7 Ways to Be More Productive at Work (and Actually Leave on Time)

#TBT to the days when you used to eat lunch away from your desk. Now your workdays are so action packed, you’re lucky if you eat lunch by 3 p.m. So what’s the best way to maximize your productivity during your nine-to-five so you A) get out the door on time and B) don’t have to take any work home? We’re leaning hard on these tried-and-true tips from Alexandra Cavoulacos, founder of The Muse and author of The New Rules of Work.

7 Secrets of Super-Productive Women

to do list

1. Set Your To-do List The Night Before

Per Cavoulacos, mapping out your day after you open your inbox can feel like a lost cause. Instead, you need to carve out time and space—say, the night before or first thing in the morning—when you’re not in a rush and can prioritize your day with a clear head. “Once you check your email, you get pulled in,” she explains. “Your time starts to not be your own because you’re letting everyone else dictate where you spend your time instead of saying, ‘This is what I need to get done.’”

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2. Be Realistic About Your Priorities

Cavoulacos says she’s a firm believer in something she calls the “1-3-5 Rule,” which is the idea that, on any given day, you should assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things and five small things. Some examples: The big thing might be prepping a presentation that’s going to take actual brainpower. The medium thing could be reviewing something that got sent your way. And the small thing could be specific emails that you absolutely need to reply to that day. Cherry-pick those nine items and stick to the list. “I have a full to-do list that has everything I need to get done, but that’s not what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Cavoulacos explains. “It’s about taking from your master list and prioritizing your tasks, versus choosing based on your energy level in the moment.”

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3. Change Location When You Really Need To Focus

“My desk is no longer a place where my brain is able—or willing—to do deep thinking, but if I move to a couch somewhere else in the office or book a conference room for a block of time, that’s where I can really be productive,” Cavoulacos says. She’s also a big proponent of working from home when the reason is that it will yield more focused work time. “If you have that as an option at your company, it’s worth taking advantage when you need to,” she says. “Telling your boss, ‘I really need to get some focused work done, and at the end of the day X will be done,’ is a great argument—and one that yields more productivity.”

woman on her phone
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4. …or Turn Off Your Wi-fi

It’s the same as airplane mode. In other words, disconnecting (or toggling the Wi-Fi off) is a great technique for finding focus when you need to knock that one big thing off your list. “I swear by this trick, especially first thing in the morning,” says Cavoulacos. “Your emails stop, your Slack notifications stop, it’s the best. They’ll all come flooding in an hour later, but for me, it’s about finding windows in my workday to turn off the distractions.”

woman meeting with a coworker at her desk
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5. Ask “is This Time-sensitive?”

With open office floor plans, interruptions can be frequent. But according to Cavoulacos, there are ways you can find control: “If someone grabs you for a ‘quick thing,’ be clear with them about your availability. Say, ‘Hey, this actually isn’t a super-quick question—there’s a lot of context to this. Can you send me a note about it instead since I’m in the middle of XYZ?’ You’re not being rude; instead you’re explaining where you are in your workday. You can also simply ask, ‘Is this time sensitive?’ A lot of times the answer is ‘Oh, no, it’s not!’ It’s about thoughtfully retraining people that you’re not just on call because you’re at your desk.”

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6. Schedule Lunch (and Maybe A Reading Break)

When you’re crunched for time, it feels like a no-brainer to eat a sad desk salad and leave it at that, but Cavoulacos recommends the opposite: “You need a mental break where you’re not firing on all cylinders replying to Slacks and emails and Instagrams,” she says. “I schedule my lunch break, even if it’s 20 minutes. I also carry my Kindle with me wherever I go, so if there’s a long line, I’ll read while waiting. Then, once I have my food, I’ll sit down, finish a chapter and then walk back to the office. Those 20 minutes make me feel like I've had a moment to myself where I wasn’t checking email. Even if you spend that break people-watching, it’s all about infusing a moment of calm.”

woman at happy hour
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7. Acknowledge Your Patterns

Like clockwork, the hour between 4 and 5 p.m. is always your most productive work time. Then why would you schedule a meeting then? Cavoulacos explains: “Knowing your patterns and energy levels can help you pinpoint and plan around focused time. For example, a friend of mine consistently says her productivity slump is at 5 p.m. But she’s great at anything social then, so she meets someone for a drink or dinner and then logs back online after that.” The goal: Be clear on the hours of the day when your personal productivity soars and block off that time. (Or as we like to call it, be aware of your golden hour.)

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Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...