How to Leave the Office at 5:00

The recession has certainly been hard on the people who have lost their jobs, but it’s also taken its toll on those left behind. As staff sizes shrink, employees are under more pressure than ever to do more work in less time. So the ability to say no at strategic times is crucial.

“Time management isn’t about magically finding more hours in the day. It’s about making the most of the ones you have,” says Laura Stack, a productivity expert and the author of “SuperCompetent: The Six Keys to Perform at Your Productive Best.” “So stop hunting for spare minutes and start refusing to fill your calendar in the first place.”

Here are some ways to start doing that:

Don’t assume it’s urgent. Your boss hands you a novel-length binder at 4:30 in the afternoon and says, “Would you take a look at this?” Guess you can kiss that after-work softball game good-bye. Not necessarily, says Stack. “Many times we assume people mean ‘right now’ when they make requests, so ask them specifically, ‘Do you need it today, or will Monday be okay?'”

Make your manger manage you. If your laid-off colleagues’ work is piling up in your in-box, ask your boss to help you prioritize. It’s a great no-complaint way to show just how thinly you’re being stretched, and it will enable you to devote the bulk of your time to the projects that matter most to her. “Where most managers and employees bump heads is when something the manager felt was of critical importance gets overlooked,” says Debra Yergen, the author of Creating Job Security: Resource Guide.

Save everyone’s time. If you find that the weekly staff meeting is mostly a repetition of things that everyone already knows, you’re probably not alone. So instead of telling your boss you’re too busy to attend the meeting, Stack suggests pointing out that it might be a better use of the group’s time if you met monthly instead. Newsletters, reports and conference calls can also be right-sized to a more reasonable time frame.

Say yes to something. Shift the focus from what you won’t do to what you will do. “Say no with an alternative,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas–for instance, “I won’t be able to stay late tonight but will be happy to take lunch at my desk tomorrow to spend dedicated time on this project.”

Don’t “have a minute.” Interruptions are one of the biggest office time-wasters, which is why Stack says it’s important to teach your coworkers that, no, you won’t just drop everything each time they want help. “When a co-worker pops his head in your office and says, ‘Hi, gotta minute?’ you can reply, ‘I have just one. Will that be enough?’ And do not smile.”

After he sheepishly admits that he probably needs fifteen or so, Stack says you should either ask him to schedule a meeting or tell explain that you’re busy and suggest a time that’s convenient–for you!

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