How To Leave Work Guilt-Free & On-Time

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What is a fair day’s work? How do you know when you’re done for the day?

I used to fall asleep at my computer. Thankfully it was in my home office. The notion of all-nighters carried over from college into my my career, but the problem was that I was pulling all-nighters every weeknight instead of a few times per semester. I didn’t know I was a workaholic then, but as a recovering workaholic now, I realized that I never defined the end to my day.

Work until you can’t was my motto. The funny thing is that that is the motto for retirement today, except I was applying it to every workday, not just a 40+ year career. Our careers are like a 40+ year marathon without any pit stops in sight. But rather than looking at my career through the lens of decades, I started looking at it in days because I believe that if we change our day, we ultimate change our lives.

There are so many well intentioned quotes from “successful” people out there about outworking your competitors and skipping sleep.

“You’ll get plenty of sleep when you’re dead.”

“Sleep is for suckers.”

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they had plenty of sleep.”

At the time I didn’t feel successful, but I made up my own quote anyway. “Dream, but don’t sleep.” These beliefs pushed me to be the first one at my desk in the morning and the last one to leave at night out of fear that my imaginary competition—somewhere in the world—was outworking me. Every day was a race to try to complete my entire to do list. And every day I failed. I didn’t know what enough was or what finished meant as a professional.

A Fair Day’s Wage For A Fair Day’s Work

What is a fair day’s work? A fair day’s work used to be measured by companies like Ford based on the number of widgets you produced on the assembly line in a given period of time. Productivity divided by time is how you measure efficiency. Today’s blue collar workers know what finished looks like each day. A janitor goes home when the building is clean. A plumber goes home when the leak is fixed. An electrician goes home when the light switch finally works. The cable guy goes home after doing 5 installations. Most of their jobs are divided in such a way where they can complete at least one task or several tasks within 8 hours.

For today’s white collar and knowledge workers, that isn’t the case. Work is never-ending. Emails are never-ending. And to do lists are never-ending. As a result, a white collar worker can have an extremely productive day and still feel overwhelmed and unaccomplished at the end because there is always more to do. And the more things you check off of your to do list, the greater the urge to extend it, whether that urge comes from you, your boss, a colleague, or a client. They say “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person.”

On top of that, technology allows work to follow us home. Whereas the janitor leaves their broom at the building, our cell phones and the internet are always with us, meaning that email a.k.a. work is with us too. It’s hard to be present at dinner with your family when you know your to do list doubled in length between 5pm after you’ve (hopefully) left the office and 8pm when you (hopefully) have dinner with someone you deeply care about.

How I Define A Fair Day’s Work

Work isn’t just a place we go to Monday through Friday. Nor is it something we do for 40+ hours per work. Work is the process of moving an individual or organization from some sort of point A to some sort of point B. There is nothing more demotivating at the start of a project than not knowing what point B is. Without knowing where the finish line is, it’s hard to work strategically because you don’t know if you should give it your all up front or conserve your energy for the end.

So lately, I’ve been considering different ways to define when I’m done with my work day and that process begins in the morning. I define done at 8am and then redefine it after lunch. Assuming that I want to leave by 5pm…

1. I start by looking at all of the mandatory things that are already on my calendar such as calls, meetings, travel, etc.

2. I determine how much time I actually have to work.

3. I look at the type of work I have to do.

4. Given that, I define done based what I believe I can actually do in that time.

4 Types of Finish Lines at Work

There are various types of work or seasons in a business and each one requires a different kind of finish line. Work during busy season looks completely different than work during the “off-season.” During busy season, there are deadlines, pressure, and increased loads. During off-season, if you have one, work manifest as strategic thinking, planning, and preparation (usually for busy season). Given whatever type of work you have on your plate right now, a different kind of finish line may be appropriate. However, we tend to default to “work until I can’t” which is an emergency state, unless we’re clear on what type of work we have.

1. Energy-Based: I’ll Leave Work When I’m Dead Tired

This was my default, but now I only use this for emergencies or for hardcore deadlines that must be met. There is a belief that some of us hold, especially workaholics, that I should be dead tired at the end of the work day. Why? We believe that since we are “just” using our brains instead of bodies to do work, our brains should be able to keep going and going without getting tired. Since many of us aspired to to be athletes at some point, we feel like we need to “leave it all on the floor” like the hall of famers we idolize. But if you look at championship teams like the San Antonio Spurs, they don’t leave it all on the floor every game. They are very strategic about managing the energy of their star players. They do just enough to win that quarter, that half, that game, that day. The only thing that matters is that they score one more point than the other team—not 10 more, 25 more, or 50 more.

2. Time-Based: I’ll Leave Work When The Clock Strikes 5pm

I use this is during my “off-season” when my to do lists isn’t that long and therefore doesn’t fill up my day or week, but I need to spend that time doing strategic thinking which doesn’t always feel like work. During these downtimes, I used to get anxious and I would create unnecessary work that made me look and feel busy, but wasn’t actually creating value. Because strategy doesn’t always have a specific deliverable, I would carry on past 5pm out of guilt of not checking anything off of my to list. To counter that, I just use a time-based end point.

3. Results-Based: I’ll Leave Work When I Finish My Daily To Do List

This type of finish line is common in blue collar work, but can be applied to knowledge workers as well. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you, as long as you get the work done. The hardest part for knowledge workers is defining the end-of-day deliverable, especially when it’s not something tangible like a report, PowerPoint, or financial model and can’t be completed in one day. Every to do list items has some sort of deliverable and it is important to be specific about what it is when writing down the to do list item. Instead of writing “Work on quarterly report” which you’ll never check off until the end, break it up by writing “Finish 1st draft of Customer Analysis section” as your deliverable for today or this week.

Some companies have policies that support this. It’s called R.O.W.E. (Result Only Work Environment). Two people can have the same tasks, but it takes one person 4 hours to accomplish while it takes the other 8 hours. If all that matters is that the task gets done, the faster person shouldn’t be held victim for an additional 4 hours or do double the amount of work because they can do it in double the speed, especially if their pay is the same. Netflix is among several companies that allow unlimited vacation for employees as long as what you’re supposed to get done gets done. But most employers don’t trust their employees enough to make the shift towards this model even though results is more important than looking busy or time spent at the office.

4. Feeling-Based: I’ll Leave Work When I Feel Good About What I Accomplished

This type of finish line is great for when the deliverable or game being played at the moment isn’t that clear. You may feel lost or unsure about what to do next to create the most value for your company because you’re stepping into new territory or things have changed. Since results and how long they should take aren’t clear, you can go off of your gut feeling at the end of the day. If you look in the bathroom mirror just before you leave the office, and can confidently say “I did my best today,” then that’s what matters during times like these.

I believe in “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” While I think wages are unfair right now, we as employees have been unnecessarily overworking ourselves by not defining what done means each day.

“ A little work, a little sleep, a little love, and it’s all over.”
– Mary Roberts Rineheart

Wishing you more happy hours,