Question: I leave work every day at 6:30 PM — because I come in at 8:30 AM, and working for 10 hours is enough for one day and one brain. I meet deadlines, and I don’t leave anything undone that can’t wait until the next day. But, sometimes it seems like there’s an unspoken competition at work over “who stayed the latest.” Every morning, other women are like, “OMG, I was here till 9!” or “I was here till 11 PM.” I always respond with something like, “I can’t believe you stayed so late! You’re crazy!” — which I guess just encourages them. How do I keep my regular work hours without feeling like I’m in last place in the who-stayed-the-latest race? I worry that everyone around me will think I’m a slacker for wanting to head out on time.
Answer: In the halcyon days of my youth, I attended a fancy-schmancy Liberal Arts College — the kind with no frats and a tuition that I’m still pimping my Etsy page to pay off. (There’s a strong market for throw pillows.) Before you roll your eyes and close this window, there’s a reason why I’m telling you this.
Each year, at finals time at said fancy school, there was a contingent of students who basically moved into the library. Now, studious and stressed-out college students wouldn’t normally draw my ire, except these Poindexters reveled in their misery. They would prominently display their piles of comically oversized tomes and Red Bull cans, shuffle around the Harry Potter-esque grandeur in slippers and clouds of anxiety, loudly bleat about how long they have gone without a shower. At first, I assumed that these students had incredibly rigorous course loads, that I was “doing college wrong.” But, as I began to recognize certain drowsy faces as people from my classes, classes I was preparing for while still showering and sleeping fairly regularly, I realized that the library was a place of performance. These students wanted to be seen: They loved to gripe about surviving on cigarettes and coffee for three days, just to see the combination of awe and pity flutter across our faces. Being busy and stressed was more than just a state of being — it was a declaration of worth.
I have a hunch something similar is going on with your coworkers. If they are routinely staying in the office that late and their responsibilities don’t differ that much from yours, either they aren’t being productive during the work day or they’re just staying late to stay late. Whether consciously or not, we use busyness as a way to show our significance and importance: I’m needed, I’m necessary, I toil selflessly for the good of the company.
And while I’m being hard on these 11-PM-ers, it’s not exactly their fault. It’s capitalism’s fault. (Can’t you tell that I listened to punk rock in high school?) The economy is sluggish, the job market is tough, and everyone who’s managed to stay steadily employed feels lucky. And so we Assistant Assistants to the Junior Head Marketing Manager take on ever-growing amounts of responsibility, check our emails 24/7, and allow the boundaries between public and private and day and night to blur. But, by doing that, we’re inadvertently helping to perpetuate the problem: If everyone answers emails at 11 PM, people start to expect prompt replies to the emails they send at 11 PM. By remaining plugged in and accessible even after the after-shows have aired, your coworkers are creating a new, unattractive standard. It’s no surprise that you’re feeling the pressure.
So, what to do? Keep resisting! As long as your boss hasn’t said anything about your work schedule, don’t give in to the crazy. Opt out. Take a lesson from the woman who taught you to grab life by the rhinestones, Dolly Parton. As she sings in “9 to 5” (which is just a jangly, countrified version of The Communist Manifesto, if you ask me), “It’s enough to drive you crazy, if you let it…” And, she’s just talking about an eight-hour day — imagine what Comrade Dolly would say about staying past dinnertime!
And, if you’re one of the many chronic 11-PM-ers, whispering, “I wish I could quit you” to your computer: Give yourself a break. There are other ways to show your value than staying hyperconnected. In fact, unplugging and getting a good night’s rest will undoubtedly increase your productivity and present-mindedness during normal work hours. Boost your work-life balance by giving yourself a firm curfew and turning off your phone at the same time each night. Inform your boss, colleagues, and clients of this new cutoff point and, I assure you, they’ll adapt. Train yourself: Just because you see an email notification doesn’t mean you have to take care of it right away. Unless it’s time-sensitive or you truly have a ton of work to do, fight the urge to shoot off a quick reply or burn the midnight oil. Surely, the overnight janitor won’t miss your sighs and manic stare that much.