Review: Leave the Office Earlier

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

leave the office earlierSeveral weeks ago, I reviewed Laura Stack’s Find More Time – and loved it. It was an excellent collection of specific tactics to apply towards maximizing time in your personal life and I have actually applied a few of the lessons successfully in my own life.

Naturally, when I read an excellent book like this, I sought out other books by the author at the library, and the first one I found by Laura Stack was this one, Leave the Office Earlier. It basically is the logical companion to Find More Time – while Find More Time focuses on time management and reduced stress in the home environment, Leave the Office Earlier looks at those same issues in the professional environment. The two books even have much the same layout and organization.

The big question, though, is whether there’s meat on the bone here. Does Leave the Office Earlier offer truly useful advice on reducing stress and improving time management in the office? Or does it recycle the usual time management advice? Let’s dig in and take a look.

Leave the Office Earlier in Detail

Much like Find More Time, I immediately liked the organization of Leave the Office Earlier. While it’s a somewhat thick book, weighing in at 336 pages, the content is actually broken down into 100 specific tactics for improving workplace time management and reducing stress, with these 100 tips organized into ten chapters with ten tips each. This format lets me read three or four very focused pages on points relevant to me and then skip on past three or four pages on a tactic that doesn’t apply to me – very helpful for absorbing specific tactical information like this.

I read through the book and selected two tips to focus on from each chapter, but I’ll note that most of the chapters had several worthwhile sections to read.

Mastering the “P” in Productive – Preparation
Leave the Office Earlier opens with a focus on planning – and not necessarily just short-term planning, but also long term goals. Without something to aim at, it’s hard to make progress towards anything.

5. Make a list of projects to accomplish and break the larger ones down into concrete steps.
Everyone has a ton of projects that they need to be working on, but many of us get caught up in busywork and lose track of the big picture of the big things we ought to be working on. Stack’s tactic of simply writing down every project you’re involved with and making a master project list is a brilliant tactic. It’s something that’s emphasized in my favorite time management book, Getting Things Done, and it’s something that when I finally really understood it and began applying it, the project list became transformative. It gave me a concrete tool to keep myself moving and accomplishing more than just pushing papers and doing busy work.

One key, though, is to not forget this list. I go through my project list about three times a week and I try to identify a next step on all of them. I usually have about fifteen or so work projects (my book, large post concepts that require research and careful consideration, etc.) and twice as many personal projects, and I do this processing with all of them each time. It fills up my to-do list quite quickly, and speaking of to-do lists…

8. Create and prioritize my to-do list each day.
Each day, I have a number of things I need to do. I empty out my email inbox. I write at least three posts. I work on a segment of my book. I do a few other things, too. I also try to touch base with some of my other projects.

With all of these things to take care of, I’d never get anything done without a to-do list. At the end of each day, I create a to-do list for the next day, usually ordering them in priority order. That way, when I finish one task, I don’t have to burn time thinking about “What do I do next?” Instead, I just move on to the next thing on the list or, if I know I need a break, stop and do something to recharge myself for a bit.

A well-prioritized daily to-do list really reduces the time one wastes in between tasks wondering what needs to be done next. You just get things done instead of wondering what you need to do.

Mastering the “R” in Productive – Reduction
While it’s nice to have all of our ducks in a row, most of us face constant interruption in our time: email, phone calls, quick tasks that need to be done now, crises, and so on. A to-do list doesn’t help with that kind of chaos – we need other tactics. Here are two of the ten Stack suggests.

11. Eliminate the cause of most problems and avoid crises.
Think of all of the sources of problems and crises at your job. Is it that wonky server in the basement? Is it one particular coworker who loves to stop in all the time?

Whatever it is, creating a long-term solution for those biggest distractors will make your day-to-day work much smoother. Make it a priority to create a long-term solution to whatever it is that continually causes distractions, problems, and crises at work. If it’s another employee, seek a solution. If it’s a job task, document how much distraction and cost it causes and develop a plan to fix the problem.

15. Recognize and eliminate personal shortcomings that lead to decreased departmental and organizational productivity.
This is an interesting one, because quite often, people don’t know what their deficiencies are. How can you fix a problem that you don’t know exists? The key is to talk to your coworkers about it. Flat-out ask people what your biggest shortcomings are – and accept what they tell you. Don’t argue with them. Instead, look at what they’re telling you and use it to improve yourself.

How does that improve personal efficiency? If you make yourself more useful to others and thus increase the productivity of those around you, that comes back to help you. Others are much more able to get their work done, and thus are more able to help you out, too. Goodwill is a very valuable thing.

Mastering the “O” in Productive – Order
Another plank in Stack’s platform for increased work productivity is order – a clean desk and minimal material distraction. In other words, uncluttering and clearing your workspace improves your productivity in a lot of ways – it’s easier to find stuff and there’s fewer elements around to distract you. Here are two tips.

26. Discard information quickly and easily.
This is one I’ve always had a hard time with. I tend to want to save articles for future reading from magazines and other such things. Eventually, I had an epiphany: all of these little pieces of information I wanted to save for some nebulous “someday” were stacking up and distracting me from the things I really needed to get done.

What I finally did was learn to chuck ’em. I made a stack of all of the stuff to read “someday” – everything in one pile. At the start of each month, I put the whole pile in a drawer and started over. At the end of the month, if I haven’t looked at the stuff in the drawer, I chuck it all. If I haven’t looked in two months, it’s not worth it. Get it out of the way so it doesn’t build up and take over.

27. Touch paper only once.
This is a very simple but brutally effective policy. Every time a paper hits your desk and you pick it up, deal with it only once. If it requires action, do it now. If it needs filed, do it now. Don’t let a flurry of papers build up on your desk.

messy desk on Flickr!

My desk looked like that once upon a time. I never seemed to get anything done. Now, it’s pretty obvious why.

Mastering the “D” in Productive – Discipline
The “D” here could also be distraction avoidance, because the tactics here are all about focus and staying on task. This is an area I have some challenges with. Here are two good tactics.

31. Know my natural energy cycle and work effectively during peak times.
My natural cycle peaks with writing creativity at about ten in the morning each day if I eat a good breakfast and get the day started right. My low point always comes at about two thirty in the afternoon. It’s almost like clockwork. So what does that mean for my day? I do my chief creative tasks in the morning. I do drudgery that doesn’t take much concentration in the afternoon. For the most part, that cycle works brilliantly for me.

Stack suggests noting your energy level at very regular intervals over a week or two to see where you naturally peak and naturally trough. Then, put intense creative tasks at your peaks and mundane drudgery at your valleys.

32. Control perfectionism, realizing that some things are “good enough.”
This is always a challenge for me. I get hung up on making some little detail perfect, get behind schedule with the bigger picture, and wind up hating myself when I end up turning in an overall project that isn’t that great. I’m really worried about doing this with my book, especially when I find myself focusing in on one little point for far too long.

How can this problem be solved? Stack suggests doing things “good enough,” then if there’s time later on, polish it further. For my book, that means just churning it out and not worrying about any of the details, then editing and reviewing it and polishing it later. The question is can I talk myself into doing that? It’s something I definitely need to focus on.

Mastering the “U” in Productive – Unease
Here, Stack focuses in on stress-reducing tactics. For me, the most profound thing I’ve done to control my stress is to make a career change – my stress level was simply getting too high too often and something significant needed to change. Now that things are in line for me, I can look at Stack’s other tactics.

43. Control my stress and emotions by monitoring my self-talk.
In other words, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re telling yourself negative things, you’re not going to get anywhere. While it’s great to let yourself know where you need to improve, forcing yourself into negativity gets you nowhere.

I often get frustrated with my own writing or when people misunderstand it. Things tend to go much better if I just back off, look at the positives, and move on with life. I need to focus on doing that more often.

48. Refuse to let stressful situations or people bother me.
Of all of the tips in this book, this is by far the most challenging for me. When I see a problem, I often chase after it like a sledgehammer after a nail, stressing me out. That persistence often helps me by keeping me vigilantly on task, but when I can’t hit that nail, it becomes incredibly stressful, not just for me, but for those around me.

The piece of Stack’s advice that helped me the most is to judge things by the average, not by the worst. If I write ten good articles and one bad one, I need to focus on the average instead of obsessing over the mistake. No one is perfect. I’m not perfect. Nor is anyone else.

Mastering the “C” in Productive – Concentration
On the other hand, this is the piece that I’m very good at. I can focus in so intently on things that the rest of the world seems to go away – I can almost do it at will. In fact, I’m so good at it and can slip into it so easily that it sometimes annoys my wife, who often has to really push to get my attention.

55. Focus on one thing at a time.
This is often a big part of it. If you need to focus, close the email program, turn off the television, and unplug the phone. Close all of your other documents and folders and items and just focus in on that one thing. It’s the only thing that matters.

What about when you have a stray thought? My tactic is usually to just jot it down quickly and then excise it from my mind. I’m able to do that because I know the idea is stored somewhere and I can focus on it later.

59. Get absorbed in a task and achieve a state of “flow” or “momentum” where time seems to fly.
This is so important to me. If I had difficulty with this, I would never be able to write as much material as I do. Everything just disappears and often I’ll look up at the clock and be shocked at how much time as passed.

Stack’s tips for getting in the flow are great, but the big one for me really comes back to elimination of distractions. Eliminate everything – or as much as you possibly can. Every time you get interrupted and get pulled out of that “flow,” it takes time to get back into it and you’re going to lose far more time than the small sliver of time you used for that interruption. Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign and deal with them later.

Mastering the “T” in Productive – Time Mastery
I tend to find creative ways to waste time before and after I get into my groove. I’ll web surf, play games, or find things around the house to do to waste time, and this often gouges my day. I think to a degree that a bit of a break is good, but the trick is to box it in and not let it get excessive. Here are some tips.

63. Know and avoid my biggest time wasters.
My biggest time wasters are political blogs. I am an absolute political junkie, but I really don’t get too much into the “personality” aspect of the candidates. I like digging deep into stances on issues, the mechanics of how campaigns work, and the really fascinating emotional and intellectual appeals that candidates make. I can burn hours doing this, so it’s a danger every time I even think about it.

My solution to this, actually, is to block a list of political websites each morning on my Mac. I use the Invisibility Cloak script from Lifehacker to block all of my worst political websites until 3 in the afternoon, after which I’m winding down anyway. Even if I’m tempted, they’re blocked.

66. Know how much my time is worth and eliminate those things that are a a waste of my time.
I’ve often talked about one’s true hourly wage and how you can use that to determine whether a task is worth your time. Stack believes in the same thing. Is it worth your time to change your own oil? For some, it may be – for others, not so much. What about mowing the grass, or cleaning the house? If you can work at your job and get that hourly rate worth of value out of it, it might be worth your time to think differently.

Once you figure this value up and start looking at the things around you through this prism, you start seeing things differently. For example, I spend fifteen minutes each time making six batches of homemade laundry detergent, meaning it eats an hour and a half all told. Since each batch saves about $8.40, that’s $41.20 for an hour’s worth of work – definitely worth my time. But is the same true for something that only saves $5 for an hour of work? Not really. It’s all about maximizing your value.

Mastering the “I” in Productive – Information Management
I used to be very bad at this. Once upon a time, I had 1,600 emails in my email inbox and it was a mental weight on me, knowing I had a seemingly insurmountable amount of information to deal with.

71. Understand I can have too much information and try to reduce “information overload.”
Almost everyone in the modern world suffers from information overload. That’s why it feels so utterly relaxing when we go out on a trip in the country and sit on an old wooden front porch – there’s no information glut weighing us down. I’ve found time and time again that I simply feel better when I turn off access to information for a while and do something with minimal information, like play in the yard with my kid.

Try this: one day this weekend, expose yourself to the absolute minimum amount of information you can. No television, no books, no internet, no anything. At the end of the day, think about how you feel. Every time I do this, I feel incredibly relaxed. That’s why I love camping so much.

74. Use my phone as an effective productivity tool.
Stack offers a lot of tips for this, but my favorite is very simple: unplug it when you need to focus. This is anathema to some, but it is one of the biggest secrets to how I’ve managed to get things done throughout my life. There is no work-related call that can’t wait if you’re focused on a task. If it’s truly urgent, someone will get off their behind and come and tell you. Otherwise, it can wait.

I never regret unplugging my phone during times when I need to focus. Alernately, I can think of many times where I would have never accomplished an important task if I had left my phone plugged in. A phone is a tool, not a requirement.

Mastering the “V” in Productive – Vitality
Make sure that your body and your sensory environment are maximized to help you work. Without your body’s optimal health or your environment in tune with your body, your level of optimum work will be reduced.

85. Maintain a noise level in my office that is conducive to productivity.
This does not mean silence. This means finding a noise level that works for you and sticking with it. For me, actually, I work best with music on very loudly that either (a) has non-English lyrics, (b) no lyrics at all, or (c) lyrics I know cold. I know this works best for me – I’ve been doing it almost every work day since 2002.

The key, really, is to try different things and see what gets you in the groove. I would never have believed that West African dance music played loudly would get me in a creative groove, but it works like a charm.

89. Drink the proper amount of water each day.
I went through a long period in my life where I drank inadequate amounts of water and what I found was that when I returned to drinking a healthy amount (at least 64 ounces), everything just sort of brightened up. I felt more energetic, happier, and much… well, healthier inside.

It’s easy. Just start each meal off with a 16 oz. glass of water – that way, you’re reminded to do it three times a day. It’s a great way to start increasing your water intake level in a respectable and safe way.

Mastering the “E” in Productive – Equilibrium
The final chapter in the book is about work-life balance, something that’s near and dear to my heart. I made a career change primarily because of work-life balance. That balance is key in making both parts tick – if the balance gets out of whack, both sides suffer.

92. Achieve my ideal life balance and don’t accept “close enough.”
You know what your perfect balance is, and you also know when that balance starts getting out of whack. When you know there’s something wrong, fix it now. If you don’t, it will become a steady and constant irritant, building slowly into something that can disrupt every aspect of your life.

If this means working less, so be it. You may need to make a tough call about what’s most important to you in your life here, but if you know something’s out of whack, listen to it and don’t let it grow.

98. Turn off the technology whe I’m with my family or on personal time.
My tactic is to simply shut everything down when my family is at home – my work doesn’t interfere with family time, period. No phone, no computer, no anything – just time preparing supper, playing in the yard, and enjoying the people I care about the most.

Is Leave the Office Earlier Worth Reading?

Leave the Office Earlier is a very good book with a lot of solid advice in it. Many of the tactics overlap with other time management, anti-procrastination, and stress management books I’ve read, but Stack does an excellent job of isolating very specific tactics that you can apply piecemeal. That, to me, makes for a useful book.

Here’s a good way to judge if this book is right for you. Read through the twenty points I picked out above. If they all seem old hat, you can probably skip this one. But if you find two or three (or more) that really seem applicable to your life and you’re yearning to try them, Leave the Office Earlier is a worthwhile read. I know I was in the latter camp, even though I’ve read tons of time management books – there was still meat here for me to digest and apply.

Laura has a third book out very recently, The Exhaustion Cure, and with the quality of her first two books, I’m eager to read and review this new one here on The Simple Dollar.

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