It is possible to work fewer hours without hurting your career, but you need to get serious about systematically changing how you approach your work. First, don't blame your long hours on your boss, your CEO, or your underlings. Someone who does not make a conscious, organized effort to take responsibility for the number of hours they work can be thrown off course by anyone. But the person who systematically follows the steps below will not be thrown off course, even by a workaholic boss in a workaholic industry.

1. Concentrate on quality of work over quantity.
The person who builds a career on doing the most work commits to living on a treadmill. The work will never be done, and you will become known among your co-workers as someone who never turns down an assignment. Read: dumping ground.

Quality is what matters: people don't lose a job for not working unpaid overtime, they lose a job for not performing well at the most important times; and a resume is not a list of hours worked, it is a list of big accomplishments.

2. Know the goals of your job.
You need to know the equivalent of a home run in your job. Get a list of goals from your boss, and understand how they fit into the big picture. Judge if your work is high quality by what people need from you and how they measure success. Be sure to get goals that are quality oriented and not hours oriented. Suggest replacing, “Devote eight hours a week to cold-calling” to “Find six qualified leads in three months.”

3. Refuse bad assignments.
Figure out what matters, and spend your time on that. Once you have clear short-term and long-term goals, it's easy to spot the person you don't need to impress, the project that will never hit your resume, or the hours worked that no one will notice.

And then say no. Constantly. The best way to say no is to tell people what is most important on your plate so they see that, for you, they are a low priority. Prioritizing is a way to help your company, your boss and yourself. No one can fault your for that.

4. Know your boss's goals.
Your best tool for saying no to a project is reminding your boss what her goals are. If she cannot keep track of her own goals, help her. Because if you worm your way out of work that doesn't matter to her, so that you can do work that does matter to her, she is more likely to back you up. Also your boss will protect you from assignments from other people if you show her how the other peoples' work affects your boss's goals.

5. Take control of what you can.
Even small efforts at control add up to a lot, and best of all, they usually go unnoticed by others. For example, refuse to make meetings on Monday and you are less likely to have to prepare for meetings on the weekend. Refuse meetings after 4:30 p.m. and you are less likely to miss dinner at home. Ignore your phone while you write your weekly report and you're less likely to stay late to finish it. You don't need to tell people: “My policy is no meetings at x time.” Just say you're already booked and suggest another time. You can't do this every meeting, but you can do it enough to make a difference in your life.

6. Know your own boundaries.
“Wanting to work fewer hours” is too vague a goal because you won't know which hours to protect. Try getting home at 7pm, not working weekends, or leaving for two hours in the middle of the day for a yoga class. These are concrete goals for cutting back hours.

7. Be brave.
Brave people can say no when someone is pushing hard, and brave people can go home when other people are working late. The bravery comes from trusting yourself to find the most important work and to do it better than anyone else.

We knew a year in advance that my husband's job would end this fall. So he conducted a fairly typical job hunt for a while, but the hunt hit high gear when we found out that our insurance payments (COBRA) once his job ended would be $1500 a month. His job hunt became an insurance hunt.

This insurance problem began because he could only apply to jobs that came with insurance, and many top institutions on my husbands list did not even have an insurance plan. People who felt unconstrained by labor laws offered advice in interviews like, “Can't your spouse provide insurance?” (The answer, of course, is no. I work freelance and we need more dependable insurance than that for our son.)

So, it was two weeks before my husband's job ended, and he had no job. And I started throwing a fit. I threw a fit that he was irresponsible, which is not actually true, because he is a good job hunter and he had had more than 20 interviews. I threw a fit that he was ruining my reproductive life, which is not totally true, but I want to get pregnant again, and I am over 35, which is old in fertility years, and I cannot imagine getting pregnant without any insurance. I threw a fit that we absolutely cannot have a special needs child without good health insurance. This last part is true. I probably should have started there, but emotions run high during a job hunt. And besides, I never, in a million years, imagined that I would be someone dependent on my husband for anything. But we need insurance.

So my husband decided to get a stupid job at a big company so we could have health insurance until he found a job on his career path.

I told him to start at Starbucks because you only have to work 20 hours a week to get insurance, but my husband said he couldn't imagine himself doing a service job.

I thought about how much it takes just to get him to clean up the cat litter, and I agreed.

So he started at Old Navy. My husband has held producer positions at top entertainment companies and he has a master's degree from a top film school. I asked him if he left all that off the applications when he applied for a job at Old Navy. He said he couldn't even find the application. The Old Navy store manger said you have to apply online. The web site says you have to apply in store. My husband said, “I think the store manager gave me the run around.”

I said, “Maybe you have to have a friend at Old Navy to get a job there.”

My husband went to Target. He said there was a line to use the kiosk to apply for a job even though the sign above the kiosk said, “We have no jobs.”

It was a depressing day all around. It's one thing to search for entry-level jobs after a fruitful, fifteen-year career. But to be searching for them unsuccessfully, that is very sad.

Fortunately, the job nightmare ended the next day, when two offers from great non-profits came in. And the next day, two more offers. Then he weighed offers. At one, the pay was low, but the insurance was covered. At another the pay was high but the insurance was so bad that we couldn't really use it. One company had a great insurance program and good salaries, but the premiums, that we would pay out of pocket, were sky high. For that we may as well buy COBRA.

So my husband did something that we would have never have thought of doing before our insurance crisis of the past months: He asked for a 20% increase in salary to offset the costs of insurance. At first the company was shocked to hear the request, but in fact, so few people actually used the company's insurance that no one knew how expensive it was. And, in the end, my husband got the 20% increase.

Insurance is worth a lot of money. It can change an offer, and it can break open the door for salary negotiations. Insurance premiums are to a job offer what shipping is to an online purchase: You don't know if it's a good deal until you see both numbers. So read all the fine print for your insurance package, and then don't be afraid to negotiate, because the cost of the company's insurance shouldn't kill your paycheck.

Meanwhile, things have settled down for us: My husband is not loading boxes at Target, and I am not throwing fits — at least not about the insurance.

My husband just accepted a new job, and he had to give his new boss a start date. We agreed that he would take a week off before he starts, but it turns out we had very different ideas about what that week would entail.

We both agree that the stress of a job hunt is exhausting, and anyone who has been through that process needs to recharge before embarking on something new. A real vacation — like Paris or the beach – was not possible to plan because we had no advance notice about this job. In fact, though, one does not need to be in an exotic location in order to recharge.

The problem is that my husband's idea of recharging is haphazard and, in my mind, ineffective. But just because you're married to a career expert doesn't mean you want to hear her advice, which is frustrating to me, to be honest. So here is an open letter to my husband about how I think people should spend the week before a new job.

1. Get out from under your oppressive to do list.
It's no fun to start a job weighted down by a big to do list that has nothing to do with your new responsibilities. Take a week to kill your to do list. Anything you can't get done in that week, delete: admit that you are not going to get done in the next year. You can console yourself with the fact that if it's not important enough to do when you have a week with no plans, then it probably wasn't important in the first place.

2. Clear the clutter by devising a new system.
Get rid of all your piles, all your lists, all the projects, all the things that hang over your head but never get done. But going through this mess once is not enough. Figure out a system so that you don't create new piles and lists once your job starts. Piles and lists and unfinished projects are borne of unrealistic ambitions. Acknowledge what you can do and get rid of the other stuff. The pressure you feel to address your unfinished business drains you every day. Create a system that does not generate unfinished business.

3. Get into a routine that supports the lifestyle you want.
Do you want eight hours of sleep a night? You should. People who get less than seven hours of sleep exhibit the same mental signs as someone who has had a little too much to drink. Do you want to exercise regularly? You should. People who exercise regularly have more successful careers. So get started on this during your down week — the week when you have no other commitments except to get your life in gear in preparation for your new job. It's a lot easier to get yourself into a routine when there is no other pressure. And if you can do a week of the life you want you're more likely to keep it up when you start your new job.

4. Have lunch with friends.
Most people avoid their friends when they are looking for a job. Not that this is the right decision, but it is an understandable decision during a time when morale and self-esteem are low. Now that you have a job, though, reconnect with people and let them know how excited you are. Better to do it now, during your interim week, than during your first month of the new job; you never know what your schedule will be like, especially for the first couple of months. Also, be sure to invite people out to lunch who have helped you in your hunt. Even if their help was not particularly fruitful, if they tried, then you should express thanks.

5. Remember who you truly are.
For people who really, really need a job, much of a job hunt is pretending: Pretending you don't need a job. Pretending you love tedious tasks and long hours. Pretending you get along with anyone. Pretending you feel good about yourself. But most people who need a job and can't find one actually do not feel that good about themselves. Once you do find that job, Take a week to get back to your regular self — the valuable, self-confident person you truly are.

There are two ways to not get something done: Doing a lot and doing nothing. The trick to getting your list of tasks done is to understand your method of not doing it.

Everyone I know has something they really need to do but just can’t make it happen. I am not talking about big life issues, like, “Find a new career,” and I’m not talking about moments of frivolity, like, “Relocate to a swing state.” I’m talking about the stuff like, “Send resume to new friend of friend.” Or “Write weekly report in the new format boss requested.”

Even these tasks that are seemingly manageable are, in fact, opportunities for procrastination. This is the kind of procrastination that bothers me the most. Huge projects are understandably hard to start because maybe you can’t tell what needs to be done. And life-changing goals are understandably intimidating to work on, because maybe they won’t work. But tasks that take less than a few hours are the ones we should all be able to perform with little fanfare.

Doing nothing is my procrastination mode of choice. I am great at breaking down large projects into manageable tasks. And I am great at prioritizing. I even have a knack for carving out time in the day for my tasks. But then I fall apart. Some days, I just can’t get myself to do the tasks. I find myself flailing – doing the easy items on my list even though they’re not important, or, worse, reading and rereading minor sections of the newspaper. The “Furniture for Sale” ads look fascinating when they lie on top of my to-do list.

Doing a lot is harder to recognize as procrastination because people who do a lot trick themselves into thinking they are actually working on their task. Procrastinating by doing a lot means that you are busy doing things that don’t matter. People who do a lot as a way to procrastinate are usually researchers and investigators. For example, instead of writing an outline for a speech about the price of tea in China, you surf the Internet looking for a joke you read somewhere that you’d like to use for your opening. But the joke is not really part of the task. The task is the speech and the joke is something you could add if you want to, at the end, when the presentation is done.

Okay. So look at the top of your to-do list, which you are probably not working on now as you read this column. (Although bless all of you who have put “Read Penelope’s column” at the top of your list!) Hopefully, because you understand the process of breaking down large projects into manageable tasks, the top item is a manageable task. And now you can figure out if you are not finishing it because you are doing too much or too little.

The reason that doing a lot and doing nothing are so similar is that they are both ways of coping with the fear that you’ll do a bad job. But here’s something you should be even more scared of: The stress of not being able to accomplish tasks you set out for yourself. Procrastinating always feels bad, and the relief of finishing something always feels great. So recognize whether you are a person who needs to stop or start, and entice yourself into action by remembering the joy of getting a difficult item off of your list.

Handwriting analysis is no longer for freaks and psychics. Multinational companies hire handwriting analysts to understand personality traits of prospective job candidates. Character traits that matter during the hiring process — creativity, self-esteem, leadership, and optimism, for example — are revealed in one's handwriting.

You should learn how to analyze your co-workers' handwriting and your own to give yourself an edge at work. I have found that the basics of analysis are quick and easy to learn. Getting along with other people and knowing yourself are essential pieces to career success, and analyzing peoples' handwriting can help you speed up the process. Here are some examples:

Get along with people better
Knowing someone's personality traits is invaluable for collaborating with and motivating that person. Depending on that person to tell you his or her own traits is risky. Most people don't know themselves well enough; even focus group leaders don't bother to ask people directly what they like anymore.

Fortunately, with very little expertise, you can use handwriting to evaluate someone's dominant traits. For example, someone with a signature that leaves a lot of space between first and last names is not going to be an intimate, emotional person, so you can stop trying to forge that kind of relationship. If the first and last names overlap, that person is relationship-oriented and probably wants more than long-distance management from you.

Make better career choices
You can also use handwriting analysis to gauge your own dominant traits. Then you can figure out which career is best for the type of person you are.

For example, you can learn what sort of handwriting is appropriate for the job you aim for, and compare your own handwriting to that standard. Angular is appropriate for a programmer and inappropriate for a sales person. Perfect, schoolteacher writing reveals the need to establish order and would be a bad sign if you aspired to the freethinking required of an inventor.

Handwriting really does reflect your true self. So if you discover your penmanship does not reflect traits necessary for the career you have in mind, ask yourself if you are even in the right field.

Improve your image
Handwriting is like clothing. Your audience cannot help but evaluate your message by what it looks like. You wouldn't wear sweatpants to an important meeting, and you wouldn't wear a ball gown, either. Take the same care with your handwriting.

For example, in a note to your boss, if your letters are rigid and perfect you will project the image of someone who is anal, inflexible, and non-visionary. Fine if you are an accountant, not fine if you want to be CFO. If you scrawl a quick, barely legible note to your boss you seem to be more involved in your own ideas than in the people around you, you might project the image of an eccentric artistic genius, but if you aspire to management, write more legibly.

You also project self-esteem in your signature. I am shocked at how many people have a very tiny signature. You need no training in handwriting analysis to know that this is an expression of low self-esteem. Even if you feel like you want to disappear, force yourself to sign your name like you want people to see it.

To all you doubters, test the theory. Get a handwriting analysis book from the library. You only need to skim a few pages to get an idea of what to look for. Then take handwriting samples from people you know well and evaluate them. I bet you'll find the rules of analysis depict an accurate view of that person.

When you add handwriting analysis to your career arsenal, start out small — look at different loops and slopes and figure out what they mean. After a while, you'll find that handwriting analysis actually feels intuitive; like all good insights, once you have it it'll seem obvious, and acting on results of handwriting analysis will make as much sense to you as it does to those multinational companies.