The New Way to Know When You’re Done With Work

How to manage your time when ‘time’ has lost all meaning

Illustration: Justin Cassano

Back when “going home” was a thing we did after work, most teams had some sort of group norm for when was acceptable to shut down for the day. Maybe around 5 p.m., people started leaving, and the majority departed by 6 p.m., with a bump around the time the boss went out the door.

With millions of people working from home for the first time in the wake of Covid-19, though, those norms are now less clear. If people aren’t commuting, the workday theoretically never has to end, though, of course, it should. But there’s an approach beyond counting hours to determine when you’ve put in an honest day’s labor — and I think it’s ultimately more effective than watching the clock in any scenario.

When I first began working for myself and from home years ago, I immediately realized that I rarely felt fully “off.” There was nothing stopping me from watching TV all day, but the more common issue was that I would half work and half not work until it was time to sleep. There was always something I could be doing, so I felt guilty if I was in my apartment but I wasn’t doing it. This experience is common, according to a JDP survey of Americans who are newly working from home. And 66% of respondents said they are more likely to work nights and weekends than before.

Eventually, I learned how to effectively divide the workday into time on and time off: short, focused daily to-do lists. Some items were concrete tasks (“write draft of column for Medium”), some were more open-ended (come up with new article ideas, think about a new introduction for a book proposal), and some were administrative (“email triage” was a frequent one), but whenever something went on the list, it was a guarantee to myself that I would do it before quitting time.

Once I had my list for the day, I figured out when, roughly, I would tackle each item, based around what productivity guru David Allen calls the “hard landscape” of the day (appointments for specific times). Once I made it through the list, I could be done. Sometimes that would happen at 2 p.m. or 7 p.m., although 5 p.m. was more frequent.

Over time, I started getting a good sense of how many tasks would fit in eight hours. Still, if the list was chosen well, reaching the end of it felt like a good day no matter what time it was.

Granted, running my own business means I have more control over my time than most. But I have studied how other organizations work, and as much as you can make it work, I think managing by task, not time, is the superior approach. You can create solid priority lists for any given week, which can then be broken down into task lists for each day. There’s no need to micromanage yourself.

Even if time isn’t the key measure of productivity, it’s also fine to expect that a day’s tasks will take about seven to eight hours. A one-hour day will leave people bored, and a 13-hour day will leave people exhausted. Best to aim somewhere in the middle.

But in the absence of group time norms, daily task lists give you permission to stop work. You can relax in the evening or on the weekend knowing you’ve met expectations — even if you can still see your workspace while watching TV.

Focused task lists are also more efficient. People can waste eight hours sitting in their chairs at an office, doing little of consequence, but feeling okay because they’re physically there. Managing by task, not time, means focusing on results. If people stop work some days at 3 p.m., that’s fine — there’s no ambiguity about what was accomplished, so everybody can be happy about what got done.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at

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