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When we’re busy at work, it’s all too easy to let meetings, last-minute requests, and project pileups prevent us from leaving the office at a reasonable hour. Instead of ending work on time, we keep working long after the sun goes down, letting it follow us back into our homes.
It doesn’t have to end like this. It may seem out of your control to take back control of your workday, but there are research-backed tips on how to end the workday in a timely, professional manner. Here’s how:
Recognize that working long hours doesn’t lead to better work
This a longstanding myth that too many employers perpetuate. Although some startup cultures champion all-nighters as a badge of honor, science says otherwise. Management professor Morten Hansen disproves the theory that workaholics get ahead in his five-year survey on 5,000 employees and managers. Hansen found that if you work more than 50 hours, your job performance flatlines. In fact, if you work more than 65 hours a week, your performance sharply declines.
“If you want to be really great at your career, do not fall into the trap of thinking that being busy — volumes of activity — is the same as accomplishment,” Hansen told Ladders.
The first step in leaving your work on time is realizing that you do not need to work long, crazy hours to be successful. Don’t feel guilty about needing to stay as late as your other colleagues. Give yourself the permission to leave work on your time, not your employer or your coworker’s time. You can, in fact, do less to achieve more in your career.
Make it a habit by planning for it
In order to know when your work day should end, you have to start noticing how long it takes you to do work. Scheduling the hours of our days helps us notice how long tasks take us. Productivity expert Cal Newport, who is known for leaving work by 5:30 p.m., recommends scheduling your free time as well as your work times.
“Assigning work to times reduces the urge to procrastinate. You are no longer deciding whether or not to work during a given period; the decision is already made,” Newport says. Scheduling your free time is even known to make us happier. One study found that people who scheduled their free time increased their quality of life.
Ultimately, we are creatures of habit, so if you make your daily end-of-day deadline a habit, you are more likely to stick with it.
Schedule activities for after the work day
If you find it too easy to break promises to yourself, build an end-of-day routine that keeps you accountable. Schedule a regular time that you will leave the office, and sign yourself up for activities that will force you to leave the office in time, like an exercise class or drinks with a friend.
That’s what Belle Cooper, co-founder of the self-quantification app Exist, does to get herself out the door.
“It’s important that anything critical on my to-do list be finished by 5:30 p.m. The hard deadline I implemented has been surprisingly helpful in keeping me on task and productive in the afternoons,” she wrote. “When I’ve tried this without an event like exercise or dinner at 5:30, it doesn’t work as well. The deadline becomes elastic and I end up working longer — or just thinking I can, which means I don’t get as much done.”
Spread the word about when you’re leaving
Once you’ve made a commitment to yourself about your work deadline, share it publicly with others. If you need to leave work outside of your usual time, it helps to let your co-workers know about your plans, so they know not to drop a last-minute request on your lap.
“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 p.m,” job coach Lea McLeod recommends. “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.”