If you’re still at the office after 6 p.m., the problem probably isn’t your workload; you might not be working efficiently.
"It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to get out of the office by 5 p.m. if you’re disorganized," says Laura Stack, author of Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. "People are working far too long and far too hard because they are inefficient, disorganized, and waste time during the day."
Part of the problem is that boundaries around work hours have become blurred. "It’s rare to find someone who works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then turns it off for the day," says Stack. "Most of us bring work home, check emails, and make calls while at our child’s baseball practice."
If you focus on being more productive at the office, however, you can leave on time. But it won’t happen on its own. Here are seven habits that will help you get out the door and home before dinner:
Many people don’t leave work on time simply because they don’t set the expectation that they will, says career coach Lea McLeod.
"Instead, they simply go with the flow of the workday, working on whatever comes their way and neglecting to block time on their calendar for priority work," she says. "Then, at the end of the day, there’s still a pile of work to do—all because they didn’t plan for 5 p.m."
In the morning, identify what time you want to leave that night. Put it on your calendar, set an alarm on your mobile phone, or simply make a psychological commitment to that departure time, suggests McLeod.
"It can also help to join a class or social group that meets at a set time after work, which will give you an extra incentive to manage your day to get out of work on time," she says. Or for working parents, a set day-care pick-up time can be a strong motivation to make sure you make it out the door on time.
You can tell what a person truly values by looking at two things: their checkbook and their calendar, says Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management. "Most people would claim they value their family and friends. Most people would say their goal is to be a great parent. Most people would say their health is important to them. But our actions reveal the truth," he says.
The secret is to be crystal-clear as to what you truly value, and then schedule your time appropriately. Highly successful people think through their priorities, schedule time for each, and then enough is enough, says Kruse.
When you tell your colleagues and boss the time you plan to leave, you’ll be more likely to follow through, says McLeod. Set expectations by defining boundaries.
For example, 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.," she suggests.
"By encouraging your coworkers 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," she says.
"Be assertive," adds Stack. "Don’t be afraid to tell others, ‘I leave work at 5 p.m., on time, every day. I have a 5:30 commitment I must adhere to.’ It’s none of their business that your commitment is with yourself or your family. People tend to support others when their goals are made public."
If you’re spending your time on low-value items such as answering emails and scheduling meetings, chance are you won’t get the important things done. This can make you work late to finish your critical work, says McLeod.
To stay on track, she suggests creating a list with two columns. On the left side, list the three to five most critical priorities you’re responsible for. On the right side, list all the activities you do during the day.
"At the end of the day, match it up," says McLeod. "How much of what you accomplished on the right side was in direct support of your key priorities on the left? If you don’t have a stellar match-up, you should re-evaluate the work you’re choosing to do throughout the day."
If you have control over meeting times, make sure the latest one starts at 4 p.m. and is scheduled to end at 4:30 p.m.
"Block out your calendar beginning at 4 p.m. every day so people can’t schedule with you," says Stack. "And don’t ask people to begin projects at 4:45 p.m. Respect their right to a life, too."
You won’t get out the door on time if you don’t give yourself time to wind things down, says McLeod. She suggests blocking out the 20 minutes prior to your planned departure to finish up details, such as filing papers, organizing your workspace, and making sure all essential email is cleared out.
"Treat these last few minutes like an important meeting with your boss or a client," she says. "Don’t let anything interfere with it, and don’t let anybody schedule in one last meeting with you. This is a priority time slot that’s non-negotiable."
There will always be things on your to-do list and fires to put out, but you don’t have to be a slave to it, says Kruse.
"This is one of those simple concepts that, once it truly sinks in, can dramatically change your life," he says. "The hard truth is that there will always be more to do, so it’s up to you to decide—regardless of the to-do list or the fire to put out—how much time you’re willing to invest at work each day."