How to Leave Work at the Office

by Lesley Alderman

How to Leave Work at the Office

Feeling frazzled lately? You may need to look further than your new baby to find the culprit. The truth is, women are working harder and longer at the office than ever before  — nearly 20 hours more a month than they did two decades ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these extra hours are the result of more women working full-time, of course. But in these lean, mean, and competitive times, companies are also demanding more from their employees. One recent survey, for example, found that a third of office workers routinely take work home at night. In addition, the proliferation of so-called convenience technologies  — cell phones, home computers, and pagers  — has blurred the once-sacred line between personal and professional time.

In this age of "technology creep" and increased workloads, parents have to be vigilant about separating their work and family lives or risk burning out, says stress expert Jack Aiello, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. Here are five tools to help stem the encroaching tide of work into your home life.

1. Set clear priorities.

The first step is to ask yourself, "What’s important to me?" says Shirley Long, a contributor to the classic time-management book The Time Trap. "If you don’t know what your priorities are, then all activities have equal weight, and chance, accident, or your environment will make decisions for you," says Long. Make a list of your responsibilities: those of mother, worker, wife, daughter, and volunteer, for example, and then rank them. If you have a clear idea of what’s most important to you, the next time a crisis occurs  — your baby comes down with an ear infection on the day of an important meeting, say  — you’ll have an easier time deciding how to handle it.

You can also apply this technique to your tasks at work. List all of your duties, rank them in order of importance, and then look for those you can cut back on or cut out altogether. Before her daughter, Isabel, was born last year, Elizabeth Coleman, a communications consultant for the Ford Foundation in New York City, used to pick up the slack for coworkers. No more. "Now I’m apt to say, ‘That’s not my problem,’" Coleman admits.

2. Be realistic with yourself  — and with your boss.

Few women can pull off being a supermom and a superprofessional. "Anticipate the real requirements of your job," advises psychologist Aiello, and then make the necessary adjustments. Can you handle the same hours and workload that you had before becoming a mother, or do you need to scale back? Coleman, for instance, decided that she wanted to ease into work after her maternity leave ended, and she arranged a new schedule with her boss. They agreed that six weeks after Isabel was born, Coleman would start working at home a few hours a week. Six weeks after that, she would go back to the office and work three days a week. Coleman also arranged to place Isabel in a daycare center a few blocks from her office so that she could make nursing visits during the day. To guarantee that her work doesn’t suffer under this fragmented schedule, "I make sure that I’m focusing on job priorities during office hours," Coleman says. "I ask myself each week, ‘Am I doing what’s expected of me?’"

In addition to reevaluating your schedule, Shirley Long suggests espousing the following mantra: "Do nothing that you can delegate." Take a hard look at everything you do, she says, from proofreading memos to making travel arrangements, and find duties that you can hand off to an ambitious assistant or junior colleague. This may not be easy at first, since women who are committed to their jobs often have a hard time letting go of even the smallest tasks. But if you’re a working mother, you need to accept the fact that something has got to give. Would you rather it be the minutiae of your job or time with your baby? Learn to make the break in order to keep your hours reasonable and maintain your sanity.

3. Organize your time.

Want to wring a couple of extra hours out of your workday? Become a ruthless time manager. "Having a baby made me much more efficient," says Christina Wood, a magazine editor in San Francisco. Before her son, Cole, was born, Wood put in what she describes as "crazy hours." Now she keeps meetings and conversations short and focused and doesn’t spend endless hours fine-tuning an article. "I also used to be more passive," she adds. "Now I’m decisive on the job."

According to Jeffrey Mayer, author of Time Management for Dummies, to get your work done better and faster, "tackle your most important tasks early in the day and schedule blocks of uninterrupted time in which to get them done." Declare an hour of private time each morning, for instance. If you have an office door, close it. If not, you might consider tacking a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your cubicle. Also, let voice mail take your calls, ignore e-mail, and allow work-related brush fires to smolder while you buckle down to the task at hand. If that makes you feel panicky, consider this wisdom: "Very few things that go on at work are of such a high level of importance that you have to drop everything to deal with them," Mayer says.

Finally, in order to get out of the office on time, let the phone go unanswered and turn off your computer 15 minutes before you call it a day. If a colleague asks for your help or wants to chat as you’re heading for the door, ask, "Can this wait till morning?" It usually can.

4. Use technology, but don’t let it use you.

Your pager, laptop, or cell phone can be your best friend  — or your worst enemy. You decide. If you must work at home or from the road, create protected time for yourself. Tell colleagues that you can’t be reached between 6 PM and 8 PM, for instance, and if the phone rings, let your answering machine pick it up. Aiello also suggests keeping your home office physically and psychologically separate from your living quarters  — even if that means merely putting an inexpensive screen in front of your desk. That way, you’re less likely to be distracted by the sight of an incoming fax or be tempted to check your e-mail at dinnertime. Christina Wood uses her pager to increase her sense of freedom rather than restrict it. Wood, who works primarily from home, leaves her pager number on her voice-mail message. Then, if she wants to take a break and visit the zoo with Cole, for example, she can do so without guilt. "I don’t feel so tied to the house," she says.

5. Form a support network.

As Shirley Long, who grew up on a farm where neighbors frequently pitched in to help with harvests and home improvements, says, "Without support systems, you’re doomed to stress and panic." That system can start with your family and extend to friends and colleagues. The goal is to have a circle of people you can call on in a pinch and with whom you can swap coping tips and other ideas. Long suggests that you band together with other working mothers in your office to discuss individual dilemmas and cover for one another when necessary. After all, no matter how organized, clearheaded, and efficient you become, you can’t always control the chaos that inevitably comes with having children. You need your own personal rescue team to swoop down when your well-constructed dam is in danger of breaking.