TGIF! In honor of the end of the workweek (my first full week back at work since the government shutdown), I thought I’d write about how to escape the office in time to hang out with your family on the weeknights.
One of my favorite anecdotes from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was her description of the lengths she used to go to in order to sneak out of the office at 5:30pm without her colleagues noticing. For example, she would schedule her last meeting of the day in another building, and then head to the parking lot straight from there, so no one knew when she actually left. Sure, Sheryl Sandberg was a big shot at Google, where many worked late into the night. But Ms. Sandberg did not stop working at 5:30pm, she just went home to have dinner with her family and then got back to her projects and emails after her kids had gone to bed. Given this dedicated work ethic, it seems absurd that she should have had to use diversionary and deceptive tactics to conceal her leaving from her co-workers. But Sheryl Sandberg was afraid of losing her professional credibility, or even her job.
This is a feeling that many of us can relate to. In her now-ubiquitous article in The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter described the culture of “‘time macho’ – a relentless competition to work harder, stay later .… even in industries that don’t explicitly reward sheer quantity of hours spent on the job.” The pressure to demonstrate professional work ethic and reliability is even greater for women returning from maternity leave. We want to demonstrate that we are just as committed to our jobs as before we had a baby, but the truth is, many of us are not willing to work as long as we used to. Cancelling on happy hour with the girls is not nearly as painful as missing your baby’s bedtime. Repeatedly losing time with family can create stress and resentment, which will undermine long term professional loyalty and achievement. The answer is to set limits, and to stick to them.
Of course, I realize that not everyone has control over when they leave the office, particularly in a new position, or one where pay is on an hourly basis, or where there is a set workday. But there are others of us who focus on hours clocked in the office, rather than achieving certain results. We can all benefit by becoming more efficient in allocating and maximizing our time at work. In the six months since my maternity leave ended, I have become increasingly successful at leaving my office on time. Here are some of my tips and tricks:
- Start small. It’s impossible to go from working 60-hour weeks to 40-hour weeks. Try to designate one day a week as your “leave on time day” and schedule that day accordingly (using the tips below). Once you consistently leave the office at 5pm (or whenever is “on time” for you) on that day, add a second day. For me, Mondays are rough (see “The Mommy Monday Blues”) so I started by forcing myself to leave at 5:30pm on Mondays, which made that day easier. At first, I had to work harder on Tuesdays to make up for the shorter Monday, but now I leave around 5:30pm every day.
- Be realistic. Allow for some wiggle room. My work has several busy periods during the year when my team needs “all hands on deck,” which sometimes requires a longer day. Even then, I identify certain tasks that can be done at home (like reading and annotating relevant case law) to make the most of my time “in office.”
- Maximize your morning. My son makes sure I’m up early, so I get into the office before my boss and usually get two to three hours of work done before any meetings. I set aside those first hours for big projects that require focus, since I am usually more alert and less likely to be interrupted. This strategy also ensures that I don’t get so caught up in little things that the major tasks get pushed off until later in the day.
- Prepare for tomorrow, today. Before I leave the office each evening, I update my electronic “to do” list, which is the first thing that pops up when I turn on my computer in the morning (even before my email inbox). My list includes important stuff like the next steps on big tasks that I want to knock out first thing (see above) as well as administrative items like phone calls and emails I need to return. I clear off my desk except for the materials I will need for my morning project, fill my water bottle, and open my notebook to a fresh page with tomorrow’s date on it. That way, when I get in the next morning, I can get straight to work.
- Prioritize and bundle tasks. If you have a lot on your plate, talk to a supervisor to find out what needs to get done today, and what can wait. Chances are, not everything is as urgent as it seems. Also, as much as we women love to multitask, our brains struggle to recognize and activate the skills needed for distinct tasks, so it is better to group similar things together. For example, I keep a running list of follow-up calls and emails I need to send and then do them all at once, rather than as I think of them. When my brain needs a break, I put on country music to do some admin stuff.
- Dodge interruptions, but schedule breaks. I know many of us are expected to always answer the phone or reply instantly to emails, so it might be impossible to avoid those interruptions. To the extent possible, though, I try to put in at least 30 minutes of solid work before I check email, follow up with a colleague, or take a break. Since no one bothers me when I pump, that is often a good time for me to plow through some work. I also make a point of scheduling breaks to get away from my desk periodically, which helps me gain perspective on my work and maintain my sanity.
- Try to avoid late afternoon meetings. When I am scheduling meetings, I try to keep my calendar clear after 4pm. That leaves time to tie up loose ends before I head out, and lowers the risk of getting a new assignment late in the day. I also like to schedule meetings back to back, so that one does not run long and eat up the day. Plus, it’s hard to be very productive during a twenty or forty-minute break in between meetings.
- Make your departure time known. When I returned from maternity leave, I told my boss I was going to try to leave the office around 5:30pm so that I could spend a couple hours with my son before he went to bed. That way, I feel less guilty when I depart, and I know he won’t be looking for me at 5:45pm.
- Put your coat on. Even though he knows I like to leave around 5:30pm, my boss tends to wander into my office around 4:45pm with a question or new assignment. I will hear him out, but around 5:20pm, I get up and put on my coat, to remind him that my work day is almost over. If he asks me to do something, I say, ‘Sure, I’ll get to it first thing tomorrow.” When I need to check in with a colleague before I leave, I always bring my bag with me so they can see I’m on my way out the door.
- Done is better than perfect. Sheryl Sandberg refers repeatedly to this slogan from a poster in Facebook’s headquarters. Women tend to be perfectionists, and many projects will take up as much time as we are willing to put into them. Instead, establish a clear definition of the end result and once you’ve achieved it, consider the project done. You can always return to it the next day for fine-tuning with fresh eyes.
These are some tips that have worked for me, although leaving on time is still a daily battle. Knowing my son is waiting at home for me is the best motivator for staying on track and sticking to my plan. Do you have ways you make the most of your workday?