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How To Leave Work At 5 P.M. And Still Get Everything Done

Posted by | June 8, 2015 | Advice, Career, Time Management

Via Forbes : It’s a pattern with which most full-time professionals are familiar–you’re spending increasing amounts of time at your desk, but it feels like you’re getting less done. The hours stretch on, the to-do list grows, and you find yourself facing a future where you might let go of your apartment and just start keeping a toothbrush and slippers in your desk. Otherwise you’ll never get it all done—right?

Wrong.

It’s an understandable assumption. Most people feel they have too much to do at work, and the time-space continuum did not change when people started using organizational buzzwords like “multi-tasking.”

But while few of us leave our desks at the understood 5 p.m. day’s end of so many song lyrics, watching the minutes tick by in front of your computer screen is not actually the way to get ahead, and can even hasten falling further behind.

“There are several reasons why our days have swelled,” says productivity consultant and author of Never Check Email In The Morning Julie Morgenstern. “Companies continuously are trying to hire as few people as possible. Our roles are continuously changing, the world is changing, we’re in a time of rapid change—nothing is ‘business as usual.’ Acknowledge that you have more work to do than time to do it, you’re going to do different things.”

Does this mean that starting Monday morning you’ll be a fully-optimized task wizard who never sees another 6:30 p.m. in your cubicle? Probably not. But whatever your title, industry, or rank within an organization, a few conscious decisions about how you spend your time can mean not just shorter hours at the office, but better ones.

Why not start by figuring out what you’re actually doing with all of your time? It will probably surprise you.

Maybe you keep trying to write that proposal but can’t help clicking over every few minutes to see the emails pour in. Or your boss keeps strolling over to give you tasks while you try to complete the ones you’ve already got. Or you’re overwhelmed by trying to work while maintaining your superior command of Everything That’s Happening On The Internet.

Whatever the reason, doing too many things at once can diminish the quality of your work and add hours to the end of your day. If you’re looking to optimize the time you spend at work, figuring out how it’s actually allocated–versus what you think you’ve been doing–is a great place to start.

Morgenstern recommends keeping a time diary to start, or using the app Eternity Time Log, which directs users to plug in their major categories of responsibility, then tracks how much time they devote to each.

“It will show you where your time is going, and you can say, ‘Why did I take so long editing? Because I needed a break, or because I got stuck’–you can find where you wasted time and start to tweak it,” says Morgenstern. “Or, if you’re unable to keep track because you’re so scattered, your task is to learn to batch similar kinds of thinking.”

The additional challenge of figuring out what you do all day? Morgenstern warns that time spent on modes of communication–responding to email, listening to voicemails, marathon meetings–doesn’t count. You’re only really productive when you’re engaged in the true content of your job description.

See what tasks make the short list–and eliminate the rest.

One of the biggest mistakes people make at work is putting absolutely everything–big and small, essential and inconsequential–on the to-do list. Approach that potential client! Order wraps for the reception! Label those hanging folders!

There’s no possible way to get it all accomplished–and most people find it hard to leave at the end of the day with straggling tasks still glaring back at them. But the trick, says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, is to figure out what actually belongs on the list–no more than three to five absolute musts–and ditch the rest.

“Truly think through what your priorities are for the workday,” says Vanderkam. “There are no bonus points for having a long list when you don’t get to everything.”

And forget the new app that promises to help you make the list and accomplish everything on it. Both Morgenstern and Vanderkam say when you really need to buckle down and focus, analog is the way to go.

“For many people, even for tech whizzes, a list that’s on paper–even if it’s created on the computer but printed out–is very helpful,” says Morgenstern. “You can refer to it without the danger of going back into that computer screen,” which, she says, is just a portal to the carnival of distraction that is the internet.

alarm_clock

Alarm clocks aren’t just for waking up in the morning.

Don’t underestimate the power of one of the simplest tools on your smartphone–the alarm. Morgenstern says being time conscious can help you target and overcome all manner of personal foibles, from being easily distracted to not knowing when to call a task complete.

“If you’re a perfectionist, you can say, ‘I’m going to spend 90 minutes on this, no more,’ and set that alarm, and it helps you overcome your own perfectionism,” says Morgenstern. “You can say, ‘I’m going to work for two hours before I check my email.’”

Which brings us to…

Isn’t it time you broke up with email?

When was the last time you thought, “I just wish I had more email in my life?” (Probably back when you had a handle that included the name of your favorite athlete from childhood.)

You may think this title belongs to someone you dated in college, but the most poisonous relationship in your life is the one you are probably carrying on with email. It wants your constant attention. It’s got its mitts all over your work computer, laptop, smartphone, and tablet. It’s that constant, shrill, whine that wants to know WHY YOU AREN’T LOOKING AT IT THIS VERY MOMENT.

“Email delivers lots of to dos and lots of distractions,” says Morgenstern, who recommends eliminating it from the first waking hour and the first working hour of every day. “It’s the world’s most convenient procrastination device. That’s something you have control over: you can turn the dinger off. You can’t get into proactive mode if you start your day reactive.”

It’s not you. It’s email. Shut it down.

email

Plan your workdays three days in advance–including when you’ll go home.

Banking on having the time to plan your day as it’s starting is a bad idea–at that point you’re already in the trenches with the tasks flying fast.

Plan your workdays three days in advance–including when you’ll go home.

Banking on having the time to plan your day as it’s starting is a bad idea–at that point you’re already in the trenches with the tasks flying fast.

Kathryn Dill

I joined the staff of Forbes in 2013, covering leadership topics and researching the world’s wealthiest individuals for the Forbes 400 and World’s Billionaires lists before taking over the Careers beat. Previously, I worked as a stringer for the Chicago Daily Herald and Chicago Tribune, covering the small towns of northern Illinois as they weathered the municipal impact of the recession. I studied English and American Studies at Boston College and completed a master’s in Business and Economic Reporting at NYU, during which time I wrote for Inc.com.

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