It was 5:55pm during one winter evening and I was working in my cubicle and thinking “Am I ever goanna see the daylight again?”. Working after 5pm at office became normal for me at this point.
I knew that I wasn’t the only one and there are tons of other knowledge workers like me who are stuck in the same situation.
I started to look around and tried to find what are some common reasons behind not finishing work by 5pm. Here’s what I found:
- I have so much to do and I don’t know what to prioritize so I end up doing bit of everything
- Home is a place where I relax so I want to finish everything at office
- Can’t stand leaving something for the next day because I will have no idea how to pick it up again
- Just started climbing corporate ladder so have to make a good impression by making my boss’s workload lighter
- I often waste my time on things that are not important and get overwhelmed with too much to do
- Boss schedules meetings at 5pm and they always go longer than planned
- My clients/customers call me exactly when I am wrapping up my day
Does any of these sounds familiar to you?
Now, some them are exceptions but others are problems that can be solved.
Something I was victim of and also noticed a trend when started talking to people, is not setting up priorities right.
Do you have those days when everything seems important?
I certainly had that day everyday.
One of the biggest reason for this problem is our habit to do everything.
There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing. – Law of forced efficiency
Leaving work late sucks, and it could be a necessary evil on some days. If it’s happening to you everyday, then there are higher chances that your workday isn’t systematized properly.
Since I have systemized my work day, I can always finish important things and leave work at decent time to do things I enjoy in my free time.
I believe simple system that works is better than a complicated system that takes weeks to learn about and then more weeks to implement.
I am not going to ask you to change your email folders, do weekly reviews or build a 20 step process for efficiency.
Today, I am going to share simple three step formula with you to make sure you finish work by 5pm or even earlier if it’s possible for you to leave early.
Step #1 Workday starts a day before
When was the last time you planned your work day ahead of time?
Most of us don’t do it all and then wonder why do we have so much to do.
This doesn’t mean you start to work all night so you can finish work early the next day. I don’t think that’s even possible for most of us because we still have to go to the office.
What this means is that you plan your work day ahead of time. Now, you don’t need 30 minutes or 1-hour session for this exercise.
You only need 5-10 minutes. If you’re already doing it, following technique will be another weapon in your arsenal to become more productive.
Here are two actions you need to take in these 5-10 minutes:
#1 List every single task you have on your mind on a piece of paper or any electronic medium you use (Todoist, trello, spreadsheet, notepad etc.).
#2 Apply ABCDE technique to all tasks on your list
ABCDE is a simple but super effective method to setup priorities. You pick a task from your list and decide which category it belongs to.
I came to know about this method through Brian Tracy who is famous for his time management and effectiveness techniques. It completely changed how I structure my day now.
Here’s a break down of what each letter represents:
Category A Task
Your most important task which if you don’t finish or don’t do well have large consequence on your job.
For example, a deliverable you promised to complete by end of the week for your boss or client.
A1 – 1st most important task
A2 – 2nd most important but less important than A1
A3 – 3rd most important but less important than A1 & A2
Category B Task
Task you should do but it has only mild consequences.
For example, you should definitely check your emails and reply to messages but checking it 20 times a day or every five minutes will not get you promoted to the next level.
Category C Task
Nice to do task which has no consequences.
For example, taking a walk to your colleague’s cubicle and chatting about your weekend adventures.
Category D Task
Task you can delegate to someone else.
For example, task of repetitive nature such as crunching similar type of numbers everyday in a spreadsheet.
It doesn’t always have to be delegated to a human, technology can be your friend in need as well. In this case, you can leverage the power of excel Macros.
If you are a junior employee, chances are you can’t expect to delegate most of the tasks. But, once you develop mindset which allows you to delegate, you will be surprised to find few things that you can delegate to other people or technology.
Remember, working smart is much more better than working hard.
Other option available for delegation is virtual assistants. Depending on type and confidentiality of your work, you can delegate some of your repetitive work to virtual assistants. Find more information about virtual assistants here and here.
Category E Tasks
Task you can eliminate from your list.
For example, a report boss asked you about last week is no longer required.
Another example could be an email where 15 people were cc’d and everyone chimed in with their opinions and it settled down at the end without your input.
Pro Tip – Never be the first one to reply to these types of emails anyways.
So far, we have discussed what ABCDE technique is and which task each letter represents.
Now, I don’t want you to forget about it, so I have made it easier for you by giving you tools to put this into practice. Check out the box at the bottom of this post to download free worksheets to put this technique into practice.
This one exercise alone can make you twice as productive as people around you who think spending all day in an email inbox is the way to go.
If you are new to this approach, it might take you little bit longer on your first or second day but after that it will just become much easier.
If you absolutely can’t do this exercise before next work day, do it in the morning before starting any task at work. It’s the foundation for your success at work and also for step 2.
Lots of people go to work and just hope that one day they will be successful. Don’t be one of them. Create your own success plan.
Step #2 Build your day on the foundation
If you are like most knowledge workers, what do you do first thing in the morning when you get to the office?
You open your email, right?
I suggest you stick to the foundation you built last evening/night. Go straight to your A1 task, followed by A2 and A3.
Remember, these are the only tasks which matters when time comes for a promotion or a salary raise. Nobody gets promoted based on how fast they reply to their emails or instant messages.
Now, if you are worried about missing a high importance email because you didn’t check your emails in the morning, you can set a phone notification.
Rule for Step#2
Do your best to not to start on B, C or D category tasks until you have completed your A category tasks. Push through to complete them. You can use Pomodoro technique and schedule 30minutes of working session followed by 5-10minutes break. Here’s a simple timer you can download to implement pomodoro.
It’s 4PM and you still haven’t finish your A category tasks. What should you do?
Should you start multitasking and try to do everything? NO
Think it this way. What type of tasks if not completed makes you worry even when you leave office? I am confident that it’s A category tasks.
So, do you want to keep worrying in your free time (while exercising in the gym, at happy hours etc.) because you decided to reply to emails where you were cc’d with 15 other people while you still had your A category task?
Remember, we can always put category B, C and D tasks to next day and leave office on time as they have no to minimal consequence for our job.
Step #3 Don’t just shutdown your computer, shutdown your workday
Cal Newport, author of book “Deep Work”, talks about workday shutdown ritual. Cal suggests that at the end of the day, we perform complete work shutdown and don’t take any incomplete work home or leave it hanging it in our brain.
This might sound crazy to you, but it comes from a guy who’s a young computer science professor at Georgetown, has family with two young kids, writes books and number of peer reviewed research papers every year and never works after 5pm.
This habit will help your body and mind to recharge and get ready to be effective for next morning.
So, how to shutdown your workday successfully, so that you don’t have to worry about incomplete tasks when enjoying your free time outside of work?
Here are three action steps you can take during your last ten minutes at the office:
1. If you are in a middle of a task and its time to leave, write down exactly where you stopped.
Also, write down where to begin from tomorrow morning and what tools or information would I need.
For example, I write lot of design documentation and if at the end of the day I am in the middle and it is time to leave, I write down exactly where I need to start on next day.
It could be a simple pen and paper exercise. This will make your life much easier the next morning and especially on Monday morning after a weekend.
2. Take a look at your list and notice anything you planed to work on but couldn’t start. Move it to next day’s list. This way it won’t keep hanging in your brain while you are recharging for next day.
3. Quickly take a look at your email inbox to see if there’s any high importance email. If not, other emails can wait till tomorrow. Remember, if someone emailed you that doesn’t mean they have control over your time.
If you let incomplete work hanging out in your brain, it will keep using your brain power and focus while you are weightlifting at the gym, spending time with friends, reading book or whatever it is you do outside of work.
Ultimate goal of time management is to create time for people or activities you love in your life and not creating time for more work.
It’s of no surprise that we all have exceptions at work when we absolutely can’t leave on time. That’s okay, but on days you can, you shouldn’t sacrifice your free time due to your bad time management skills.
Time that you need to enjoy exercise, read a book or to just hang out with friends can be achieved with little bit of solid time management.
Now over to you. Share how do you plan your day, to maximize your effectiveness. If you currently don’t do any planning, let me know how you can use information provided in this post to free up 30, 60 or 90 minutes of time in your life.