Planning and executing a productive work schedule

Each morning when you sit down at your desk, before turning on your monitor or checking your voice mail, take a second to mentally prepare yourself for the day’s work. Briefly close your eyes, inhale, exhale, and settle into your chair.

Once you’re comfortable and relaxed, pull out your to-do list and calendar. Read through every item and decide:

  1. What has to get done by the end of the day?
  2. What would I like to get done by the end of the day, but won’t lose my job if I don’t?

The answer to your first question will decide your flow of work for the day. Look at your calendar, and schedule blocks of time when you will work without interruption to get those must-do items completed. During these times, you’ll hit the Do Not Disturb button on your phone (or disable the ringer), turn off the notification light on your e-mail, close all instant messaging programs, and hang an “If it can wait, please talk to me after 11:00 a.m. — I’m working on the [X] project” sign on your office door or at the entrance to your cubicle. If you work in an open office, stick ear phones in your ears, even if you’re not listening to music, as a signal to others not to disturb you. When it’s time to work on your most important projects for the day, set a timer to help pace your work. If you finish your task before the timer sounds, tackle a few of the non-essential items on your list while you have the time.

Be careful not to schedule your dedicated project time during your low-processing points of the day. Even if you eat to maintain consistent energy throughout your day, you will still have mental highs and lows. Our brains simply can’t stay focused for multiple hours consistently — and you’re actually more productive if you vary the type of work you do. It’s best to alternate your schedule between mindful and mindless work to produce your best work product.

A productive workday for a desk job might look like the following:

7:30 Arrive at work, hang up coat, get coffee
7:45 Plan the day
8:00 Project meeting in conference room A
9:30 Check and process e-mail, voice mail; Admin work
10:00 Dedicated work time on project X
11:30 Check and process e-mail, voice mail; Admin work
12:00 Lunch
1:00 Dedicated work time on project Y
3:00 Check and process e-mail, voice mail; Admin work
3:30 New client meeting in interview room
5:00 Check and process e-mail, voice mail; Admin work
5:30 Complete all must-do work on projects X and Y
6:15 Power down equipment, prepare workstation for next day
6:30 Head home

If you’re already into your workday, you can plan the rest of your day now. Do what you need to do to make sure that the most essential work is completed on schedule. Even if your plan isn’t 100 percent successful — you get pulled into a meeting you hadn’t expected or an emergency arises — you will experience less stress because you will know exactly how to adjust your schedule for the remainder of the workday to accomplish what you have to do before leaving work.

28 Comments for “Planning and executing a productive work schedule”

  1. posted by Allison on

    That’s an 11 hour day, not including the commute!!!

    I understand that’s not the point of this post but…isn’t part of the point of increasing productivity to eliminate the need to live your entire life at work?

  2. posted by Taylor at Household Management 101 on

    This is exactly what I needed to do this morning. I have read this post, and as soon as I finish this comment thanking you for the kick in the pants I am going to reboot the day to make sure what needs to get done does.

  3. posted by Aslaug on

    I second Allison’s comment, everything over 8 hours (ok, 8,5 hours if you take an hour for lunch) is way too long.

  4. posted by Elizabeth on

    I had the same reaction — 11 hours?! It’s difficult to get past that schedule to get any positive message from this post. Yikes.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    People freaking out about the length of day — CHILL OUT! It’s just an example. Make a schedule that works for you.

  6. posted by Melissa A. on

    Aside from a lunch break, I would have a 15 minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon too.

  7. posted by Dawn F on

    I think the hardest part for me personally is forcing myself to not constantly check my email throughout the day – talk about a time zapper! I need to do a better job of setting aside small blocks of devoted time in the morning and afternoon to check email – and not let myself get stuck on emails constantly throughout the day.

    Thanks for this post – the more efficient we are during business hours, the sooner we can get home!

    Oh, and I need to block off some time to daydream about my upcoming vacation, too. Disney, here we come! 🙂

  8. posted by Mrs. M on

    Great reminder, Erin, to set aside time with no distractions to do the truly important things in our day. Thanks!

  9. posted by jbeany on

    I do the planning step at the end of the day, not the beginning. I’m not working right now, but I am in school. When I get home from each class, I sit down with my class notes and assignments and put each upcoming task on my calendar while it’s still fresh in my mind. I put down due dates and the days and times I plan to work on each project. If I wait until I have time to start the work, I tend to forget the work. For Erin’s work example, if I waited until Monday to figure out what I planned to do, I’d have forgotten half the things I needed to do over the weekend.

  10. posted by julie on

    I’d do one thing very differently here on this example schedule – I wouldn’t leave the ‘must-do today’ work for the very end of the day. For me anyway, unexpected meetings and tasks would be likely to push that work even later, and I’d often be working later than I’d planned in order to complete that work.

    I find I have to schedule in blocks of time for the ‘must do today’ work throughout the day, and not near the end of the day. I suppose, though, that it might depend on what your ‘must do today’ work tends to be in terms of processing power required.

  11. posted by Julie on

    I really like the approach suggested by (I believe) Zig Ziglar: the night before, write down the five most important things you need to do tomorrow. Then rank them in order of importance. When you get into work the next morning, start with #1 and just work your way down the list. Whatever you’re doing, it’s the most important thing you could be doing at the time.

  12. posted by Melissa S. on

    I actually do this for my evenings at home after work/weekends, too. While that may sound like a huge drag, it actually forces me to schedule in fun stuff (watching a favorite TV show, working on a craft project) in among the chores. My husband has even picked up the habit and loves it.

  13. posted by Leslie on

    I didn’t even actually notice how long the example day was – but I’m a graduate student with a full time job, so my day sometimes looks even longer. I think these are some great tips. Maybe it could even help me with my “switching hats” problem – i.e. trouble refocusing on work when I just get back from class and vice versa.

  14. posted by Wendy on

    I also have a difficult time switching hats. Not only between projects, but between home and work. Home life is just as busy as work.

    I do like the idea of blocking out time to work on projects but as part of my job is helpdesk support, I can’t turn off email or close my imaginary cubicle door. I have to be flexible. I can plan, but just need to allow for interruptions, because they will come.

  15. posted by priest's wife on

    It’s alway a good idea to prepare a bit for the next day- even packing lunch can make me feel more productive

  16. posted by George on

    Glad to see Erin’s post! As a teacher I am battling my 8 (at minimum) to 14 hour days. A mixture of inexperience, inefficient planning and a high workload. I think I need to do a week long schedule and then a daily one.

    Grrrr, hope it works.

    I used to have a boss who had me keep a to do list that was updated before I left and she would highlight the urgent things for the next day – then come in and ask why I wasn’t doing something else the next morning. Tch!

  17. posted by Elaine on

    I have just (today) discovered the secret delights of the “Did-Do” list, which is an alternative to the “To-Do.” For some reason, to-do’s seem to get old after a couple of days — I start ignoring them and they become meaningless. I think it’s because it implies failure…things you haven’t done yet. Today I got the inspiration to jot down everything I finished, and boy, did that list fill up. Gave me a real sense of what I DID accomplish, rather than what I didn’t, “yet” or otherwise. It will be a big help for those moments when I’m thinking “Did I get anything done to day at all?!”

  18. posted by San on

    It’s very easy to have your entire day scheduled for you by meetings. This is a great example of “scheduling yourself first” and block out time to do the actual work BETWEEN meetings. Otherwise, come the end of the day, you have been to 8 meetings you are frazzled with interruptions and no time to do the work. I schedule my work-time in Outlook, so that time does not show up as available to be trampled on.

    @Erin, NO kidding on the CHILL. Your blog is one of very tiny # of blogs I never miss.

    @Elaine, great idea, I’m going to try that!

  19. posted by Leonie on

    So for those of you freaking out over the 11 hour day….
    I have a 3 day work week at the office (I am full time, get paid full time) and on two of those days, my day ends at approximately noon. on the other day, I leave around 2pm. I begin at about 8:30am.

    Granted, I can and do work from home – checking emails and putting out fires. But it probably takes me 2 to 3 hours a week to do that.

    My work requires me to interact with people face to face when required. But for the most part, a lot of it is self structured. As long as I get projects completed, and completed successfully, my boss doesn’t keep track of when I’m in the office.

    And the ONLY reason I can get a week’s work accomplished in 3 days at the office is having a master plan for the day, and the week prepared.

  20. posted by Lee on

    I hope that there are enviornments where people can actually function this way.

    “Dedicated Work Time” isn’t an option in many offices. Workers are expected to be available to help supervisors, those they supervise, clients, people who are also working with the client, outside contractors…..and also take a project that is handed to them (no “would you be able to?, what’s on your schedule?; what due dates are you working toward?). Oh, did I forget on and off site meetings, some scheduled and others called on someone’s whim. Management may know DWT improves a person’s efficiency but not be willing to provide it. I know someone who was chastised for turning off her phone – the client then called the receptionist, who said she was there and able to answer the phone and then told the boss. Sad.

  21. posted by Keter on

    Let me state very clearly that while I appreciate Erin’s points, and that they are valid, the fact that she chose to use an 11 hour day to illustrate those points not only echoes the real world, it also *reinforces* people’s expectations of what a “productive” work day looks like. It is not doing anyone a favor to add that extra time and package it as a role model.

    I’ve worked those hours most of my life, and had a few gigs that were regularly over 80 hours a week. I can tell you first hand that those extra hours are just not very productive because you are tired, achy, and neglecting both nutrition and exercise to be able to put those hours in. After a few months of grind, days begin to merge together and without a computer to tell you when your meetings are and when your bills are due, you will completely lose track of where you are. That’s because you don’t have any time for yourself, and everything else you must do in your life is compressed into just another TO-DO. If you’re like me, you even dream of work in your sleep, only to wake up to the demoralizing fact that you still have to do that project…for a “second” time.

    Over in Europe right now there are riots over the governments extending work hours and moving the retirement age out from 60 to 62. Europeans work fewer hours, get multiples of the vacation days, and retire earlier than Americans do…but we just keep getting told to work harder. And as Lee wrote above, when you try to help yourself, you end up getting punished!


  22. posted by Jodie on

    How do you suggest organizing your day when a large part of your job is responding to emergencies? It’s not as if I get to set aside time for just responding to emergencies, and I’m getting so far behind in the paperwork I have to do, plus all the clients I have to see (I work in healthcare- emergencies are usually about determining if someone needs to go to the hospital).

  23. posted by Another Deb on

    I have no idea, after 23 years of teaching, how NOT to have an 11 hour+ day.

  24. posted by Laura on

    A former roommate gave me a great work productivity tip he learned while in optometry school. Note the things you are most dreading doing that day and do them first thing. This way a) they’ll be done and b) they won’t reduce your day’s productivity (procrastinating, drawing out other tasks in order to avoid them, etc.).

  25. posted by Aslaug on

    @Leonie: Where do you work??? Can I get a job there?

    I am a high school teacher and through careful planning and NOT overdoing it on exams and projects that I’ll end up grading, most of my workdays are 7-8 hours, sometimes less and maybe more during finals.

    @Erin: I, and probably everyone else who complained, didn’t mean to insult the otherwise great post on planning your workday, we just want to be productive and uncluttered to avoid those long work days, not to plan on them.

  26. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Aslaug — I didn’t think you all were complaining, just taking the schedule too literally.

    I’m a huge fan of my job, though, and often spend more than 11 hours a day doing it. Sharing with others my passion and knowledge of simple living is one of the things that matters most to me in this world. I have rid my life of clutter in other areas so I can WORK MORE during the week. My career is an integral part of who I am. I try not to work on weekends, but even that is difficult for me. I’m not a workaholic, I simply have a lifestyle career.

    I believe there are two types of uncluttered jobs. Check out this post from our archives for a better description:

  27. posted by ecuadoriana on

    Whew! “Eleven Hour Example Work Day” aside, when I read of days like this for people who do “office work” I am so glad I chose a different path!

    I think that I may speak for many artistic types out there when I say a work day like that would kill me! Even if it was only eight hours, or five! As a self employed artist of various different mediums I have to be very organized & concentrate on what needs to get done & when. But to chop my day into these little micro managed blocks of tasks? Ahhhh! LOL!

    However, I do agree that it really really REALLY helps to plan your day (or night), and be prepared for emergencies (in my work that could mean weather, someone who is sick & can’t show up, budgets falling through half way through the project, etc.) As an artist I do have more flexibility and don’t have to punch in & have to answer to several different managers & supervisors. As a matter of fact, most of my work is done from home, or at different venues, locations, etc. Every day is different, exciting, creative, and energizing. No overhead fluorescent lights and cubicles, either!

    I do have a part time “instant cash” job as a cashier. There is NO planning for anything. It’s constant scanning things across the counter & telling people how much money they have to fork over & listening to them complain about the prices. No opportunity for day dreaming because I have to count & be responsible for the cash drawer. I stand for eight hours in the same spot doing the same repetitive body motions over & over….So, it’s like a mindless factory job that, if I let it, could suck my energy and squash my aspirations. But instead I use the customers as an unknowing audience for my theatrical & comedy work. And I use their crazy “normal” antics as material for my comedy routine & story lines for my writing projects. So, jobs are as good or as bad as one makes them! (By the way, when you are paying for your merchandise please do NOT start fishing around in the bottom of your suitcase size purse saying “Wait, I think I’ve got seven pennies” after the cashier has already hit “Total” and opened the drawer, because cashiers HATE when you do that, and the people behind you hate that, too- but damn if they don’t go & do the same thing! Keep your stupid pennies! OK, got THAT off my chest! LOL!)

    A lot of people have jobs like that. The only thing they plan for is to get there on time, work their eight hours, leave & go home, and not get fired by some micro manager or corporate whim in between those hours! And hope that they’ll have enough energy to take care of their families & unclutter that closet or attic!

    But full time office work- AKKKK! LOL! Love your blog, Erin!

  28. posted by L on


    Thank you.

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