I’ve enjoyed a successful career over the last decade while largely keeping to my contracted hours. In times of crisis, I’ll do what it takes to put out the fires, but otherwise I make my work fit into the time allocated for it.
If you find yourself regularly working beyond your agreed hours, you may benefit from implementing some of the rules I’ve learnt to work by.
Don’t blindly say “yes” to new tasks, offer to adjust priorities instead
If you want to get home on time, you have to accept there’s a finite amount of work you can achieve each day. If you’re working hard and focussing on the right tasks it can be a surprisingly large amount, but it’s still limited.
There’s an old management saying that states “Projects can be cheap, fast or good: pick two”. You cannot adjust one characteristic without affecting the others. Getting there faster normally costs more or sacrifices quality, while better quality takes longer or costs more.
If you’re given more work than you have time to do, something has to give. Either the amount of (other) work achieved, the hours you need to work, or the quality of your work. For me, only one of those is negotiable.
The best approach is to avoid saying “no” outright, but instead force choices upon others. I can do X or Y, but not at the same time – which is more important? If I do X now, then Y will be delivered next week, is that ok?
Focus on the most important task
It’s cruel that the best tasting food is generally the unhealthiest. The same seems to be true for tasks – the more important tasks tends to be the difficult, unpleasant ones. It’s very easy to put them off by dealing with all those “urgent” little things that crop up all day long.
Even if you write a TODO list and place the important one on top, it can be tempting to deliver #4 first if it’s quick and easy. You might find yourself justifying it as an early victory to boost your own morale.
Avoid the temptation to do busy-work and actually focus on your real priorities. You’ll be amazed how much more you get done. Try to avoid TODO lists, as they can tempt you to cherry pick the more enjoyable tasks. Instead, identify your primary task for the day and forsake everything else until its done. By working in this manner, you deliver more results within the time you have.
Believe in a results-oriented workplace from day one
Leaving the office on time requires confidence in your own work. As you walk out the door at 5pm (or whenever), you should feel happy you delivered a decent day’s effort. The guy who stays until 7pm will may outwardly appear more hard-working, but it should be the results that matter.
It can be tempting to put in the extra hours when you first start a new job because you want to get ahead quickly. You want to establish a reputation for hard work and good results. But this can be harmful for your long term hopes at a sensible work-life balance – it sets a precedent that you later need to break.
Shifting from leaving late at 6.30pm to leaving on time at 5pm is suddenly something you have to manage. If you’ve been working efficiently during those hours, your output is necessarily going to drop. Perhaps not directly in proportion to your reduced hours (since people become inefficient after too long in the chair), but certainly to a noticeable degree.
Avoid this by having confidence you’ll be judged fairly and start as you mean to go on. Work hard and efficiently for the hours you’ve been paid to be there. Then get up, go home, and live your life.
If you have any suggestions for keeping a handle on your working hours, please leave a comment below.