How to Feel Off the Clock, Even When You’ve Got an Intense Job

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Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam
Many years ago, I worked in a fast food restaurant. When I’d punch out at the end of my shift, I always had this feeling of liberation: I was off the clock. I felt free — partly because I had zero responsibilities once I wasn’t behind the cash register. 
Now my work is much cushier, but there’s no more punching out. Perhaps you also feel like your job responsibilities could fill every minute. Is it possible to still achieve a feeling of time freedom?
To find answers, I recently did a time diary project looking at a day in the life of 900 people with full-time jobs and families. For my book, "Off the Clock," I had them track their time, and then I asked them questions about how they felt about their time. I compared schedules of people who felt relaxed with those who felt stressed. I learned that certain strategies can help even people in intense jobs learn to feel like time is abundant. Among them:
1. Revel in the work you do best. Yes, you can feel “off the clock” even while you’re at work. Have you ever felt so deeply absorbed in a project that time seems to stand still? Figure out how you can take on more work that falls in this category, and fewer of the annoying tasks that have you counting minutes. Then — pro tip — schedule your favorite work for the hours when you have the most energy. I try to push phone calls to the afternoon so I have my mornings open to write. I may not look at the clock until I realize it’s noon and I’m starving. 
2. Build in space. Nothing makes people feel more frantic than a day of back-to-back meetings. When one runs over, the rest fall like dominos. Building in space means you can get caught up. It also means you can linger if a conversation is going well. Some of the best opportunities happen through such serendipity. The way to achieve such serendipity is to say no to marginal stuff. Say no more often. You won’t regret it. 
3. Don’t fear commitments. One of the upsides of saying no to things you don’t want to do is that you have more energy for things you do want to do. Many times, people with intense jobs think they can’t commit to volunteer gigs, classes, or friend events that meet at specific times. But then you have no real reason to stop working. If you join a choir that meets on Thursday nights at 7 p.m., you’ll wrap up your work by 6:30. Your colleagues will learn to avoid asking you for things that night. Just like that, you have space for your passions. 
4. Use your mornings. The whole day will feel more relaxed if you use your mornings for something more intentional than checking email. Get up on time to exercise, meditate, do creative work, or spend time with your family. Really savor the experience. No matter what happens the rest of the day, you’ve already scored some off-the-clock time. 
5. Turn travel into adventure. In my time diary study, the people who felt the most relaxed and happy about their time were highly likely to have done something fun and memorable on the day they recorded. When time is memorable, we remember it — and that makes us feel like we have more time. Work travel is a great opportunity for adventures. Take your team to an off-the-beaten-path restaurant (or concert or show!). Find a hidden gem of a state park and go run there before meeting your clients. Hit a museum in the break between your last meeting and dinner. 
6. Handle weekend work well. If you’ve got big ambitions, there’s nothing wrong with working on weekends. But weekend work — and household chores, for that matter — are best approached through time blocking. Decide to work full-on from, say, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday, and then be off the rest of the time. You’ll naturally prioritize the most important work, and you’ll be less tempted to check your phone every 5 minutes the rest of the time. 
7. Recognize that people are a good use of time. In my time diary study for "Off the Clock," I found that people who spent the most time investing in relationships actually felt like they had more time. So ask a colleague to grab lunch with you. Turn an email chain into a one-on-one walking meeting. Take the new hire out for coffee, even if you haven’t answered all your emails yet. In the long run, nurturing connections is more productive than just about anything you can do. Plus, it’s fun. When you enjoy yourself, you’re not watching the clock — which is the definition of feeling “off the clock.”  
Laura Vanderkam is the author of "Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done," published by Penguin Random House in May 2018. For more on her work, visit, and receive a free time makeover guide by subscribing to her monthly newsletter here.