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When is a day's work done?

For many small businesses, the answer is never.

Even the most organized workers have a list of to-dos waiting in the wings. To maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life, employees need to learn how to stay productive during the workday and leave their desks at a reasonable hour. Not doing so can sap energy, block creativity, and ultimately lead to burnout.

Use these 10 tips to approach each day with a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished and a strategy for getting it done.

Start each day with a plan.

Before checking your e-mail or voice mail, spend the first 15 minutes of your day writing down a to-do list. When you're done, note which items need to be completed today, which need to be finished over the next few days, and which are longer-term goals. This will help you pinpoint priorities for the day, and keep you from being sidetracked by less important items. It will also give you the big picture of what you have to accomplish if you plan to stop work at a reasonable hour.

Delegate.

After you create your to-do list, scan it for items that can be delegated appropriately to someone else on your team. By identifying these items early in the day, you can get team members started on them right away, doubling the rate that you're moving through your list. Co-workers also will appreciate having a full day in which to juggle tasks, rather than hearing about them toward the end of the day, after they may already have a plan for their last few work hours.

Control interruptions.

Don't let unexpected e-mails, phone calls and meetings interrupt your day and force you into a late night. Instead, keep unplanned events in check by reviewing e-mail once every few hours instead of every 10 minutes, letting calls go into voice mail and returning only urgent ones immediately, and requesting that meetings be scheduled at a time that's convenient for you.

Get to work earlier and leave earlier.

Working late can start a vicious cycle - when you work later, you're likely to wake up later, and then get to work later, and so on. For one week, force yourself to get to your desk earlier than usual and leave it earlier. This may be difficult initially, but you will probably discover that getting started earlier in the day will make your workday more productive by giving you planning time in the morning, before everyone has arrived for the day.

Avoid personal tasks at work.

Some workers allow themselves to be distracted during the workday by personal issues that need their attention. While it's hard to avoid personal needs completely during work, regularly handling things like bill paying, thank-you card writing and other tasks eats into productivity. The time you spend on such non-work items adds up, usually at the expense of leaving on time.

Let the phone ring after 5 p.m.

After regular business hours end, let incoming calls go into your voice-mail system. This will keep you from being drawn into late-night work requests and will help you stay focused on the priorities you identified for the day.

Rely on e-mail.

Must communications can be accomplished with less fanfare via e-mail than by phone. Using e-mail when you can will help you eliminate the necessary chitchat that accompanies calls. It may also seem like less of a work interruption than a conversation would. It goes without saying, some business must be handled by talking to people directly. But most people can handle more communications via e-mail than they currently do.

Do a technology review.

Updates to computer and office equipment may make your work more efficient, allowing you to finish the day earlier. For instance, a more powerful computer may allow you to finish Web research faster or run multiple software applications at the same time.

Automate.

Look for work tasks that can be automated with new technology tools. For example, if you handle the management of an e-mail subscription list, use a software tool to automate subscription management, so you don't waste time manually processing subscription additions and deletions.

Let the day end.

Many people who run small companies burn the midnight oil because they just can't get themselves to leave. Resist the temptation to work extra long hours. Giving into it can actually make you less productive and put you on a path toward burnout. Set a fixed time when your workday will end. Stick to it! Even if you haven't finished everything you set out to do.







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