How to Leave the Office at 5PM (Really)

Last Updated Jul 12, 2011 9:27 PM EDT

Every morning you set a goal to leave the office in time to spend the evening hanging out with your loved ones. And every evening around 5 or 6PM, you look at the mound of not-done work and realize it's not happening.
But before you settle for another late night of Chinese food and furious family members, think about this: some people manage to have both fulfilling careers and fulfilling home lives. What do they know? After studying hundreds of time logs, I've realized that these successful people adopt a few key tactics for shutting down and shipping out:

1. Realize you can leave before everything's done. In our rapid-fire age, email, requests for assistance, calls and meetings can fill all available space. If you aim to go home with inbox zero, you may never go home. Work will always be there and will take whatever time you give it. So give it less time. We all have a point of diminishing returns.

2. Split your shifts. Leaving the office at 5PM doesn't mean you need to be done for the night. Try going home, spending time with your family or pursuing other personal projects, and then fire your laptop back up around 8:30PM for another hour or two. You'll probably be refreshed enough to solve problems that would have taken you until 8:30 if you'd stayed put.
3. Do a 4PM triage. If your to-do list for the day has been too ambitious, you'll probably realize, by mid-afternoon, that it can't all happen by 5PM. So at 4PM, go through and rank the most important tasks. If you knew that the electricity was going to go off in your office at 5PM, rendering more work impossible, what would you do before then? Do those things. Then stop. Pick up the to-do list again at 8:30PM, or the next morning. Who knows, maybe some of the problems will have solved themselves in the night!
What time do you leave work in the evening -- and what time would you like to leave?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, swanksalot

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