Wisdom//

11 Ways to Prioritize and Protect Your Time at Work

Eating the frog first, being ruthless about meetings, “managing the monkeys” — these strategies will help you stay in control of the clock.

Noriaki Maeda/Getty Images

It’s easy to feel as though your time isn’t your own at work. With meeting after meeting appearing on your calendar, a growing list of tasks to complete, a revolving door of coworkers dropping by your desk with questions, and a constant stream of Slack requests, setting clear boundaries when it comes to your time can feel almost impossible. And the resulting stress can make you feel like you’re dropping all the balls.

That’s why we asked our Thrive contributor community for their most effective methods for prioritizing and protecting their precious time at work. Their tips for success are useful, innovative, and sometimes quite surprising. Which of these strategies speaks to you?


Take your breaks so you don’t break down

I’m all about boundaries at work and scheduling your time throughout your day, including breaks. Too often people skip their breaks to ‘get work done,’ but not consistently taking your breaks increases the chances that you will eventually break yourself. Open-door policies give permission for people to interrupt you at any moment, which impacts your ability to do deep work. Create a schedule that matches your energy levels (so if you’re a ‘morning person,’ then schedule some tasks during the morning, and have the afternoon be less intense.).”

—Michael Levitt, CEO, Toronto, CA


Make the boardroom your hideaway

“When I am having an extremely busy day and my colleagues keep coming over with requests, distracting me, I like to retreat to a secluded office space like the boardroom and get some air and also time by myself to finish the urgent work. This not only helps me focus but also helps me find some quiet time and get my work done — not to mention get some stuff off my to do list. Occasionally, I like to switch off my phone as well.”

—J. Mukami, researcher, Kenya


Rely on two-hour blocks

“I keep an eye on my calendar for the upcoming week and if I see it filling up too much, I’ll build in blocks of two hours at a time that cannot be scheduled. I might include two to three of these that week just to keep my sanity.”

—Dr. Elizabeth Wallace, higher education, Stephenville, Texas


Try a time management app

“I give myself a short period of forced focus at the start of my workday. I use an app (RescueTime) to block myself from distracting websites, chat, and email for 15 minutes. That’s enough time for my brain to lock in on something important. When the 15 minutes is up, I’m fully engaged on a task that matters and I continue working on it throughout the morning.”

—Robby Macdonell, CEO, Nashville, TN


Don’t attend a meeting unless you have to

“I check my calendar and my motives before I agree or disagree to the work being asked of me. I have learned that I thrive when working closely with others and accomplishing tasks, not sitting long in meetings. Therefore, I do not involve myself in meetings unless it is absolutely necessary. I keep in mind something I learned from William Ury’s book, The Power of a Positive No: each time I say yes to something I am saying no to something else and in turn, when I say no to something I am able to say yes to something else. Knowing my limits has been very empowering!”

—Josh Neuer, licensed professional counselor, Greenville, SC


Create email boundaries

“I store written emails in my draft folders over the weekend or after 7 p.m. during the week to ease workday stress. I send them out the next business day (unless they are emergences). It’s about setting boundaries. I found that when I responded to emails on my off time, I would soon get sucked into working because clients felt that I would be amenable to working on weekends or after hours. Once, a client called me at 11 p.m. for a non-emergency call. I can’t blame her because I allowed that type of behavior. By creating boundaries, I create a much-needed semblance of balance between my professional and personal lives.”

—Jennefer Witter, public relations, New York, NY


Organize your time the night before

“I plan out my day the night before, with specific time allotted to each task and meeting. If I have something to do between 1-2 p.m., I block that time off and tell my coworkers to politely leave me alone 🙂 I’ve noticed that doing one thing at a time at work will not only help me get things done, but it also helps me create boundaries. We’re so used to spreading ourselves thin and multitasking to death, that we never finish anything and then fall pray to stress. But there is a way out! Boundaries are key to utilizing time in an efficient and powerful way.”

—Aleks Slijepcevic, project coordinator, Newark, DE


Be crystal clear and manage the monkeys

“For me, prioritization starts with managing expectations. I take the extra time upfront to clarify and agree on realistic deliverables. Next, I manage the monkeys. When others are struggling I help them to see what’s holding them back and empower them to achieve rather than taking work off them. Finally, everything gets captured in my work plan, even the small stuff. I then use this planner to create daily lists. This helps me focus my time because it always feels great crossing things off my list throughout the day!”

—Sarah Schimschal, positive psychology practitioner, Sydney, AU


Tap into your love of lists

“I love lists! Just the writing of them makes me feel like I’ve freed all the to-dos from the worry zone in my brain. I have two forms of lists. First, I have my white board which I love because I can make it pretty and it holds big picture and little picture items. But my daily lists are either handwritten or typed on a page. For instance, when producing an event as I am now, my to-do list is long and typed with all my to-do’s listed in categories. I get giant satisfaction when I cross off items!”

—Bridget Fonger, author, Los Angeles, CA


Monitor conversations with coworkers

“I block time off on my calendar to let people know I am unavailable. When co-workers swing by my desk to discuss work or for a casual chat, I give them two to three minutes to evaluate if it is something that can wait, and politely convey to them that I am caught up but will connect with them once done. At times when I need absolute peace and do not wish to be disturbed at all, I just book a meeting room in the office to work from there.”

—Supriya K., marketing professional, Pune, IN


Eat the frog first

“I eat the frog first, no matter how hard it is to swallow. Basically, I do something I really don’t want to do first. It gives me a sense of accomplishment early and the momentum to take on the rest of the day’s challenges.”

—Todd Garrett, marketing, Nashville, TN



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