“I tried to leave work on time for a whole month. This is what happened…”

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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how to leave work on time work life balance

Working hours of overtime every day, week and month can have severe consequences for our mental health. But just how easy is it to leave work on time every day? One Stylist team member finds out…

We all know that packing up our things and sailing out of the office on time every day can feel like an impossible dream. 

Most of us are juggling to-do lists as long as our arms, alongside a never-ending stream of emails and competing demands from our bosses. Inevitably, this means that the traditional nine to five often feels more like an eight to six. 

Plus, with the number of self-employed workers rising rapidly in the past few years (the figure currently stands at 4.8million, up from 3.3million in 2001), it can be difficult to switch off from our work at a set time every day.

how to leave work on time
How to leave work on time: we promise that it's possible

However, the impact of working frequent hours of overtime every week can have severe consequences - for both our mental health and our physical health. So is it possible to leave the office every day, and switch off from work as soon as the clock hits home time? Stylist’s digital commissioning editor, Sarah Biddlecombe, tries it out…

How to leave work on time: week one

My work day begins with Stylist’s morning news conference at 9.20am, where I’ll pitch features and discuss commissions on news worthy topics. Home time is the very specific 5.50pm… in theory, anyway. As a digital journalist, I’m constantly looking for stories, whether that’s on social media, news sites or just from eavesdropping on my fellow bus passengers (apologies if that’s you). All of that means it can be pretty hard for me to switch off from work, even when I’m not physically in the office.

Before the experiment started, I would typically leave the office 20-30 minutes after the end of the day, but would be checking emails, discussing ideas over WhatsApp and hunting for stories online for around 30-60 minutes out of office hours, too. So the thought of leaving work on time every day, and not being able to email or work on ideas whenever I felt inspired, left me feeling more than a little panicked.

how to leave work on time
How to leave work on time: even when I'm not in the office, it can be hard to switch off from work

However, the first day of the experiment runs surprisingly smoothly. It’s a quiet day for news so my workload is reasonably manageable, and I switch off from any office chat or non-urgent emails and power my way through my to-do list. Then an interviewee cancels our phone call, which frees up another hour of my day. All of this means that, by the time 5.50pm rolls around, my bag is packed and my computer is resolutely switched off. I practically glide out of the office, feeling more than a little smug at my new-found efficiency.

Of course, this doesn’t last long. Research has shown it can take a mammoth 66 days for a habit to stick, so expecting my behaviour to change in the space of 24 hours was pretty unrealistic. True to form, it gets harder and harder to leave work on time as the week rolls on; each night at 5.50pm, I look at my to-do list and tell myself to “just leave it for tomorrow” – but this incessant delegation to my future self inevitably means that, by the end of the week, my to-do list is twice as long as normal. I decide to tackle it all head on before starting anything else, somehow manage to leave at 6.20pm on the Friday, and resolve to do better next week.

How to leave work on time
How to leave work on time: “By the end of the first week, my to-do list is twice as long as normal…”

How to leave work on time: week two

On Monday, I walk into the office determined to leave work on time for as many days as possible this week. I sit down and draw up a huge to-do list, following my usual pattern of writing a main list in my notebook at the beginning of every week. This time, however, I write everything into my notebook as usual and then create a series of separate post-it lists, which I stick down my desk in order of urgency. I include literally anything that will take up my time, including smaller tasks such as replying to emails. It looks scarily efficient, but gives me hope that I’ll leave on time more often than not.

The main problem with this approach is that tasks inevitably crop up throughout the day, meaning that by 5.50pm on Monday, my carefully constructed post-it system is a mess of scribbled notes. I write ‘make new to-do list’ on a fresh post it note and feel like a parody of myself. 

By Wednesday I’ve come to the realisation that I’m being too prescriptive with my time, and go back to my usual system of a main to-do list and ad hoc post-it lists. I funnel the minutes I’ve saved back into editing, and leave on time for the rest of the week. 

How to leave work on time
How to leave work on time: “I’ll find myself wondering how people are reacting to a feature we’ve published that day, and pull out my laptop for a quick look at our analytics”

How to leave work on time: week three

My frame of mind has changed a bit by the time week three rolls by: having the target of a 5.50pm leaving time in my head helps me to power through my pitching, writing and editing. I can practically feel myself becoming more efficient; I check in on my emails at regular times rather than constantly checking for notifications, I complete one task at a time without getting distracted, and I keep my to-do list as focused as possible. I drink a lot of coffee. And, four times out of five, I manage to leave work on time. On that fifth time, I’m out of the office by 6.15pm: not too shabby.

How to leave work on time: week four

By week four, I feel like I’ve become a pro at leaving on time – or at least, leaving the office on time (nobody can stop me thinking about work out-of-hours). Keeping the target of 5.50pm in my head makes me streamline my work, and I clock watch more in the afternoon than I did before – not out of boredom, but so I can keep tabs on how long certain tasks are taking me, and consider what else needs to be done before the end of the day. 

Unfortunately, like pretty much any work environment on the planet, it’s impossible to predict how a day in the office will run, and this can throw my careful planning out of whack. For example, if something happens in the news that we want to cover with a feature, I jump straight into researching angles and writers, such as this first person feature from a woman who left her job in Westminster due to media harassment, hooked on the horrific press treatment of Carrie Symonds.

Despite these mini disruptions, though, I manage to leave on time (or within 10 minutes of being on time), most days this week, and that feels like enough of a success. 

There is one downside to all of this, though: I feel weird ducking out on time when the rest of my colleagues are still working away at their desks. We have a small team, and are very collaborative. And, sometimes, people work late to ensure that all of their digital deadlines are met. It feels weird, then, when I switch off my computer while every single desk around me is occupied by someone still typing intently on their keyboard: and even though there is nothing I can do (other than hang around for moral support, which would probably be more annoying than anything else) I still feel like a complete slacker.

This guilt makes me want to justify why I’m leaving ‘early’, and I manically remind everyone about my ‘experiment’ whilst backing very slowly out of the office. Hardly anyone looks up, and I remind myself that occasionally being the first person to leave the office doesn’t make me terrible at my job. Take that, presenteeism.

How to leave work on time
How to leave work on time: “I leave on time, or within 10 minutes of being on time, every day of week four”

What I’ve learned

In a nutshell: it’s really hard to be able to leave the office on time every day, and I managed to do so less than half the days in the experiment. Even with careful planning, you can’t control what’s going to happen every hour, and this is especially true for digital journalism.

However, just having the intention of leaving on time did make me more productive, and keeping an eye on how long certain things were taking was really helpful, too. If you want to give the experiment a go, here are some tips I would recommend:

  • Make a list. Don’t spend ages on a complicated post it system or try anything time consuming like colour coding, but do make sure you draw up a comprehensive list of tasks - and stick to it. It really helps with efficiency.
  • Clock watch. Keep an eye on how long certain tasks are taking you - you might be surprised, or find a new way to carve out some extra time in your week.
  • Try to switch off. Being able to step back from work will make you more productive when you are at your desk.

This article was originally published in September 2018

Images: Getty, Unsplash


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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