How to leave work on time
Last updated on: June 13, 2022
Hustle culture and working 24/7 are increasingly present and glorified. As author Laura Vanderkam wrote in her article for the Wall Street Journal, “We live in a competitive society, and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation – even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical – we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families.”
As important as working hard is, workaholism – performative or not – isn’t something we should strive for. It’s dangerous to idolize it and put the pressure of being constantly busy on yourself (and others).
In this article, we’ll talk about why you should leave work on time instead, as well as how to do it, depending on the reason you’re staying overtime.
Why you should leave the office on time
Working overtime is okay in some instances. For example, when you’re trying to meet the deadline for a really important project, it’s completely justified, but it shouldn’t become an everyday thing. Here’s why:
Negative effects on your health caused by overworking
Not having a proper work-life balance takes a toll on your health, both physical and mental.
Overworking can cause a series of health problems, including a higher risk of a stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. These health issues are caused by a variety of factors: stress, sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, lack of sleep and physical activity, tobacco and alcohol consumption.
Neglecting your health, sleep, hobbies, social and love life can seriously impair your mental health too, as well as your quality of life.
In extreme cases, overworking can cause death; while that’s rare in the west, in east Asia it’s common enough to have a word for it (karōshi in Japanese and guòláosǐ in Mandarin Chinese).
Overworking leads to burnout
What is a burnout?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, burnout is “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” It causes feelings of reduced professional ability and negative emotions towards your job. In some cases, it leads to health issues too, such as chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and a weakened immune system.
Emotional and behavioral symptoms include feeling helpless and trapped, isolating from others, using food/alcohol/drugs to cope, a negative, cynical outlook on life, and a loss of motivation.
In 2019, burnout was categorized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon” that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and it’s classified in International Disease Classification (ICD-11).
All in all, it’s not a good time.
If you think you may be at risk of burnout, you can do the MBI self-assessment test. It’s not a scientific diagnostic technique, but it can be helpful.
Being busy doesn’t necessarily mean being productive
Working long hours may actually not be that useful.
As Sara Robinson said in her article for Salon, “increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output…In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.”
The premise that more hours don’t equal more productivity is backed up by a study by John Pencavel for Stanford University, that states that “below 49 weekly hours, variations in output are proportional to variations in hours; for those observations corresponding to 49 or more hours, output rises with hours at a decreasing rate and a maximum of output occurs at about 63 hours. Output at 70 hours differs little from the output at 56 hours.”
I’m not a mathematician, but I can conclude that productivity and additional time spent are not in direct proportion. The payoff is not big enough to make the negative effects of staying overtime worth it.
If you aim to improve your productivity, you should focus on quality instead of quantity and work smarter, not harder.
How to end your workday
If you want to stop working after your working hours are done, you first have to figure out why you keep staying in the office – is it because you feel guilty if you don’t, because of your workload, or because that’s the company culture?
If the workload is the problem
If you can’t manage to finish the work on time so you have to stay after your regular working hours, here are the steps you can take to avoid it.
Set the expectations for the day
Before you start working, set the expectations for the day instead of just going with the flow and seeing where the day takes you.
What do you need to accomplish? What are your priorities for today? What amount of work do you need to get done?
Decide in advance what you are going to do and how your workday is going to look like. Make a psychological commitment that you’ll end working by 5 PM (or whenever your shift officially ends).
It will not only help you focus on the important tasks, but it will also prevent you from feeling guilty because you will know your work for the day is finished and the expectations are met.
💡Do you struggle with productivity since you started working remotely? You’re not alone! Check out this article: Remote workers share their biggest challenges.
There’s something called planning fallacy. According to that phenomenon, we tend to underestimate the time we need to get something done and overestimate the time others need to complete the task.
Humans are not very good at accurately estimating how long it takes to do something.
That’s where time tracking comes in.
Before you make a schedule, get a work hours tracker to track how much time you and/or your team spend on tasks and activities. It lets you track project progress and even share time reports with others. It’s easy to use and it’s helpful for a variety of reasons:
- It lets you see how exactly you spend your time and what areas you need to work on.
- It helps with procrastination, as you’re less likely to waste time when you know you have to write down everything you did.
- It facilitates scheduling and getting into deep work mode, which leads to performance improvement.
- It lets you accurately bill the hours you worked overtime.
Make a schedule
Having in mind 1) your daily goal and 2) somewhat accurate estimates of how much time you need to complete tasks, you can make a schedule. Plan your day in advance.
Do the most important things first. Aim to finish the hardest task of the day before lunch, so you can get it out of the way when your mind is fresh and your focus is the strongest.
Do the less important tasks towards the end of the day, as they don’t require as much brainpower and energy.
Success coach and entrepreneur Ryan Jackson advises: “Schedule important tasks into your calendar or online diary, with reminders set – and take action on them at the allotted time. Allocate only a specific time slot to reading emails, for example, 30 minutes in the afternoon, or 10 minutes every hour.”
💡If you’re a manager, check out How to effectively schedule employee work time to find tips and free templates.
Do you often find yourself going through your social media or talking to coworkers about things that are not related to your current task? If you do, it’s likely slowing you down and causing you to stay overtime to be able to finish everything.
Try your best to be as efficient and disciplined as possible during work hours, so you can be free after and go home on time.
It may be tempting to just promise yourself “oh I’ll just finish it later”, but the future you will hate you for it. Your future self is tired and just wants to go to bed.
Wrap up the day
At the end of the workday, leave around 20 minutes to organize your workspace and prepare it for tomorrow, review your to-do list, file papers, or do whatever else you need to do to wrap up the day. Having this routine will help you transition from work to relaxation mode and prevent you from checking emails just one more time / making just one more phone call / doing just one more task.
Talk with your superior about priorities
If you did all of this but you still can’t seem to get through your daily workload in 8 hours, you may need to talk with your manager or team leader about priorities and discuss what you think can be reasonably achieved in a given time frame. Be assertive, but polite.
If feeling guilty is the problem
Stop feeling guilty by reframing how you think about leaving work. “I am going home to spend time with my family / cook a healthy meal that’s good for me / have some much-needed rest” instead of “I am not really doing anything after work.”
Start seeing value in things you do outside of work; you’re working towards something equally important as paid labor.
Leaving work on time doesn’t mean you’re lazy or not committed to your work. Getting things done and being efficient is far more important than being at work just for the sake of it.
You can also schedule something right after the end of your working hours to make sure you won’t find an excuse to stay overtime. It can be a dinner with a friend, shopping with your mum, a group training in a local gym, or anything else you enjoy.
Turn off your work phone and laptop, stop thinking about work and enjoy your free time. You’ll do your job better and you’ll be able to focus better when you’re happy and well-rested.
If company culture is the problem
If the company culture includes staying late just for a show, you should consider if you even want to work there. A work environment that encourages presenteeism is not a healthy work environment.
Presenteeism is, according to dictionary.com, “the practice of employees habitually coming to work when they shouldn’t—especially coming in sick or working overly long hours.”
(We can also argue how exploitative it is to expect employees to work overtime, often without adequate financial compensation.)
If you’re a manager of a team, set an example for others by leaving work on time and encouraging a healthy work-life balance.
Leaving work on time can be hard for different reasons, from feeling guilty to not being able to go through the workload in 8 hours. The fact that hustle culture is so popular and the number of hours spent working is flaunted like a badge of honor doesn’t help either.
You don’t have to participate in that. In fact, it’s better for your health (both physical and mental) if you don’t.
Having a good work-life balance will actually have a positive impact on your performance. Depending on the reason you stay overtime, different things can help – sometimes working on your time management skills is the right answer, sometimes it’s making a conscious effort to leave on time.
✉️How often do you work overtime? If you do, why? Do you find the tips we provided helpful and would you add some other tips? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.