What Would It Take For You To Leave Work Every Day as If It’s Your Last Day?

Last dayA close friend, Sue, is trying to hire a mid-career engineer. She had a lead on a great guy, who then dithered. He could not decide to leave. (I wrote a little thread on Twitter.)

What kept him there? He felt as if he owed his team more work. (How to learn what he knew, what unfinished work he still had, and more.) He didn’t want to leave the team helpless to touch his code. In fact, he felt as if he owed his team at least four weeks of notice.

Four weeks! Not very adaptable or resilient, is that?

If you wanted to leave with just two weeks of notice, could you? If not, what might you consider now?

How I Left One Job

I wish I could tell you I was perfect. Absolutely not.

Years ago, I gave two weeks’ notice to my boss. I explained I wanted to transition my work to someone else before the last day.

That didn’t work. My boss expected me to “finish” the project I was on. On the last day (yes, the last day!), I was supposed to transfer my work to a colleague, John.

While I did question my boss, I let him decide. On my last day, John was out sick. I asked my boss who would learn about my work?

No one.

Yes, you heard that correctly. My boss chose to not allow me to transfer my work.

I spent all day writing “readme” files and documenting my work. I could have done this more carefully in the previous two weeks. However, I believed my boss when he said to only allocate one day for the transfer. (And no, I didn’t finish the project, because it was larger than we expected.)

All of our risk management was a disaster. I didn’t manage my risks of either not finishing or transferring work. My boss might have been in denial, but he didn’t manage any of the risks.

That was the last time I allowed my manager to dictate how I left. Every other time I left a job, I said, “Here’s my resignation. Decide who you want me to transfer my information to. I’ll start that today.” And I explained I was not available to work with them after my resignation.

That mostly worked. But that’s just one way to manage risks. I prefer to manage my risks every day.

Risk Management Allows You To Leave Work Every Day as If Your Last Day

Even though I mostly work alone, I leave my work every day as if I won’t be back. I use GeePaw Hill’s idea of Many More Much Smaller Steps and MMMSS – A Closer Look at Steps. I get everything to what he calls a “Ready” point. (That Ready is a step to the benefit.)

Here’s how I progress on projects that longer than a day to complete:

  • Carve the work into chunks.
  • Make sure every chunk gets me to a “ready” point. Sometimes, “ready” is an outline.
  • If necessary, I leave myself a breadcrumb. I use the letters “XX” because they are easy to search for.
  • Make sure I finish today’s work. (More on this below.)
  • Plan on several iterations for almost anything.

Yes, that looks agile-ish. But notice I get to both Ready and Finish states. Ready means stable. I can work on it tomorrow. Finish means tidy.

“Finish” Means Tidy

When I think about “finish” for today’s work, I think about the state the WIP (Work in Progress) is in. I don’t leave messy work behind. Here’s how that works for me:

  1. I clean as I go. I don’t write “shitty first drafts” for anything. Anne Lamott was wrong then and she’s wrong now. When you write a SFD for anything, you give yourself permission to not finish. to not be Ready. That means I taught myself to spell correctly, most of the time. I’ve also integrated what good writing looks like for me.
  2. I don’t do outlines or mindmaps, but I do use a user/reader journey. When I start a larger effort, I often create a user journey. That journey helps me define my next step.
  3. Even with the user journey, I don’t commit to a large backlog. Instead, the journey gives me options to define my next small step.

I can leave any work at any time because I leave all work at a Ready point and it’s Tidy.

I choose to work like this. So can you. Make all your work Ready and Tidy. When you do, you don’t have to worry about leaving your team in the lurch, as the candidate did. You can choose when to leave.

When Is Your Last Day?

We never know when our last day at work will be. No one expected most of us would suddenly start remote work back in March 2020. Or that many of us would still work remotely now.

Worse, we have no idea when our last day on the planet is. That’s way too big for me to address now. Since that’s an uncomfortable question for me, I’m ignoring it for now.

When you leave your work Ready (at a known point) and Tidy (cleaned up), you can leave whenever you want to. On your own terms. You gain much more resilience and adaptability when you do.

That’s the question this week: What would it take for you to leave work every day as if it’s your last day?

5 thoughts on “What Would It Take For You To Leave Work Every Day as If It’s Your Last Day?”

  1. Interesting – I retired earlier this year, and have been amazed at how nobody needed me once I was gone. I was dispensable. As I think back on a career of people leaving, so were they all. I left projects tidy and documented because it was good for my soul.

    I think of 2 weeks notice as making a window big enough to accommodate the one day actually needed to hand off your work. That said, as a manager of larger teams, it did take some time to communicate to the right people in the right order, decide new reporting structures and allow them the time to tell their new teams.

    The thought on SFD is interesting. In writing I try to write a good first draft. But I’m careful to not get stuck in an editing loop on that first draft. It’s important that I finish the first draft, so I don’t let myself get dragged into making sure it’s good as I draft.

    1. Re the leaving a job—your experience mirrors mine, too! Very few people missed me when I was gone.

      I always wonder how long it really takes to hand off work. One day, if you’re tidy, is certainly enough time. However, most of my clients have so much WIP in various stages of undone-ness, that they tend to need more time.

      Yes, finishing a draft for writing is much more important than editing. I advocate writing “all” the words down first. However, we can train ourselves to write well, as we write down. Once I practiced that, I started to write a lot faster.

  2. Johanna, I once left a job because I could not tolerate the obvious systemic sexism and misogyny in the company. The final straw (for me) was the cold November day my manager actually told me during my anniversary review that the most he could afford to raise my salary (this, after a rave review, and several key accomplishments in the prior year) was 3%. If he’d just said that, there wouldn’t have been a problem — I must have looked shocked/disappointed/disbelieving, because he quickly said, “I only have so much in the pool of money I get for raises. You’re single, and don’t have children. I have to give more money to the men who have families to support.”

    I didn’t say a word. I got up, walked out, down the hall to my own office, where I put everything I was working on away, put on my coat, and left with my personal belongings and briefcase. I made a plan on the drive home. I contacted a headhunter I liked who I’d worked well with while I was hiring people into the company. I explained that I needed a new job (without giving her all the details of why), and told her I’d be faxing over my resume within the hour. I described the kind of company I wanted to work for, the location, the type of opportunity I was after, and the salary range I expected.

    After she got the resume, she called me, and said she’d set up an interview for me. “A startup,” she told me (I had asked for an established 100+ employee outfit), “in downtown Boston” (I wanted a suburban commute), doing something not even remotely close to the type of thing I was after. When I balked, she said (very reasonably), “You haven’t been in the job market for almost 3 years. You should use this as a chance to sharpen your interviewing — it’s a “gimme,” because these people don’t like anybody, so you don’t have to worry. Consider it practice for the real thing.” I said okay, and the interview was set.

    Downtown near Faneuil Hall, six floors up from a Chinese takeout place, on a Saturday morning.

    With no pressure on me at all, I had the best interview ever. I enjoyed touring the office, meeting the people who were there on a Saturday, clearly having fun at what they were doing, and at one point, I even picked up three balls off the top of a monitor we were passing, and to the great amusement of the hiring manager, juggled them for a minute before putting them back on the monitor.

    The interview included half an hour with the CEO, who was thrilled to discover that before I was a techie, I’d been a tennis pro. He asked, “What was your game?” I answered, seriously, that it was ‘serve-and-volley’ all the way.

    The hiring manager phoned me late that afternoon to say they wanted me. Right away. How soon could I start? They needed the date for my offer letter. I asked, “is two weeks too long?” The manager said whatever I wanted was fine.

    The offer letter was faxed to me later that day, and they were even giving me a considerable raise. I faxed back my acceptance. Monday morning, I went to work, resignation letter in hand, and my first stop was my manager’s office. I told him I’d accepted a new job, and now he had to make some choices: I could leave immediately, I could stay ten more days to transfer knowledge and tasks, but there would be no more planning meetings, no more status updates, no more hiring activities, and no more early, late or weird hours. He was clearly shocked. He asked me to wait in his office. I was certain he was going to come back with a final paycheck and termination papers, but he didn’t. Instead, he’d spoken with the head of HR and told her what I was planning to do. He came back to his office all smiles, and said that after discussing “the situation,” they were willing to make a 10% higher counter-offer.

    I told him no thanks — my mind was made up. Inside, I was seething. Defeated, he said fine, let’s just use the time to make sure people know what needs to be done, and he’d take care of hiring my replacement. The morning that was to be my last day, I got an early am phone call from the HR manager. She said I shouldn’t go to the office, because nobody was there. The power had failed in the building, so nobody was working. I told her that this wasn’t my problem. I said, “I’m going to go to the office, and I will leave my badge and keys in an envelope taped to my manager’s door. You can fax me the paperwork I need to sign. When I leave, I’ll ask the security guard to lock the front door.”

    I did what I said I was going to do, and in the end, left without a word of farewell or thanks to anyone after working for the company for more than four years.

    Four years after that, dozens of resumes from that company’s employees reached my desk. The company had collapsed under gross mismanagement and investors’ loss of faith. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to them, but I did wish them luck in the future. I later learned that for a long time, my ex-manager was given to blaming me for things that didn’t work out right.

    As if.

    1. Marsha, I’m sure no manager says those words now (about raises), but I guarantee you, they still think that. Good for you for leaving your work every day so you could leave your company that day.

    2. Glad you got out of there and that you didn’t consider a counter offer. Never take the counter offer. Money is seldom the real problem. You were worth 10% more to them, they just showed that they thought they could trick you out of it to start.

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