, the beauty of the review process is that it forces you to find a stopping point where you can make a break between the end of one workday and the beginning of another. That way you can stop, take note of the things you've finished today, and then set up the things you want to do first thing in the morning tomorrow.
On top of forcing you to close up shop at the end of the day in advance of going home, you also get the benefit of keeping a work "diary", which you can use to track your accomplishments and tell your boss what you've been working on and how far along you are. Plus, you wind up being more productive in the long run, because you've set yourself up for an easy start the following morning. You can set right in on the tasks you left the night before.
Learn to Say No: For some of us, it's not about just working long hours, it's about taking on too much work that requires us to work those long hours. We've discussed how important it is to say no, but the goal of saying no has always been to help you succeed at the things already on your plate, not just sit back with less work to do. If the reason you're having a difficult time leaving the office at the end of the day is just because you have too much work to do, it might be time to chat with your manager about your priorities.
Most managers won't mind having that kind of conversation with you, as long as you frame it up like you want to succeed at your core responsibilities and the things your boss considers your highest priorities. Tell them that as a result of dealing with all of the additional projects-or the new ones they want you to take on-that you're concerned your already 12-14 hour workdays will stretch to 16, and you're afraid something important will be left behind. They're healthy conversations to have, and your manager will likely be happier that you're having it now instead of after you've dropped the ball on something important. Photo by Horia Varlan.
Address the Psychological Issue
All of these tips will help if you're having trouble keeping track of the time, or if your problem is that you just get so wrapped up in your work that you want to make sure it's done properly, early, or to perfection. However, if the problem runs deeper, you may quickly fall back into old habits, or just taking the work home with you and working from there. Here are some ways you can approach the mental side of the issue, not just the functional.
Start small and build up: You're not going to go from working 7am-9pm each day to a normal 7am-3pm schedule overnight. Instead of aiming to leave at 3pm when your coworkers (or worse, your boss) may be accustomed to finding you at 5pm, try creeping your schedule back a couple of days a week to get your colleagues and your brain used to the idea. This will help you begin to register an earlier time as the "end of the day", and it'll make applying other tools and techniques easier.
Better yet, check with your boss to see if they're willing to move your schedule to a time that works better for you. If you're leaving the office at 9pm every night, maybe you should start coming to work at 11am or noon, or at least later than 7am every morning, if your job allows. Photo by Matt Seppings.
Make a pact with yourself, your family, or the world: Any meaningful change you want to make will start with you, of course, but if you're the type of person who's more motivated to make long-term changes if the eyes of others are on you, making a pact with people who'll be able to see if you're sticking to it is a good idea.
Tell your friends on Facebook that you're trying to get out earlier and spend more time with your family or hit the gym. Tell your family what you want to do and get their support. Don't keep your goals to yourself. If you're so entrenched in a bad habit, you may be willing to disappoint yourself on a regular basis, but you probably won't be willing to disappoint your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or family.
Don't be angry with yourself when you fail: You won't always be successful, and this is a process that takes time. When you do slip back into your old habits and find yourself working late despite missing your friend at the gym, ditching your weekly softball game, and disabling your alarm, don't sulk all the way home feeling sorry for yourself. Remember that tomorrow's a different day and another chance to do it right, and redouble your efforts.
In my last job, I struggled with this on a regular basis. I started missing my daily workouts and putting on weight because I was busy at the office answering email and dealing with issues that involved people who had left for their homes hours before. Part of what helped me get back in line was knowing that if the people I was at my desk emailing at 8pm were at home with their families and thought the issue could wait until the following morning, then I could let it wait too.
That doesn't work for everything, but it definitely helps. Combined with looking at each new workday as a new opportunity to get it right and get out in time for my workout, I started inching the end of my day back hour by hour until I was leaving at a respectable time. Photo by tup wanders.
Get professional help: Finally, if you think that the problem really does reach the point of addiction, that it's already negatively impacting both your professional and personal life, you may be exhibiting signs of workaholism. Keep in mind that workaholics aren't always people who enjoy their work, or people who are really good at their jobs.
Get the opinion of people you trust, talk to a professional who may be able to help, or consider reaching out to Workaholics Anonymous, who can help you understand whether you simply need help managing your work-life balance, or if you have a much more serious problem.
Understand It Takes Time
Like any behaviour change, learning to get up from your desk and leave the office is something that takes time. At best, you'll learn work smarter, not harder, so you don't feel like you have to stay after hours to get your work done. Still, because working late is often due to so many external factors, it can be difficult to deal with all of them at once. Start with the ones you have control over -- namely, yourself -- and then deal with your office or manager's perception of your work habits if you have to.
With time and a little help from the people closest to you, you'll have more hours in your day for the things you want to do, your own pet projects, and to spend time with your friends, family, or heaven forbid have a social life. Your employer will probably be able to get along without you at all; they can definitely survive if you work a normal-length day. You, on the other hand, may not be so lucky if you don't make time for yourself. At the end of the day, try to remember that you're working to live-not living to work.