How to Make the Most of Your Productive Times

Pomodoro Kitchen Timer for Action Logging, originally uploaded by AndyRobertsPhotos.I’ve written before about how I love to get up early because that’s my most productive time of the day — but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about how to optimize those productive hours to get the most stuff done. I have my own tricks; I’d love to hear what you guys use as well. (I usually can be focused enough without time management techniques during this time — but they can be super helpful during other times of the day. Pictured: Pomodoro Kitchen Timer for Action Logging, originally uploaded by AndyRobertsPhotos. )

1) Know what you want to do. I always find this time is best to focus on ONE THING, not a whole to-do list. I don’t even WRITE my to-do list until later in the day, to be honest. When I get up early, I do the one thing that I need/want to do, and nothing else.

2) Leave some work unfinished so you can start in the middle. Writers are often advised to finish their day in the middle of a sentence, instead of at the end, so the next day you can just pick up where you left off.

3) Know your direction: forward or backward? I usually want to use the time to push “forward” — write new words, organize my research or my thoughts in new ways — but sometimes I prefer to go “backwards” and review work I’ve already done, such as when I want to edit something closely.

4) Avoid time sucks. I don’t look at email until 9 AM, for example, and I save other things that easily expand into longer projects for later in the day, when my focus is already not at its best. For example, in my law days, I saved research until the afternoon when I could, preferring to use the mornings for organizing the research or writing — now I save things like RSS feeds, Twitter, and Pinterest for the afternoons or evenings when I can.  On days when I really need to focus, I avoid turning on my computer when I can, and work with pen and paper instead.

5) Protect your productive time. If you’re super productive in the morning, don’t let friends or colleagues schedule breakfast meetings. If your best time is the afternoon, keep chatty coworkers out of your office.

Readers, what are some of your top productive times? How do you make the most out of them?


  1. I set out what I’m going to wear the next day and pack lunch/gym clothes/work papers etc. the night before because I’m always too groggy in the morning to make decisions and remember stuff like that. It gets me out of the door faster since I can be in auto-pilot mode and efficient even when I’m half-asleep. That’s also stuff I like doing at the end of the day because it’s not “brain-intensive” like focusing on my work is.

    I’m finding technology makes it really easy to lose focus from work (e.g. emailing/surfing), but I also use tech to help me stay focused. For example, I set the timer on my phone for 55 minutes of solid work, with a 5 min reward of surfing/walking up and down the stairs. I don’t use that 5 min reward for something that can get out of control, like talking with a co-worker. The bottom line is to stay disciplined though.
    I’ve also set alarms with “ring tones” for certain times when I’m afraid a chatty coworker could take up 45 min for what should be a quick 10 min trip down to the cafe and back. I’ll agree to get a coffee with her, but after 15 min my phone “rings” and I have to take that important call.
    Sometimes music gets me “in the zone” but it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m doing something more mathematical like programming, I can listen to songs with words, but if I’m reading I can only listen to instrumental tracks/classical music or songs in another language.

    One thing that really wreaks havoc on my productivity is having something on my mind that makes me upset or frustrated. So in my life, resolving that fight with the hubby, disagreement with a coworker or misunderstanding with a friend is also the quickest way to clear my mind in order to be productive again. In elementary and grade school, writing in a diary also had the same effect for me.

  2. Lawyer in Theory :

    I like KD’s idea of 55/5 technique. I used the pomodoro technique for years. But 10 mins. break time is rather a lot- it requires twice the discipline to pull yourself back to work 2x per hour.

  3. i get up at the same time everyday… even if i set my alarm earlier, i snooze it until 6:15 anyways. it’s the perfect amount of time to get ready AND pack a breakfast and lunch, but it has me stepping into my cube right at 8:00.

    i have started making enough smoothie for breakfast for the week on mondays, and packing leftovers for lunch while i’m cleaning up dinner the night before, putting me out of the house 15 minutes early (and hence getting to work 25 minutes early… stupid NYC/NJ traffic)…. those 25 minutes are GOLDEN. i get so much done. and if i don’t have anything to do, it makes me not feel guilty for reading some news or gossip or blogs before 8:00 and real work rolls around.

    • Anonymous :

      J+H – How do you make enough smoothies for the week? Mine always separate or lose the frothiness if they sit too long, even in the fridge.

      • I was wondering the same thing!

      • Maybe freeze the ingredients in bags prior to blending – so you just have to pop the contents of the bag in the blender in the morning?

  4. De-lurking :

    I wanted to de-lurk as a follow-up to MammaMia’s questions about baby apps, and the discussion that followed. While I love C*rporette for all the fashion & career advice, what’s even better is the ‘everything else’ advice (parenting, etc) that you get from similarly minded women. That is, women working 50+ hr weeks in a corporate environment, most likely in a large city, earning as much or more than their husbands, etc etc.

    What I found about sites like thebump or theknot was (as many commenters mentioned) that, for the most part, I could not relate to the other women who were not college-educated, had not worked outside the home, and typically lived in flyover country. Nothing against that, but for example their struggles to come up with a $10K down payment made it seem like they live in an entirely different world than me. What I like is that so many women here are from NYC, DC, Boston, etc and provide useful advice on parenting, homebuying, personal finance, etc.

    soo that being said…does anyone who reads here have suggestions to where to go for this kind of blog/forum? Like, I get that this blog is mainly about fashion/law careers, but does anyone have suggestions for other places to look for a similar group of women discussing ‘life’ topics?

  5. Apologies for an early wedding-related TJ, but I do need some insight. Is there a gentle, polite and non-offensive way of letting someone know they won’t offend you if they withdraw as a bridesmaid? (I understand the answer to that may be “no”.) This is one of my oldest and closest friends, although as of late we are less so as we live in different cities. I get the impression she’s just going through the motions and I’m trying to be as low-maintenance as possible (i.e. no shower, no bachelorette, I’m providing the dresses, etc.) but that may not be enough for her. It has come to the point where I feel odd in sharing any sort of wedding-related excitement with her. I don’t want her to be a bridesmaid if she feels like it’s a burden on her or if she won’t enjoy the wedding because of it. I also don’t want to make a whole big deal of it, but it makes me sad to think I might have a bridesmaid that would literally be forcing a smile throughout the entire day. Thoughts?

    • That’s a great question, Anon. I think it’s almost a universal experience that one bridesmaid is going to be either a) negative about everything and just a giant pain to deal with or b) kind of unenthusiastic about the whole thing. Sounds like you have option b, which is not the end of the world. I understand that your intention is to let her out gracefully, but I think anything you say will come out as an attack on her level of participation and will make her feel hurt/ defensive. I would just accept her low-ish level of excitement and go to the others when you want to dish about the wedding. In a way, it’s a sign of friendship that she is not super excited but is still doing the basic bridesmaids stuff with a smile (albeit a forced one). You can’t take on responsibility for other people’s feelings, on your wedding day or any other day. (Of course we always try to be kind to others, but how they receive it is up to them.) She’s there, she’s pleasant, and if it’s not the highlight of her year it’s fine.

    • I didn’t have a big wedding, haven’t been in any outside of family. With those low qualifications clearly establishing me as beyond the beltway (cummerbund?) I will say that I think you should find a way to let her know that you hope she’ll share your special day in a way that is most enjoyable for her, even if that means being in the congregation & not the wedding party. Passing on the bridal shower, even though you probably don’t need the material gifts, just sounds like a big sacrifice to keep her happy, and one likely to be unhealthy for the relationship with her in the future. Just my $.02

  6. Red Stick Attorney with a River View :

    Before I leave the office, I force myself to sit down and gather my thoughts and I write two lists. One I just update of the things Ive got going on and one more of a specific to-do list for the next day. I find the hardest part, for me, is the actually starting. this helps a great deal. I also get to work an hour to 30 minutes earlier than everyone else and eat lujnch at my desk 3 to 4 times a week….. And ice coffee in the afternoon. Thoses are all my productivity tips. looking forward to hearing yours.

  7. I have a weekly to do list and I revise/update it on Friday so I know what needs to be done in the next week.

  8. Alternating intellect heavy work with “busy” work. — I’ll finish an hour of writing, and then do 10-15 minutes of organizational work, like quick responses to email or clearing my desk, before jumping into another project that requires more thought.
    Still working on the waking up/going to sleep at the same time though.

  9. Anyone else just have those days when they cannot get productive? I’ve been billing 55+ per week for three months, and I came in this morning and have billed literally .6 hours. I have nothing urgent on my plate and just cannot motivate myself to start non-urgent projects. Ugh. I think it’s burnout, but I can never decide whether to try and power through or to just roll with it and chalk it up to an unproductive day.

    • Ms. No Name :

      I’m having the same problem today. I turned in all my expenses for the last several months, reviewed my timesheets so far, cleaned my desk, and have spent way too much time reading web sites. I’ve been doing anything and everything except for billing. The worst part is I know I need to bill a full day today but I just can’t get motivated.

      This too shall pass…

    • I’m calling it. I’m not going home too early and will continue to answer calls/emails as they come in, but I’m just going to call this a “professional development” day and continue to read this blog and the trade pubs that have been piling up in my office for months :)

    • Yes. I don’t have productive times. I have productive days. If I haven’t become productive by 11am, I’m not going to get anything important done. However, once I get productive, I can work for like 12 hours without stopping much.

      • Ahh, childfree! I remember that freedom fondly.
        Don’t get me wrong, I love my boy, but as much as he’s growing up too fast and I miss the baby days 9 years ago, sometimes I think it’ll be great to get back to me in 9 more.

    • AnonInNYC :

      Story of my life. Which is why I’m resorting back to the ADHD meds (legally prescribed ones!).

    • I have those days ocassionally and just chalk it up as unproductive.I find some days you’ve just got to rest your mind. or do something like organize your desk.

    • Just write it off. I had one of those crazy busy mornings but have been completely unproductive the last 4 hours. I don’t expect to get much done before the end of the day today.

    • Yes. Today. And I have a presentation coming up. Aaaarg!

  10. Although our official office hours start at 8:30, I get in at 7:30 so I can have an hour and a half before most meetings start. I can deal with email, routine work, and get many items off of my to do list early, before most of my colleagues arrive. A few of the staff come in early as well, but we keep chitchat to a minimum and I usually go straight to my office and get to work.

    • ChocCityB&R :

      I like to get in early too! That’s my favorite productivity technique, especially because I can return calls/emails without worrying about getting an immediate response that throws me off my game.

  11. I have to have a to-do list waiting for me when I come in each morning, otherwise I waste 2-3 hours doing not-important or procrastinatory things. I do my best intellectual work in the afternoon — busywork and checklist items are morning tasks for me.

    • Same here. I start my best work after 2:30. Mornings are spent reading documents, emails, and other random tasks.

    • Mousekeeper :

      I find myself twitchy in the morning and have a hard time settling into a task before 11 or noon. It might have to do with the fact that I’ve been up since six, getting my daughter and myself out the door. Once I get in, I make myself a cup of tea, check in on my office neighbor (I make a point of NOT sitting down, to keep the conversation brief). I read and answer e-mails, do short, easy tasks like letters and generate e-mails, quickly check headlines ( I don’t read more than one article per newspaper website) and law news services. I can feel myself settling down noon or 1 and I can concentrate on bigger things for the rest of the afternoon into the evening.

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