A Little Breathing Room: Five Ways to Catch Up and Improve Your Productivity

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” – Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, and inventor.

The to-do list is a basic tool of time management, and nearly everyone uses one to some extent. We all know they work best when they include fewer than eight or ten items: ideally a couple of high-priority, high-impact tasks supplemented with other “want to do” tasks. Despite our best efforts, however, “task creep” invades our lists, and often we add more and more items, taking on additional projects that require daily allotments of our time. Eight or ten becomes 15 or 16, and suddenly the to-do list becomes impossible to complete.

This requires you either to divide your time into ever-finer increments per task, work late to fulfill those tasks, or both. You run the risk of losing track of projects, allowing quality to decline, or getting over your head in terms of time spent in the office, none of which are good for you. You end up overwhelmed, stressed, unproductive… and just plain worn out.

So how do you undo what you’ve allowed to occur with the best of intentions? Use these tips to find some breathing room, so you can catch up.

  1. Listen to Pascal. Blaise Pascal was a thinker who influenced many fields, and the quote I’ve placed at the top of the page is deeper than it may seem at first glance. Find some time to sit in a quiet room and think, giving your mind the opportunity to provide you with ideas about how you can ease your workload. Even if it doesn’t, this is a great way to relax and mentally recharge.

  2. Avoid brushfires. Too often, we let our lists slide in favor of taking care of “brushfires” like minor emergencies, irate customers, last-minute corrections, unexpected high-priority projects, or other pop-up issues we feel we must handle personally. But brushfires burn holes in your schedule, stealing time and oxygen from other tasks you need to complete. Rather than run around putting out fires, let other people handle them—especially those who caused them, or those under whose purview they fall. Otherwise they’ll never learn… while you never finish your own duties without staying late.

  3. Focus on intentional work. Go in with specific intentions; never start the day without a general idea of what you want to accomplish. Don’t let reactive work (see Tip 2) take over your schedule; if it does, you’ll have to up your intentionality the next few days to make up for it. Focus on your most important work and let the rest go until you finish. Forget all the incoming tasks until you’ve intentionally zeroed out all your previous, non-negotiable tasks.

  4. Schedule free time in your day. Don’t book up your entire day, whenever possible; even as little as half an hour in between meetings can help. Consider it a study hall period, like in high school, where you can catch up or get ahead. This will give you the time to follow Pascal’s advice, or you can use it for something unexpected but important that pops up. If nothing steals this bit of time, use it to address something you’ve been hoping to get to but haven’t yet, or to get a head start on a new task.

  5. If you’re going to lose it, take PTO to catch up. This may sound counterintuitive, but you’re already using unpaid time off when you stay late every day and work on the weekends. So why not get paid for it, especially if you’re going to lose it? If you’re behind and it’s possible to take PTO, do it so you can catch up without distractions, office hassles, or sudden surprises. This should prove easy if you’ve been accumulating PTO instead of using it.

These tips will get you started on freeing up enough time for you to catch up and develop a little breathing room for later, but they may not be enough. If they’re not, reach way back to your classic management tools and use them ruthlessly until you get the time you need.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland



  1. I love this! I will be allotting quiet time in my day.

    Here’s my challenge. My position, by definition, is eminently “interruptable.” Not only am I the Executive Assistant for the CEO of a District Critical Access Hospital, I am also the District Clerk. This means that at any given time, clients, patients, vendors, staff walk into my office to acquire tax vouchers, tax appeals, or any of many other things. My CEO will not allow the door to my office to be closed. I’ve pretty much reconciled myself to never being caught up and simply focus on not falling further behind. I’m already working (salaried) 10-12 hours a day and come in for a few hours every other Sunday to process the payroll for his direct reports.