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A Manageable Work Day

How to Leave the Office at 5

By Sara Eckel

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 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.”

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, author of Creating Job Security Resource Guide.

Save everyone’s time. If you find 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. "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 co-workers that, no, you won’t just drop everything each time they want help. “When a co-worker pop his heads in your office and says, ‘Hi, gotta minute?’ You can reply, ‘I have just one. Will that be enough?’

And do not smile.” After they sheepishly admit that they probably need fifteen or so, ask them to either send you an email scheduling a meeting request, or tell them that you’re busy at the moment and suggest a time that’s convenient—for you!

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