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How To Leave Work At 5 P.M. And Still Get Everything Done

It’s a pattern with which most full-time professionals are familiar–you’re spending increasing amounts of time at your desk, but it feels like you’re getting less done. The hours stretch on, the to-do list grows, and you find yourself facing a future where you might let go of your apartment and just start keeping a toothbrush and slippers in your desk. Otherwise you’ll never get it all done—right?
It’s an understandable assumption. Most people feel they have too much to do at work, and the time-space continuum did not change when people started using organizational buzzwords like “multi-tasking.”
But while few of us leave our desks at 5 p.m., watching the minutes tick by in front of your computer screen is not actually the way to get ahead, and can even hasten falling further behind.
“There are several reasons why our days have swelled,” says productivity consultant and author of Never Check Email In The Morning and Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life Julie Morgenstern. “Companies continuously are trying to hire as few people as possible. Our roles are continuously changing, the world is changing, we’re in a time of rapid change—nothing is ‘business as usual.’ Acknowledge that you have more work to do than time to do it, you’re going to do different things.”
Does this mean that starting tomorrow morning you’ll be a fully-optimized task wizard who never sees another 6:30 p.m. in your cubicle? Probably not. But whatever your title, industry, or rank within an organization, a few conscious decisions about how you spend your time can mean not just shorter hours at the office, but better ones .
Why not start by figuring out what you’re actually doing with all of your time? It will probably surprise you.
Maybe you keep trying to write that proposal but can’t help clicking over every few minutes to see the emails pour in. Or your boss keeps strolling over to give you tasks while you try to complete the ones you’ve already got. Or you’re overwhelmed by trying to work while maintaining your superior command of Everything That’s Happening On The Internet.
Whatever the reason, doing too many things at once can diminish the quality of your work and add hours to the end of your day. If you’re looking to optimize the time you spend at work, figuring out how it’s actually allocated–versus what you think you’ve been doing–is a great place to start.
Morgenstern recommends keeping a time diary to start to list your main categories of responsibility, then tracks how much time you devote to each.
“It will show you where your time is going, and you can say, ‘Why did I take so long editing? Because I needed a break, or because I got stuck’–you can find where you wasted time and start to tweak it,” says Morgenstern. “Or, if you’re unable to keep track because you’re so scattered, your task is to learn to batch similar kinds of thinking.”
The additional challenge of figuring out what you do all day? Morgenstern warns that time spent on modes of communication–responding to email, listening to voicemails, marathon meetings–doesn’t count. You’re only really productive when you’re engaged in the true content of your job description.
See what tasks make the short list–and eliminate the rest.
One of the biggest mistakes people make at work is putting absolutely everything–big and small, essential and inconsequential–on the to-do list. Approach that potential client! Order wraps for the lunch meeting! Label those hanging folders!
There’s no possible way to get it all accomplished–and most people find it hard to leave at the end of the day with straggling tasks still glaring back at them. But the trick, says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, is to figure out what actually belongs on the list–no more than three to five absolute musts–and ditch the rest.
“Truly think through what your priorities are for the workday,” says Vanderkam. “There are no bonus points for having a long list when you don’t get to everything.”
And forget the new app that promises to help you make the list and accomplish everything on it. Both Morgenstern and Vanderkam say when you really need to buckle down and focus, analog is the way to go.
“For many people, even for tech whizzes, a list that’s on paper–even if it’s created on the computer but printed out–is very helpful,” says Morgenstern. “You can refer to it without the danger of going back into that computer screen,” which, she says, is just a portal to the carnival of distraction that is the internet.
Alarm clocks aren’t just for waking up in the morning.
Don’t underestimate the power of one of the simplest tools on your smartphone–the alarm. Morgenstern says being time conscious can help you target and overcome all manner of personal foibles, from being easily distracted to not knowing when to call a task complete.
“If you’re a perfectionist, you can say, ‘I’m going to spend 90 minutes on this, no more,’ and set that alarm, and it helps you overcome your own perfectionism,” says Morgenstern. “You can say, ‘I’m going to work for two hours before I check my email.’”
Which brings us to…
Isn’t it time you broke up with email?
When was the last time you thought, “I just wish I had more email in my life?” (Probably back when you had a handle that included the name of your favorite athlete from childhood.)
You may think this title belongs to someone you dated in college, but the most poisonous relationship in your life is the one you are probably carrying on with email. It wants your constant attention. It’s got its mitts all over your work computer, laptop, smartphone, and tablet. It’s that constant, shrill, whine that wants to know WHY YOU AREN’T LOOKING AT IT THIS VERY MOMENT.
“Email delivers lots of to dos and lots of distractions,” says Morgenstern, who recommends eliminating it from the first waking hour and the first working hour of every day. “It’s the world’s most convenient procrastination device. That’s something you have control over: you can turn the dinger off. You can’t get into proactive mode if you start your day reactive.”
It’s not you. It’s email. Shut it down.
Plan your workdays three days in advance–including when you’ll go home.
Banking on having the time to plan your day as it’s starting is a bad idea–at that point you’re already in the trenches with the tasks flying fast.
Instead, save some time towards the end of the day to plan for tomorrow and the two following days. It will not only keep you on track during the day, you’ll have a better understanding of your workload and whether you’re in a position to step up to an additional challenge, or focus on what’s already on the docket.
“When you have a three-day time horizon, as things come flying at you throughout the day, instead of instantly shoving them into the moment, you have context for, ‘Where can I fit this in?’” says Morgenstern. “If you’re only looking at the next hour, you have no context for saying yes or no.
And beyond preparing for what you can get done during the day, commit to when it’s going to be over. If your plan is to stay at work until everything last thing is totally finished, you’re not going to be leaving any time soon–or ever, really.
“It’s critical,” says Morgenstern. “There will always be something else to do.”
When all else fails?
If you’re committed to leaving work at a certain time, and a late-afternoon task arises that requires your attention but isn’t a matter of corporate life or death, you need to assess and attack within the time you have remaining–not simply commit to an evening spent in the office.
Vanderkam recommends asking yourself, “‘If the power to my building were to go off at 5 p.m., necessitating my leaving, what are the things I would do before then?’ And then tackle those things. The problem is many of us don’t ask that question until too late, and then you’re stuck late doing them.”
Everyone wants to be known for going that extra mile–but learning to identify when that’s truly necessary is critical. Especially because…
The best thing you can do for your life at the office is to build a dynamic life outside of it. 
Whatever your work/life preferences, it’s a point on which almost everyone is in agreement: The people who are the most creative and efficient in their careers prioritize time away from the office.
“If you’re not spending your time in a way that actively refreshes and renews you and fuels you,” says Morgenstern, “there’s no way you’re going to make good choices and be efficient at work.”
She recommends a combination of physical health, mindful escape through interests or hobbies, and spending time with other people as a way to rest from the workday and also keep your energy levels high.
“Work expands to fill the available space,” says Vanderkam, “so treat the end of the workday as something that matters. The most efficient people I’ve seen have a reason they want to leave at 5 p.m. ”