News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 3, 2014

Are you working too much to celebrate 'Leave the Office Earlier Day?'

Are you still at work?

Believe me, the irony is not lost on me that I'm writing a post on "Leave the Office Earlier Day" at nearly 6 p.m. after working since about 8:30 a.m. without cease — earlier if you count reading and tweeting cool stuff on the web. Filing this story now almost assuredly means that my editor will not be heading out the door any earlier than usual today, either.

I'm still in workout clothes because I meant to go to the gym this morning, but instead figured I'd just answer a few quick emails, then never got up out of my chair until I realized I was hungry and, though I knew it was a major "no-no," grabbed some food and brought it back to my desk. Though I've been mowing through an enormously long to-do list of stuff that needs to get done, the list keeps growing as I work.

I call these Stupid Days. I'm trying to have fewer of them.

Laura Stack calls them unproductive, inefficient days that are pretty typical for American workers. And they're exactly why she created this holiday in the first place.

National Leave the Office Earlier Day is memorialized on June 2 on Chase's Calendar of Events, along with St. Erasmus' Feast Day, Coronation Day in Bhutan and an inexplicable holiday called "Yell 'Fudge' at the Cobras in North America Day." And though the latter may be testimony for just how easy it is to create a holiday on the Chase website for whatever springs to mind, Stack has a serious message: Americans work too much. And though we think otherwise, all those hours do not necessarily add up to a productive, efficient or particularly innovative day.

I spoke with Stack, a productivity expert based in Colorado, to ask about why Americans need a holiday to remind them to go home.

Q: Why a national holiday to Leave the Office Earlier?

A: To be perfectly honest, my first productivity book that I wrote in 2004 had the same title, and I created the holiday as kind of a PR stunt. That said, I wrote the book because we're overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, overstressed and we're working crazy long hours — 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week. The idea is "Hey, if you just focus on results, you could get your work done in eight hours and get out of the office and back to your life, rather than hang around for 10 or 12 hours." Like right before vacation, and how productive you can be. If we could just maintain that same level of effort and focus, we'd get our work done more efficiently and be out the door.

Q: Do people actually leave the office earlier on the holiday?

A: Well, people started to think I meant leave the office early, not earlier. So that created a bit of a backlash. People would say, "I might as well call it National Get Fired Day." But this is not about playing hooky, or bailing or cheating or leaving after a few hours. We're talking about everybody who works too much — 10 to 12 hours a day — to get them to leave the office earlier, after eight hours, and go home.

The point is, pick one day, it doesn't have to be National Leave the Office Earlier Day. But pick one day to work efficiently and go home. Maybe next Thursday. Then the next week, try it for two days. It's about how to make working productively a way of life, picking a starting place, and starting small.

I've been in business for 22 years, I do 80 to 100 seminars all around the world. I have seen people make behavioral changes. The holiday is just about creating an awareness. It's not a magical day, like you're going to have just one and — woohoo! — you're more effective. It's recognizing you have an issue.

Q: Why do we have issues with long work hours?

A: It's just being American. It's how we're driven. And it's what we've bought into. People are very afraid of losing their jobs. And often you put in that kind of work because you're worried there are plenty of people right behind you ready to take it away. People often feel if I'm not seen, I'm not needed.

But often, being in the office too long is largely inefficient. People get too distracted, they spend too much time on email. They lack the ability to concentrate. They spend way too much time in meetings. They're not in environments in which they can be productive.

The unfortunate thing is, corporate culture often sabotages our ability to be productive, despite our best efforts. There are these unwritten ground rules: You can't close door to concentrate, or you'll be see as a not nice person. If you put your instant messenger on "Do Not Disturb" you're seen as not a team player. If you don't answer an email in five seconds, that's showing a lack of responsiveness.

The problem is really in the culture of our own organizations. And it's kind of lost on leaders that their employees aren't able to work on something productively and really focus on anything.

Q: So if the way we're working isn't really working, why do we keep doing it? Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project and Georgetown Professor Christine Porath wrote in the New York Times about why we hate work, and that a majority of people they surveyed don't feel like they can think or focus on one thing at a time, despite all those long hours.

A: Sometimes it's paranoia — I've got to keep my mouth shut. Sometimes it's soldiering on. And sometimes people are afraid to point out the elephant in the room. That's why I'm brought in. I can say the hard things, make the observations that the way the corporate culture is set up is crazy. Everybody knows it's crazy, but nobody's willing to say it's crazy.

Then I help them create guidelines and protocols for what is sane and acceptable behavior. I spend a lot of time with companies that do want to create a team that works more efficiently together. You've got to start with someone willing to change that culture.

Q: So how do these long work hours affect people's lives at home?

A: Frankly, some people work these long hours because they don't want to go home. If you have a stressful or unhappy home life, it's a lot easier to work 80 hours a week, put your head in the sand, and ignore it.

And everything is really a blur now. People balance their checkbooks at work, buy their next train ticket for vacation during the day, because when else are you going to do it? And with technology, you don't really have to work 8 to 5 anymore. We can work when we want, where we can, from the office, from home, from the T-ball game. That's becoming more the norm.

It's not that that blurring is negative, she said, but it does show we're trying to cram our lives in with our long hours, and that that can add to the sense of distraction and inefficiency.

With that, Stack said she had to go. She created National Leave the Office Earlier Day on her birthday (she turned 45 on June 2). And as she's gotten older, she's begun not just to leave the office earlier, but to take the entire day off.

She was heading off to get a massage.

"We all need to recharge our batteries and rest," she said. "If you don't take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of other people and get your work done."

True enough. But after filing this story, I've got to take one kid to a watershed for a science project and make sure another one is actually studying Algebra II and not playing Rome Total War, then do another interview this evening. And at some point, take a shower and pack for a business trip. At least my husband's in charge of dinner.

So maybe I won't be leaving the office earlier today. But there's always tomorrow.

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