Home All How to Foil the Theft of Time: Productive One-on-ones at Work

How to Foil the Theft of Time: Productive One-on-ones at Work

written by Kathryn Britton 8 October 2018

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Let’s take a moment to look at the ownership of your time. Some of it is yours. If you are employed, some of it belongs to your employer. But how much?

Irene Heninger, consummate professional

My mother was very proud of being a professional. She had a degree in Library Science and became the director of the Kitsap Regional Library across Puget Sound from Seattle. Here’s what she had to say on time at work: “Professionals get a salary, not wages. Wage earners work a particular number of hours and get paid extra for overtime. Salary earners work until the job gets done.”

But she was also adamant that everybody take a lunch break, a morning break, and an afternoon break. That wasn’t just for their pleasure. She believed it helped them work productively. She also recognized that they had families and other obligations as well as hobbies and other interests, so everybody went home when their regularly scheduled time was finished unless there was something urgent to be done.

Fast forward to today and today’s jobs. What happened to meeting friends in the break room for coffee and a chat? What happened to leaving the building to get something to eat in the middle of the day? What happened to a scheduled time to sit down and do something else in the afternoon? What happened to being at home to have dinner with the children?

Here’s my personal theory: employers took those words, “We work until the job gets done,” and used them to exploit people systematically. The amount of work increased little by little. Where my mother worked an occasional long day, it was always the exception. Now it’s the rule.

Fence to protect home

Setting Boundaries

I suggest that people set boundaries on the time they allocate to work. The first step is to figure out what you’re willing to give the job. Then talk seriously about priorities in one-on-one meetings with supervisors. In the accompanying article to come out later this week, you’ll find two scripts. The first is for explaining why you need to set boundaries and how the boundaries can be managed with appropriate priorities. The second script demonstrates the way periodic check-ins could work. These are based on my own experiences with a very good manager.

I expect you’re thinking, “My boss would react badly to that conversation,” or “My boss would think I’m not serious about my job.” It’s true that some bosses treat people like used kleenexes: wear out and throw away. If you have a manager like that, I suggest moving on as soon as you can for the sake of your health and well-being. You may not be able to move immediately, but be aware that over the long haul, a negative manager is bad for your health. Otherwise you are not giving yourself the respect you deserve.

For those of you with bosses that are open to talking about setting boundaries, here’s how you can help them see what’s in it for them.

Benefits for the Boss

Smart managers realize that tired people make mistakes, that people who don’t get time to recover from yesterday’s work stresses come to work with less energy today, and that replacing somebody who just can’t take it any more is expensive.

How expensive? In his article on the question, Jack Altman includes this information:

Slightly more conservatively, Josh Bersin of Deloitte believes the cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5–2.0x the employee’s annual salary. These costs include hiring, onboarding, training, ramp time to peak productivity, the loss of engagement from others due to high turnover, higher business error rates, and general culture impacts.

So, a smart boss will welcome your willingness to stand up for yourself.

Preparing a priority list

My husband taught me the adage, “Your boss owns your priorities, you own how you get them done.” When people talk about priorities with their bosses, they are giving bosses an explicit opportunity to shape what gets done. If this doesn’t happen, then only the employee has a say in what falls off the plate, which will inevitably happen in today’s overloaded jobs.

So, a smart boss will welcome the invitation to shape what you do with your time.

Ongoing Discussions

I have coached a number of managers in different companies who are expected to have regular one-on-one meetings with their direct reports. That is a great cultural expectation. But many of them have little structure within these meetings. They’re just a regular chance to talk.

Agreeing on Priorities

I suggest that these meetings are more effective when they have a clear structure. Then both parties know how to prepare. Decisions are made quickly. Direct reports maintain clear ideas of what is expected of them. Managers help set priorities and know when to step in to remove obstacles. For some ideas for establishing structure, check out the Personal Management Interview (PMI) approach advocated by Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations. Cameron says that PMIs are the most frequently used tool in their executive leadership courses.

The second script in the accompanying article shows me having a priority check-in with one of my favorite bosses. These meetings rarely took more than 15 to 30 minutes, and I found them invaluable as I made frequent decisions about what to do next. In fact, as I manage my own time, I quite miss having a manager to talk to!

Take-away Message

Be realistic about your time. Even Sheryl Sandberg and Jeff Bezos only get 168 hours per week. If you want to have a life outside work, set a realistic boundary on how much time goes into work. Remember that the time you spend sleeping, playing, and relating to the important people in your life enhances the energy you have available in the hours that legitimately belong to your employer.

Don’t be complicit in the theft of your own time.


Altman, J. (2017). How much does employee turnover really cost? Huffington Post.

Britton, K. H. (2018). How to have big rocks discussions at work. Positive Psychology News. Companion for this article.

Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Cameron, K. & Wooten, L. (2009). LEADING POSITIVELY — STRATEGIES FOR EXTRAORDINARY PERFORMANCE – At-a-Glance. Center for Positive Organizations.

Centre for Confidence and Well-being (no date). Personal Management Interview Program. Includes lists of agenda items for initial meeting and ongoing meetings.

Picture Credits

Picture of Kathryn’s mother, Irene Callen Heninger taken for her retirement. Courtesy of Kathryn Britton
Fence Photo by Michael Marcagi on Unsplash
Priority list Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
Agreement on priorities Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com