Do we choose busy, or does busy choose us?

Do we choose busy, or does busy choose us?

by | Jul 4, 2019 | Balance and Boundaries

That leaders work long hours is one thing, but whether this is by necessity or choice is another.

Overly full schedules during conventional business hours combined with the home-based ‘second shift’ in the evening is the norm for many.

But is this level of effort really necessary, or is it simply expected?

What does the answer imply for the notion of ‘free time’?


Is time pressure an illusion?

Accurate answers to these vexed questions would help us locate the nexus between personal and employer accountabilities for effective workload management. If you are working long hours is it because you choose to, or because it’s the only way to get through it all and you would defy anyone to say otherwise?

Is the harried schedule a representation of the flaws in organisational and job design, or is it reflective of the flaws in personal efficiency?

The lines between work and ‘free’ time are increasingly blurred, especially for those near or at the top of organisations.

It might help to get some clarity around what we mean by ‘free’ time:

  1. It’s how much residual or discretionary time remains after attending to everything considered to be essential to get by.
  2. It’s what’s left over minus the minimum requirement at or for work (paid labour), the minimum allowance for what you need at or for home (for unpaid domestic chores, responsibilities and activities) and the minimum needed for your essential personal care (sleeping, eating, grooming and exercising).

‘Free’ time facts

When we talk about being time-poor, what we implicitly understand is that time is bounded by upper and lower limits.

No matter how brilliant, no-one can ever spend more or less than 24 hours in a day on anything. No-one can ever fill more or less than 168 hours in a week. Therein lies the rub – we need to make choices about our allocations. And some people are much better at this than others!

From our GLWS research:

  1. 83% of people in senior roles report that they are racing against the clock on most days.
  2. Few have enough time left for themselves on any regular basis (37%), or for exercise (42%) or even adequate sleep (52%) – the concept of ‘me time’ seems to be disappearing fast.
  3. But despite this, more than 60% say they are usually or always happy with how much time they spend working and less than 15% report high levels of dissatisfaction.

Weird huh? So, what’s going on?


The time-choice paradox

Your take on this will depend on whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty person  – but I’d say one reasonable hypothesis about this picture is that the majority of leaders are ostensibly fine with the long hours that have become a feature of most senior roles today.

Being busy in our culture is still a virtue; whilst people may say they’re slammed for time, it’s not something that they usually register as distressing (at least not at any conscious level).

Are we to deduce that the majority of those in mid-to-late career senior roles are sadomasochists, happily choosing to sacrifice their personal time, sleep and exercise?! ? 


‘Free time’ – an extinct concept?

The notion of ‘free’ time is one of the central constructs of wellbeing, but it’s becoming increasingly quaint (or tainted?). And we’re calling this out as a problem.

Notwithstanding that people sometimes do work tasks for pleasure as well as for long-term utility and return (‘my effort this year will pay off next year’), there is a documented positive relationship between engaging in leisure / personal activities (sport, physical activity, socialising) and improved quality of life and life satisfaction.


Challenging beliefs and mindsets

In your capacity as a coach to others or for your own benefit, how much should you challenge the oft quoted rationales? …. ‘I’m busy’, ‘I’m overworked’, ‘I don’t have time to get to the gym’, ‘I have to check my emails last thing at night’, ‘I can’t take a day off to see my parents’, ‘I do a second shift later in the evening once the kids are in bed’

If you are a ‘stressed-out’ leader, it’s probably a bit judgemental or assumptive to suggest you only have yourself to blame.

But is it true?

  • ‘No! You don’t have to log-in or check emails just before you go to bed’
  • ‘No! You don’t have to return that client’s call within 10 minutes’
  • ‘No! You don’t have to make that report the best one you’ve ever written’

Or do you?

What if the bedtime email checking, the super-swift client responsiveness and the perfect report really are what is expected to be successful at (or even keep) a job these days?

That’s the question.

I concede and I empathise that it is certainly possible. But, 99% of the time I doubt it, factually and objectively.

When we tune into the stories we tell ourselves – and when we respond out of habit – the hours and effort invested become what we believe is truly necessary. What we ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘have’ to do characterises a perfectionistic way of thinking and is indicative of beliefs that put pressure not only on our schedule but also on our stress levels.

Data suggests those who are most overwhelmed – those who have least free time – largely do it to themselves and are largely unaware of how much personal choice exists in relation to their schedules and sense of pressure. (Goodin et al, 2005)


Resourcing implications and choices for leaders

The benefit of understanding these dynamics is significant: it would warrant more emphatic guidance being provided to individual leaders (in coaching, mentoring, feedback and performance reviews) as well as help to better inform organisational interventions (D&I, team, leadership and workplace policies) designed to enhance leaders’ performance, efficiency and sustainability.

The crux lies in identifying the boundary between what (strictly speaking) ‘needs’ to be done versus what we choose to do with the hours in each day.

It’s a question of how much “resources autonomy” we have – that’s how much control or freedom of choice we have over what we do with our time and energies.

There are a minority of people who proactively manage their roles, lives and self-care in a different way, who are among the organised elite. They don’t check emails late at night, they prioritise sleep, exercise, personal time and family time alongside their paid work commitments and they are not succumbing to the curse of being pulled in multiple different directions.

These individuals should become the focus of our attention – how do they do it? One strategy might be to get precise about how we spend time.


Calculate your discretionary ‘free’ time

The experience of time pressure is created by the conjunction of the three broad time categories: paid, unpaid and personal responsibilities. Discretionary time is a residual notion – it’s what’s left over after attending to our minimum commitments in each of these categories.

If you’d like to help protect the endangered species of ‘free’ time, here’s a formula for you to play with:

Discretionary time per day = 24 hours minus (hours of necessary paid activities) minus (hours of necessary unpaid domestic activities) minus (hours necessary for personal care).

(Remember, by ‘necessary’, we mean obligatory in order to maintain minimum acceptable workplace, family, social and personal standards.)

The amount of discretionary time actually available to people varies considerably according to their life circumstances.

Our micro-circumstances at work and home affect our free time – if you are ill you will need to spend more time on personal care, or if your partner is away you will need to do some unpaid labour to keep the home running smoothly, for example. But the real kicker is what’s happening at the macro level – the social norms indexing what is deemed ‘necessary’ and what is deemed sustainable.

Time pressure is not an illusion if you actually are doing these things in everyday life; what is illusory is the sense that you are ‘forced’ and have no choice but to do all these things. The illusion is in its psychologised interpretation – the objective facts giving rise to the subjective interpretation of being under time pressure.

A sample discretionary time formula:

Paid essential labour: 8 hours work time + 1 hour commute/travelling

Unpaid essential roles and responsibilities: 2 hours 45 minutes, comprising:

  • 20 minutes grocery shopping
  • 45 minutes childcare
  • 25 minutes meal preparation
  • 25 minutes housework (pets, laundry, cleaning, laundry)
  • 20 minutes household administration (bills, schools)
  • 30 minutes family/personal relationships focus

Essential personal care: 9 hours 45 minutes, comprising:

  • 7 hours sleep
  • 45 minutes eating/drinking
  • 1 hour personal grooming/hygiene
  • 1 hour exercise

Total minimum time commitment: 21 hours and 30 minutes

Discretionary time: 2.5 hours

Now ask yourself…

With two or three hours’ discretionary time where you have free choice, where do you most want or need to invest your time?

Think about the return on effort if you ‘spend’ all of your discretionary time topping up your paid labour OR your non-paid roles and responsibilities OR your personal care OR a combination of these.

What do you default to – and how might this be different?

What habits and mindsets have become stuck, and where would you (or your colleagues, clients, family and friends) benefit from some rewiring?

Let us know if you give this a try and it reveals a new approach that works for you (or if it doesn’t).

See the GLWS in action now with a suite of sample reports

If you are a leader, or a coach working with leaders, you can find out how the GLWS works in practice by reviewing our suite of reports. Sign up here to get instant access.