Leaving work late sucks. As if fluorescent lighting and empty cubicles aren’t depressing enough, you know what lies ahead: a heart-pounding dash to the train, a night of unhealthy takeout, and your spouse giving you that disappointed “working late again?” look.
If you can’t seem to make yourself leave work on time no matter how hard you work, give yourself a break for starters. It’s a difficult skill to master. Second, don’t stress yourself out by trying to work faster. In my experience as a time management coach, that just doesn’t work, but three these hacks and habits often do.
1. Set Fake Deadlines
You might hate planning because you’re scared that structure hampers spontaneity, and you’ll get worse at dealing with unexpected assignments as a result. But the opposite is actually true. The more you plan, the more choices you’ll be able to make over the course of your workday that can improve your chances of leaving whenever you want.
That’s where fake deadlines come in. Add weekly reminders to your calendar to work on key activities–just set them at least one day ahead of the actual due date. For example, plan to finish a report that’s due on Friday by Wednesday or Thursday. That way, if something unexpected comes up, you can still leave work on time and finish up the report by the real deadline in the next day or two.
When you plan your day, ask yourself: What would keep me at work late? Whatever your answer is, put that task at the top of your to-do list first thing in the morning–no procrastinating. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll get it done later in the day. That’s a recipe for trying to tackle it in the last hour you’re in the office, because as soon as something unexpected comes up, your already-delayed task will spill over into your evening. You buy yourself flexibility, on the other hand, just by committing to working on it earlier.
2. Schedule Two Blocks Of “Small Tasks Only” Time
When you’re heads down on a big project, it’s tempting to leave all your small tasks like emails and administrative work until the end of the day. But scheduling two blocks of time–once early in the day and once later in the day–can spare you from having to knock those out after hours.
I find it useful to block out the first hour of my day, free from meetings, to get my work in order. Then I’ll use another block later in the day to cross some quick items off my to-do list. I try to have my last meeting end at least 30 minutes before I want to leave the office. That allows me to wrap up any notes, do a quick scan of my email, and generally get everything buttoned up before I head out, which makes it easier to unplug from work completely when I leave the office.
3. Script Your Departure
You can’t plan everything, but you can impose some regularity on the end of your workday even when unexpected issues arise. For example, if you tend to lose track of time, set a recurring reminder on your calendar or phone to prompt you to start getting ready to leave. Many of my clients set their reminders for around 30 minutes before their desired departure times.
If you can’t stop yourself from checking emails “just for a few minutes,” set a cut off time for those, too. Fifteen minutes before I need to leave, I’ll typically shut down my inbox and ignore any calls that come my way.
These habits and reminders function like “scripts”–they prompt you to behave in predictable ways no matter what’s going on at the moment (and they’re helpful even if you can’t always follow the exact same routine every single evening). That’s because imposing a little more regularity can help you reset your own expectations. If you underestimate how long it will take to get your stuff together, for instance, a daily ping from your phone can help nudge you to start putting on your coat, changing your shoes, emptying your coffee mug, and gathering your papers about 15 minutes before it’s actually go time.
Then, if you have extra time once you’re entirely ready to stand up and walk out the door, you can squeeze in one last little task. Most likely your time will already be used up, though–and that’s exactly the point.