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Time Management in the Workplace

Creating Discretionary Time

Time Management in the Workplace

Creating Discretionary Time

It could be argued that a key element of time management in the workplace is choice. Psychologists argue that the more control we feel we have over situations, the less stressed we are. We’re then more likely to feel better about what we do.

When we feel we’ve lost control we can start to feel trapped. The combination of work pressures, limited choices, and little latitude for decision-making can cause real stress at work. There is survey evidence to suggest that feelings of personal control, job satisfaction and personal accomplishment all protect against stress.

In addition to affecting the way we feel at work, our perception of control can also affect what we actually do. Someone who feels a degree of control over their work environment is arguably much more likely to tackle any problems than someone who feels helpless. Feelings of helplessness or disempowerment may lead to negativity at work. Poor productivity may be the result of such feelings, as limited choice may encourage a range of behaviours, from apathy to open antagonism.

In this article we discuss choice and time management in the workplace. Imposed demands on our time tend to make us feel trapped. Building more choice into how we spend our time, and how we perform our work, can reduce stress and make work more fulfilling.

Your happiness and effectiveness at work will be significantly improved if you feel you’re more in control. Both of what you do, and of how you do it. In addition, freeing up your time to focus on strength-based activities will also deliver results for your employer. Indeed, the same applies to the people you manage. So think about how you might apply some of the ideas and tips in this article to your teams. Ask yourself these questions and read on for some answers:

  • All jobs have demands and constraints but how can we minimise these and maximise choices in how we do our jobs?
  • How can we manage to create more discretionary time in what we do?
  • How can we reduce demands on our time imposed by others?
  • How can we free our time to focus on activities which are based on our strengths, and which deliver results for our organisations?

Time Management in the Workplace is the third article in a series on improving motivation at work. The first article: “In Search of Optimum Performance“, introduces the series. If you haven’t read this article yet then it may be a good place to start.

Management is essentially a balancing act and the first article introduces a model for balancing a number of facets to achieve an optimum, based on six common management problem areas:

In this article, we consider how time management in the workplace can release time to concentrate on our strengths. Finding an amount of discretionary time may be simpler than you think!.

Time Management in the Workplace: “Creating” Choice

If we want to move from feeling trapped to feeling “freed-up”, we may need to take a fresh look at what we do. This is especially important if we want to make more use of our strengths at work. UK academic, Rosemary Stewart, conducted a lengthy and detailed study of what managers do, and how they behave.

Stewart studied managers in detail, over a long period of time. She concentrated on managers in similar jobs, working in relatively similar, bureaucratic organisations (where one might expect managers to be doing very similar things). Despite these similarities, Stewart found very wide variations in what the managers actually did. How did she explain these variations? Her insight was that they were was caused by differences in demands, constraints and choices relative to each manager, and to the ways in which the managers responded to these factors.

Demands – things we “have” to do
  • Some jobs are mainly about doing what you have to do (meeting demand);
  • For example, minimum criteria for performance, procedures that cannot be ignored, apparently immovable deadlines, etc.
Constraints – limits to what we can do
  • Resource limitations;
  • Attitudes and expectations of others;
  • Physical location.
Choices – activities that you are “free” to do
  • Choosing what work is to be done;
  • Choosing how, where, when, and by whom the work is done.

Of course, being aware of these variables is only the first step. Stewart believed we should

…teach potential managers how to see their opportunities for action, how to manage their boundaries, how to select and maintain contacts, and how to make choices that maximize their effectiveness given different constraints and demands of the job.

The key to effective time management in the workplace is thus dependent on several things. Firstly, our ability to reduce demands and release constraints by analysis, efficient management, and effective negotiation (where possible). This may not always be feasible and may not be easy. We may need to work hard to create more options in what we do, especially if we are to deliver acceptable outcomes.

However, if successful this effort may result in an increase in choice, and a potential for decreased stress. What at first glance may be seen as a demand in our jobs may in fact be an opportunity for choice. The value here is that perceived discretion (freedom to choose) often has a positive effect on a manager’s motivation.

Time Management in the Workplace Activity: Expand your Choices


Demands - Constraints - Choices


In most jobs, the natural pressure may be for demands and constraints to squeeze our freedom to make choices. Especially our choices about what we do and how we do it. Take some time to think about each of the three criteria and ask how you might reduce demands and constraints, and how you might expand choices. A useful technique for effective time management in the workplace. Then use the table below to highlight areas you may want to change.


Demands, constraints, choices tool


One simple way of representing the tensions between demands, constraints and choices is to use a simple visualization tool. After completing the list above, use arrows to illustrate which of the three areas is most influential. Add an arrow to represent the number of activities in each category. You might also find it useful to illustrate priorities by making arrows representing more important factors thicker. Although simplistic and somewhat subjective, this tool is easy to use, and can be useful in highlighting potential tensions and imbalances.

Time management in the workplace arrow tool

Time Management in the Workplace: The Difference Between Effective and Ineffective Managers?

Rosemary Stewart drew some interesting and challenging conclusions from her work.  She stated that the:

…primary distinguishing features of effective versus ineffective managers is a greater ability to recognise opportunities for action in the choices available. The ability to operate within and outside of boundaries and to see boundaries as fluid rather than rigid, further distinguishes the ascendant manager.

Of course, it’s not sufficient just to be aware of what we need to do. But identifying these tensions and imbalances is the first step in dealing with them, and thus demonstrating effective time management in the workplace. What next then?

Time Management in the Workplace: “Creating” Time

There is no shortage of time. In fact, we are positively awash with it. We only make good use of 20 per cent of our time…. The 80/20 principle says that if we doubled our time on the top 20% of activities, we could work a two-day week and achieve 60 per cent more than now.

Having considered demands, constraints and choices, the next thing to ask ourselves is can we “create” time? Perhaps we can choose to create time by reviewing how we value it. It’s important to remember that not all things we do are of the same value. It’s possible that much of our work actually contributes very little to results that are meaningful to us, and to our organisations.

In his book: 80 20 Principle – The Secret of Achieving More with Less, Richard Koch outlines ways in which we all could “work less, earn and enjoy more”. Of particular note is the chapter entitled: “Time Revolution” where Koch argues:

It is not that we are short of time….It is the way that we treat time, even the way that we think about it. A time the fastest way to make a giant leap in both happiness and effectiveness.

Think about this for a moment. How frustrated do we get when things aren’t done properly, perhaps through poor planning or execution? Or worse, how do we feel when doing things that perhaps don’t need to be done at all? What about the frustration of responding to someone else’s priorities, especially as a result of their poor time management?

It is not shortage of time that should worry us, but the tendency for the majority of time to be spent in low-quality ways.

You can read more about how to deal with time management issues by following the link to our Time Management Knowledge Hub. Here you’ll articles and tools which will help you deal with your demand, constraints and choices management. They provide essential insights and tips into such topics as: alternate perspectives on time; identifying and managing “busyness” at work; asking the right questions; and problem analysis and solving techniques. You’ll also find links to articles on managing your boss, an essential issue for anyone feeling trapped at work, or lacking choice in their workload.

Moving to optimum performance

Now you’ve read Time Management in the Workplace, be sure to look at the other articles in our “In Search of Optimum Performance” series.

This is the fourth article in our series on improving work motivation. The first: In Search of Optimum Performance, introduces the series. If you haven’t read this article yet then it may be a good place to start. Management is essentially a balancing act and the first article introduces a model which may help you to achieve optimum performance.

Our Optimum Performance model is based on six common management problem areas:

  1. Ease of work
  2. View of workload
  3. Amount of discretionary time
  4. Energy to tackle work
  5. Ability to be creative
  6. Getting the right things done

Take a look at the Optimum Performance Graph, below. Think about these questions to see how you can improve your performance and workplace well-being:

  • Where would you position yourself on each line, 1-7?
  • Which is most important to you?
  • Where would you like to improve your score?
  • What actions do you need to take to move yourself along the line?
  • What can you do to adopt a more positive attitude at work?.
  • What do you need to do to work more with your strengths on a regular basis?
  • What do you need to do to address any issues you’ve identified?


Work motivation using the optimum performance graph

The Optimum Performance Graph

For more on the Optimum Performance Series just follow the links in Further Reading.

Tools to for better time management in the workplace

Managing Time and PriorityThese are only suggestions, and each boss and each circumstance must be taken individually. However the value of effective time management, for you and your boss, is worth the effort and maybe even some risk.

There’s a wide range of time management resources in our store, including some great tools. Our e-guide: Managing Time and Priority is is packed with practical tools, tested ideas and a dash of radical thinking. It will will help you master two critical skills: managing time and priority. The guide will help you to:

  • Assess your time priorities and manage your actions.
  • Develop coping strategies to avoid the limitations of “busyness”.
  • Manage the impact of other people’s demands on your time.
  • Develop approaches to “getting things done”.
  • Apply practical tools to managing priorities and time, to get the right things done.
  • Help others to manage their time.

Tool 1: Commitments summary
Tool 2: Time log
Tool 3:Time analysis
Tool 4: Time planning with task filters
Tool 5: Task priorities

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