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How to start leaving work on time
Because you really need to.
There will be two types of people who see this email’s subject line. The first type will be baffled. They’ll wonder why anyone would need a guide to do what they do as standard: close their laptop and go home the second their working day is done. To them, this piece will feel silly and pointless.
But the second type will think ‘god, I need to know that’. These are the people for whom overwork has become the norm. Whether it’s from internal or external pressure, something keeps them rooted to their desks as the time ticks by and the sun begins to set. They know that they should be leaving on time and reclaiming their evenings… so why won’t they? Perhaps it’s just the innate difficulty of breaking a routine, maybe it’s that they work somewhere that rewards presenteeism and punishes caring about work/life balance, or maybe they keep working to avoid the other stuff; the loneliness of being at home, the emotions that come up when they’re not consumed by work, the dissatisfaction with the moments of life that aren’t their job.
I have been the second type many times, staying hours later than my contracted time to keep bashing out content, doing work without being interrupted by other people, and avoid going home. I didn’t start out this way. In my first full-time job after university (a copywriter for a clothing brand), I bolted out of the door the minute the clock on my computer tipped from 5.29 to 5.30. But the reason for that was probably not healthy. I needed to get the train back to my parents’ house in time to do a shift of online writing for Cosmo in the evening, knocking out one post per half hour until it was time to collapse into bed.
Then I joined Metro and moved into a houseshare in Tooting. I reduced my Cosmo shifts then finally stopped them entirely as I moved up the ranks. With my evenings suddenly free, the mental health issues I had squashed down reared up in a bad and ugly way. Each evening, I knew that what waited for me at home was McDonald’s for dinner (I never got comfortable cooking in the kitchen of the houseshare… something about feeling observed?), drinking the vodka I kept in my room, and thinking about how much I hated myself. Then it’d be a struggle to get to sleep because my OCD meant I had to sneak downstairs to check the front door was actually closed and someone wasn’t going to come in and kill me and all the other women in the house… over and over again, because my brain would say that when I went down to check the door was closed, I instead opened it (I never did this, but OCD is not a logical illness).
With that evening routine looming, staying late in the Kensington office emerged as the obvious way to put it off. Plus, I realised that I loved the feeling of seeing my writing shooting up the analytics chart, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people were clicking in. I also realised that to chase that feeling, I could simply write more pieces. If I worked flat out throughout the day to write 13 stories (each reporter was expected to publish 7 stories a day), I could get those hits. If I then stayed a few hours later to write more, or to catch up on emails, or to come up with ideas, I could get even more. Work became an avoidance tactic and the entire basis of my self-worth.
But a few years back, I stopped. I made a conscious effort to stop staying late. Now, in this past year at a new job that has fostered a far healthier relationship to work, I nearly always clock off on time, and never use my evenings and weekends to keep working on stuff for my 9-5.30. Sometimes I’m tempted to try to ‘catch up’ or ‘get ahead’ by taking time away from my life allotment and moving it to my job, but I’ve learned to ignore that itch and shut things down instead. Getting to this point took a mindset shift, new habits, and a job change, but I think now I can share how I moved to a healthier working lifestyle. Hopefully it’ll help other chronic overworkers too.
Have something to go home for
The number one thing that made me start leaving work on time five years back: taking in a feral kitten. Tiny Babka needed socialisation, feeding, playing with, flea-combing. So each day I prodded Chris (my partner, dad to Babka, and at the time, my co-worker) to leave at 3pm (we were doing a 6am to 3pm shift, which Chris is still doing now), and off we went, rushing home to spend time with Babs.
When you’re a chronic overworker, you’ll find it difficult to go home on time just because it’s good for you. Your own health feels like it isn’t enough of a justification. Ideally, you’ll start to value your own rest and self-care, but to get you leaving on time while you work towards that point, have a reason to head home. Maybe that’s a workout class, or a DIY project that requires sunlight, or the next episode of a TV show in which you’re deeply invested. Something to look forward to that pulls you away from your desk and through your front door (or away from the laptop and on to the sofa, if you’re working from home).
Make evening plans
In a similar vein, start booking things in for evenings, so you’re not just leaving to aimlessly do something, but you have an actual commitment you need to stick to. I made hair appointments that would require me to leave on the dot and speed to the salon on my bike, or booked cinema tickets knowing that I’d need to grab food beforehand and thus a 3pm departure was needed.
Meet up with a friend! Do an evening class! Make yourself a fancy dinner with multiple steps and processes! Evenings are not meant purely for recovering from work, shovelling fuel in your mouth, and then getting enough sleep to be able to go to work the next day and repeat the cycle. Evenings are where your life can happen. Fill them with wonderful, joyful things.
Realise that there’s no real end to work
There are some jobs where you do a finite number of tasks and then you’re done for your shift. But the majority of full-time jobs these days are not like that. Instead, responsibilities roll on to the next day, when one project is complete there’s another, and along with your daily to-do list you have long-running ones that keep growing longer. The point of all this is that there is no concrete end to your work. You’ll never be ‘done’. There is always more you could be doing.
Thus, you need to be the one creating that hard stop. Work is not going to be ‘complete’ and allow you to go home. You need to recognise this and you need to make a commitment that you will enforce an end based on time. Stop holding off on going home ‘until the work is done’. It’ll never be done! Leave because your contracted hours are up.
Recognise that ‘getting ahead’ and ‘catching up’ is a myth
Here’s a thought that sounds smart but is actually very, very silly: I’ll stay late and work at the weekend to catch up on emails and get ahead, so that next week I’m not overwhelmed and stressed out. This makes sense until you realise that your workload doesn’t stop and wait for you to catch up. The emails keep coming in as you’re deleting them. When you log in on Monday, new tasks will slide into the gaps you opened up by working at the weekend. You will not be less stressed or less overwhelmed, but instead more so, because you haven’t properly rested when you were supposed to and are thus poorly equipped to deal with, well, anything, because rest and time spent not working is indeed essential. You spent hours working when you weren’t getting paid to do it. You can never get those hours back.
Feel free to lie
If you work in an environment where you’ll get glared at if you dare to start packing your bag at your end time, I encourage you to lie. Say that you have to leave on the dot because you’ve got an appointment, a reservation, your housemate is locked out, etc etc. You shouldn’t need to have a reason to leave beyond ‘I finish at 5’, but alas, often it feels like if you don’t, you’ll be looked down on. So lie. Go wild.
Consider a new job
The number one thing that has improved my relationship with work is leaving Metro and starting at Stylist last year. Maybe you need a change, too. This might feel extreme, but if you’re in a job that has allowed the bad habit of overworking to become deeply entrenched, the best port of call might be to find a new one. I say this for two reasons:
Your new job might have a better working culture that doesn’t require or encourage overwork
In a new job, you can establish the expectation that you are someone who leaves on time. It’s certainly possible to change people’s expectations of you in a role you’ve been in for a while, but it’s much harder. When you’ve got a reputation of staying late and never being offline, the second you start to not do that, it' feels like a noticeable shift, getting read as ‘quiet quitting’ or ‘slacking off’… when you’re doing neither.
Fix your life
If you’re working late to avoid the non-work parts of your life… it’s time to make your life better. I can’t tell you what that means for you, only you can know that. But I urge you to take this seriously: don’t live a miserable existence and try to cover it up with being ‘too busy’ to do anything about it. For me, sorting out my life meant being in a healthy relationship with someone wonderful, getting on medication for my mental health issues, having a cat, cycling instead of getting public transport, making nourishing meals, and writing for reasons other than my full-time job. For you it might be different. Spend some time really thinking about what you’re avoiding, why, and how you can build a life that holds meaning beyond work.
Unrelated to the above piece, but here’s some exciting work news: I’m now co-hosting the excellent Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast with Bruce Daisley and Matthew Cook. We’ll be interviewing all sorts of interesting people, dissecting work trends, and exploring how to make work better.
You can listen to our first episode as a trio here:
You should also subscribe to Bruce’s Make Work Better Substack.
Work-related reading recs:
This article explores why you get the urge to work at odd hours of the day, and I think makes a very good case for why we should embrace more flexible ways of working.