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25 Secrets to Leaving Work On Time

woman holding baby

Shannon Greer

My husband and I write a line or two each night in a daily diary -- it's a sweet tradition we started when our daughter, Penny, was born two years ago. But reading the entries from the first few months after maternity leave still makes me a little sad: "Jan. 5: Penny rolled over, Sunny worked super late... Feb. 28: S didn't get home till Penny's bed time...March 2: S was supposed to be home by 6:15 but got delayed by boss..."

It was an amazing job, but one I eventually traded for another because I couldn't quite make it jibe with my other awesome gig, being a mom. In a new American Baby survey conducted online, a whopping 42 percent of moms told us they'd take a 10 percent pay cut just to get one more hour a day with their child. While ducking out early may not be possible in the real world, leaving on the dot is. Use this advice we culled from leading time-management experts to help you create more quality time with your baby each and every workday.

Get more from your to-do list

About 40 percent of the moms in our survey say they don't regularly make a written plan for work, yet doing so is crucial for boosting productivity, Vanderkam says.

START YOUR DAY SMART
woman leaving work

Shannon Greer

1. Treat your first two hours at work as if they're gold. The most successful people I know capitalize on this productive brain time for getting big projects done. Save meetings for after lunch.

2. Sketch out weekly goals.
Before leaving your job each Friday, jot down the big tasks that will need your attention the following week. Come Monday morning, you can dive right in, instead of wasting time trying to recall what it is you wanted to plow through first.

3. Slot jobs into specific times and days.
Take your to-do list one step further by plotting when to handle each item. Start by examining your department's deadlines and priorities to efficiently schedule your time. For instance, if you see that your upcoming Wednesday is chockablock with meetings, try to keep Thursday clear to focus on the hot stuff at your desk.

4. Choose your medium.
Whether it's a paper diary you carry in your workbag to and from the office or an online calendar like Google's, which you can access from your computer or phone and can organize by color-coded categories (such as must-dos, meetings, and deadlines), use whatever type of calendar you know you'll look at and keep current each day.

5. Check, check, check.
"What's rewarding about keeping a to-do list is that it illustrates all that you have accomplished, giving you permission to go home peacefully at the end of your work day," Vanderkam says.

6. Say to your boss:
"Now that I'm back, here's how I'd like to approach my priorities. What do you think?" When you involve her, she'll be invested in your plan, and you'll know your time is well spent.

7. More than chatty coworkers or Facebook, work-related email is your biggest time suck, according to our poll. Nearly half of new moms surveyed say they toil on it for an hour or two daily; 23 percent spend a staggering three to four hours. To ramp up your email efficiency:

8. Avoid 9 A.M. email.
More than half of moms told us they spend their first 30 minutes at work going through their inbox. That's a mistake. "If you get sucked into email replies when you arrive, the day will get away from you," Vanderkam warns. Instead, eyeball your inbox for messages from your boss, and then wait to read the rest during scheduled email time (see the next tip!).

9. Schedule inbox time.
Set aside moments, say four times a day for 20 minutes or three times a day for 30 minutes to take action on email. "Respond, delete, or move it to a folder," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check Email in the Morning. "Most people spend too much time reading email and not acting, then later re-reading and replying. That's a total time thief."

10. No peeking.
"When you're working on something else, it's tempting to think, 'Let's see what's in my inbox!'" Vanderkam says. Don't! That's not multitasking, it's just wasting time. Be sure to disable new-message reminders too.

We've all been there. Your calendar is empty, coworkers aren't interrupting you, and yet your mind wanders from the project in front of you. To maximize your brain power:

11. Turn off instant messaging, even if it's work-related.
It can have the same distracting effect on your workday as constantly checking email. "I was at a company that used IM a lot, and I put mine on 'do not disturb,'" says Shari McGuire, author of Take Back Your Time. "It made some people mad, but I told them that doing so made me more productive and efficient, which better served them and others." If something is urgent, a colleague will pick up the phone or drop by your desk.

12. Batch your tasks.
"It takes four times longer for your brain to recognize and process what you're working on if you switch back and forth between jobs," Morgenstern says. To maximize energy, clump similar things together. "I find most people can divide their tasks into three broad categories, each with a different type of focus," she says. Critical assignments need concentrated thought, while relationship stuff requires talking to your boss, team, or clients. Finally, there's tedious maintenance, such as filing or paperwork. Take a look at your to-do list (you've made one, right?), and see how you can organize accordingly.

13. Schedule breaks.
In the same way that allowing yourself a piece of dark chocolate can ward off a binge later, giving yourself permission for online activities can help you get more done. Tell yourself, "If I finish the first half of this report, I can spend ten minutes of my lunch hour searching for new winter boots." You'll probably end up wasting less time than if you didn't make any plan to blow off steam.

Manage meetings better

More than 20 percent of you told us you bring work home with you. To get out of that overwhelming cycle, make your role in meetings extra efficient, so you can get more done at your desk each day.

14. If you're leading it...
Type up and pass out an agenda that lists your outcome-based goals. It's the number-one way to get colleagues to stay on topic, Morgenstern says.

15. If you're not in charge... When someone veers off-subject, shoot your hand up and say: "This seems important, but I know we're scheduled to end at 2 P.M. Perhaps this topic deserves its own meeting."

16. If you want to skip it...
Save your "get out of jail card" for when you really need the extra desk time. But don't wait until the last minute to spring your absence on your boss. Try this script from Morgenstern: "I'd love to complete a critical project on my plate. If I get the meeting notes from a colleague, would it be okay for me to devote my time to finishing that?"

17. Tired?
Tackle easy tasks like filing to stay ahead.

SLIM DOWN YOUR LUNCH

18. Shortening your midday break by only 10 minutes equals nearly an hour of extra time per work week. "When I go out, I make it quick so that I can get more out of my day," says Cheri Osmundsen, 37, a staffing manager in Newport Beach, California. "I've found that if I take an hour-long lunch, I end up having to work late to finish everything, and that's not an option for me with kids."

19. Anticipate your boss's needs. "If your supervisor always comes to you with an issue at 4 P.M. on Tuesdays after her weekly meeting with her boss, note it on your schedule," says Morgenstern. This way, when it inevitably happens, you aren't reacting to the extra work, you're ready to take it on.

20. Say no in a positive way.

21. Promise to get a project done "soon."
This answer gives you wiggle room. You want to avoid hurriedly saying you'll finish it by today or tomorrow, says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment.

2 WAYS TO MANAGE ACROSS

22. Delegate wisely.
"Women put way too much pressure on themselves to do it all, much more than men do," Dr. Hallowell says. Instead of waiting until you're completely overwhelmed, look ahead to see if there are certain projects a colleague should take over, Morgenstern recommends. When you ask in a timely manner, a coworker is apt to be more receptive and available, and you won't appear frazzled or incompetent.

23. Offer to help.
If you sense resentment from those around you when you slip out right at 5:15 P.M., "often the best way to handle this is to remind yourself that you get your work done and that you don't need to defend your hours," Saunders says. "But if you feel you should clear the air with a colleague, try, 'If you're overloaded, is there something that I could help you with tomorrow so that you can leave on time too?

24. Hold your ground.
If you worked late pre-baby, coworkers might not realize you must leave on time. They'll get used to the 9-to-5 you.

25. "Block out the last 30 minutes of your day on your office-appointment calendar, so no one schedules a meeting that might run over," says Ceniza-Levine. "Use that extra time to tie up loose ends and jot down tomorrow's priorities." Your baby transitions to sleep more easily with a bedtime routine, and the same is true when you leave work. "When you do the same things every day, the steps will have a reassuring feeling and lower your anxiety," Dr. Hallowell says. Tidy up your desk, log off your computer, and say goodbye. These habits will help you mentally shift your attention from work to home. Hey, you earned it!

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of American Baby magazine.