Come in Early or Stay Late?


Once when I was very young executive I worked at a company where the CFO would routinely stay late at the office and complain about colleagues failing to work as long a day as he did. As a role model he would have been more impressive had I not witnessed him spending close to an hour each morning casually reading the newspaper at his desk. If the CFO had to work into the evening to get his job done, I thought, it was his own damn fault.

Of course, back then the work experience was tightly associated with the work place itself. Not so today when much knowledge work is done anywhere. Nonetheless, we all still have some idea of a “work day”, the daily allocation of time and effort devoted to our commercial endeavors. And sometimes there just isn’t enough of it to accomplish an urgent and important responsibility. That is when we have to decide: in order to get it all done do I come in early or stay late? Here is my suggestion:

Come in early.

I have been an early worker my whole life so for me increasing the day on the front end rather than the back end is natural and normal. Most experts suggest we are mentally sharpest 2.5 to 4 hours after waking. But waking and working earlier than normal only brings forward in the day your best mental acuity, it doesn’t necessarily increase it. So why come in early; why not just begin at the usual time and stay until all your work is done?

Many years ago Stan Richards, the legendary Dallas advertising pioneer was interviewed about his work habits and he claimed that flexibility in the work day should come at the start not the end. Whatever your normal work cadence, when you are required by the press of circumstances to add to it, do so at the front end, not the back end.

There are three reasons why:


This was the key for Stan Richards. So long as you believe you can extend your day to whatever length required to finish your work then there is little reason to prioritize the most urgent and important tasks. If the day’s end is indefinite, choosing which task to do next loses its criticality. That is bad.


Related to prioritization, a close-ended day encourages the best use of company human assets. If a senior leader knows that his work day is finite and he has prioritized his tasks well, then the least important of his tasks which absolutely have to be accomplished must be delegated to a presumably less expensive subordinate. Assuming that subordinate is performing the same daily examination of his time, each successive delegation insures through the organization that the most appropriate talent is being invested to each task and each worker is applying his talent only to its highest uses.


Most importantly, deciding in advance to start earlier presupposes an awareness of what must be accomplished during the upcoming work day. If the day can theoretically extend indefinitely beyond its normal close there is less requirement to think much about it beforehand. The fact that we’ve made a thoughtful assessment to start early suggests we’ve also been thoughtful about other components of success: assembling the appropriate resources, gathering required information ahead of time, etc.

Appearances have always rewarded the person who is last to leave the office well after closing time. I am sure that’s what my old CFO thought. But in practice it is a poor routine which mitigates our responsibility to prioritize, delegate and plan. Sometimes it is unavoidable to be sure, even in the best planned scenarios. But I have always been skeptical when I have seen a workplace or an individual manager in which extended workdays are routine.

Go home and have some fun. It is good for you and good for the business.


2 thoughts on “Come in Early or Stay Late?

  1. I agree with the premise and the specific reasons why starting a work day earlier is beneficial. I think this is espcially true for employees and leaders that work in the traditional office or campus environment. That said, as we move toward a mobile work environment I find that starting earlier just means I work longer. The reason is because work comes in chunks in a mobile environment and not just from 8-5. After 5 is time the time where you can debate and deliberate with others via your phone (as opposed to the conference call parade). It is also the time for you to connect with people to strengthen relationships and gather much needed information about what is happening in the organization around you. I suspect that my (and most others) problem is that the traditional boundaries are gone regarding the work day and each of us has to establish a cadence on when we are and aren’t available.

  2. Good points. And the line between work and not-work will be explored in the future…on this very blog! The point is, however, we have to build into our routine whatever coercive factors we can create in order to force us to prioritize the activities we do ourselves vs. those we delegate or defer altogether. The days just aren’t long enough and if we fool ourselves into thinking they are, we will give out. You’re right that the choices are not quite so clear cut as I draw them but they are there nonetheless. You just have to build the boundaries for yourself that make you and the company better. Stay tuned for more discussion of this in the future.

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