Structure your working day: 7 ways to leave on time

Hannah Sims · 12 May

Sometimes, we go into work with a mission: maybe it's to complete a project, to attend a big meeting or to ask for a payrise. But we rarely set one mission daily that is actually extremely important to our wellbeing: to leave work on time.

Leaving on time seems like a distant dream for many. Firstly, company culture can make you feel like you have to stay – it's called presenteeism, and it sucks. If everyone else is still shackled to their desks, the mere act of standing up and leaving can feel daunting – like jumping ship into the ocean in front of your crew.

Sometimes, leaving late seems like the only way you can get all your work done. If you feel like you are always playing an elaborate game of catch-up with your pesky paperwork, then an extra hour at the end of your day can help you feel like you're taking back control.

And working late can be about image. You want to show you are loyal and dedicated. Look! Look at me sitting at my desk! You can't top that!

But why, though?

Why should your company culture keep you at your desk when there are children and families to see (normally your own), precious daylight hours for five-a-side football against better local teams, and delicious, precious, top-shelf sleep to be had?

Working normal hours keeps you engaged and happy. It makes you happy at home, too. Leaving the workplace on time has a host of benefits – a better work-life balance is prized by many people above all else. Having more family time keeps you sane – even if your mum is a little bit crazy. Working less often means you work smarter – presented with a limited timeframe, you'll have more chance of getting a task done (have you ever packed for a last minute holiday?). 'Lazy' people who work less can be extremely innovative people, simply because they prioritise finding the easiest, quickest solutions.

Working late doesn't really look good. You might think it says, 'I'm busy and important' – but perhaps it's saying, 'I lost control of my day', 'My five-a-side team got knocked out of the first round' or, 'my boiler is broken so I've decided to live at work.'

It's extraordinary that we need telling, but 24 February was 'work your hours' day. We'll need a 'brush your teeth and call your Granny' day next.

working day

As of 2015, 13% of the population work over 48 hours a week.

Working 50–60 hour weeks inevitably takes its toll, especially for women, who studies have shown suffer from worse health with longer hours.

But for everyone, being sleep-deprived and stressed makes you a horrible person with a compromised immune system and, to top it all, an unsafe driver.

And staying late can also lead to resentment. Maybe your cat hates you for never being there. Maybe you resent your workplace for sucking up so much of your time. We often let resentment simmer. It feels good to have self-righteous anger – but we forget that, oftentimes, no one has actually asked us to stay late. Where did this expectation come from? If it's coming from you, then let it go.

Here's how to structure your work day and leave on time

1. Start right:

What's the first thing you do when you arrive at work? Tomorrow, step back, rather than jumping straight into a task; write a list of your jobs and prioritise them. Keep the end goal – leaving on time – always in your mind.

2. Zoom in:

Focus on important tasks by switching off distractions (such as the internet) and setting a timer. Use the Pomodoro method (25 minutes on, five off, followed by a 20-minute break after four sets of 25 minutes) or a similar method to portion off good tracts of uninterrupted time.

3. Leave a buffer zone:

Plan to leave half an hour earlier than you should, knowing that you will probably overrun. Spend this 'buffer zone' time getting ready for the next day, tidying loose ends and answering final emails. Do not confuse this with a buffet zone unless you work in catering.

4. Say no more:

We know that answering emails is often dead time; you feel like you're achieving loads, and answering seems like a quick win – but you aren't getting any work done by replying (Thanks so much, Julie, have a good rest of day – can't believe it's Wednesday/Thursday/Friday already. Yours, Tim). You've heard it before, but hear it again: try to limit answering emails to certain points in the day – so they don't suck you in as soon as you step into the office. Unless it's what you're having for lunch, people don't need to know immediately. In a similar vein, switch your IM to 'busy' unless there's a really good meme doing the rounds.

5. Radio you:

Tell everyone who cares that you're leaving on time. The more people who know, the more likely you are to do it (this tack also applies to marathons, diets, dares and claims that you're going to eat the whole chicken). Make office peer pressure work for you, not against you. Plus, then you won't get a request in at 5pm and feel like you have to stay.

6. Tell the world:

Don't just tell your colleagues you're leaving on time, tell the world – by booking an event after work.

7. Take a lunch break:

Especially if you feel too busy to take a lunch break. Especially if you think it's impossible to take a lunch break: that's when you need one most. Check out the sky. It's still there? Good.

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