Time is not always money – when time management is (counter)productive


Time management activities to cope with increased pressure to utilize time-resources efficiently imply a paradox between well-being and productivity.

When accepting the Nobe-Prize for Economics this October, behavioural economist Richard Thaler ironically stated he will spend the prize money “as irrationally as possible” (Appelbaum, 2017). It is commonly known how little the notion of homo economicus is applicable to modern economics and indeed, when it comes to managing our most valuable resource, time, we are doing poorly in terms of rationality. Especially with digitization, new work and permanent simultaneity we observe an increasing need to allocate, plan and measure time meaningfully. Therefore, many companies resort to an unmanageable amount of measures, trainings, or tools to rationalize their valuable resource – with quite ambiguous outcomes. Paradigms such as stress management, health management, efficiency-pressure and agility induce a tension between well-being and productivity of employees. Do employees want their time to be meticulously measures? Do individual differences in time management preferences match the way in which their teams work? What time norms does a company need regard to the conflicts mentioned above? Individual preferences meet teamwork under organisational conditions, in a constantly evolving working environment.

Successful time management is vastly influenced by the organizational context

A variety of approaches from different disciplines aiming to solve the problem of time management and devise appropriate methods to enable people to become better at managing their time.

The results are mixed, as recently demonstrated by Brad Aeon and Herman Aguinis’s literature review (2017). The two authors review well validated research from sociology, psychology and behavioural economics with regard to the interrelationship between time management and desired organisational outcomes such as well-being and productivity.

Does time management have any impact on the well-being of employees? Some research displays a positive correlation between increased time management and purpose, self-esteem, job-satisfaction, reduced stress and improved mental health (Aeon, & Aguinis, 2017) with small to medium effect sizes – however, the question of causality remains unresolved and some authors even suggest a reverse effect, arguing that people with high well-being can generally manage their time better. The findings regarding productivity are even more ambivalent as the postulated relationship between time management results and increased productivity has not been confirmed, yet. An internal study at Intel (Stone, 2008) even showed an inverse influence: After a group of 300 software engineers consistently turned off their e-mail inboxes and telephones for a 4-hour period on Tuesday morning and attached “do-not-disturb-signs” to their office doors, their performance dropped drastically. Similar effects are reported with German students from University of Konstanz (Käser, Fischbacher, & König, 2013). Considering time management in context with corporate culture and work processes, valid explanations of this phenomenon are suggested: In an organization in which joint problem-solving and teamwork are fundamental components of interaction and culture, a focus on individual work can be counterproductive. Firstly, because no individual patterns of proble-solving may be available, but also because dramatic conversion to individual work may not match usual work processes and hence being misplaced. Indeed, neither the engineers nor the students were able to manage their work without help of colleagues and moreover, their scheduled disruption-free working periods clashed with their reality and demands of work environments. Time management failed to achieve its intended effect, because organizational processes offered fewer degrees of freedom in sequence and mode of collaboration than initially required. Overall, it turned out that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to time management and that the monitoring and controlling of individual time in the context of work processes has to be considered.

Decision-makers should consider time management in the context of individual differences, culture and processes

Nevertheless, there are some perspectives that decision-makers should consider when it comes to time management.

Firstly, individual differences in preferences for working methods should be taken into account as people prefer different levels of structure. For instance, time management initiatives should give employees sufficient autonomy in structuring their work in order to foster creativity (Zampetakis, Bouranta, & Moustakis, 2010). Therefore, when introducing time managements practices it is crucial to acknowledge individual differences and admit to employee’s freedom in structuring their work.

Secondly, time management initiatives should be designed in accordance to team- and organisational level work processes. Individual degrees of freedom are to be established in balance to a shared conception of work. Personnel development measures, for instance time management training, must take into account the extent to which employees can carry out autonomous work in relation to team work.

Finally, time norms and expectations regarding time management should be respected on a cultural level: Many companies operate with an environment in which face-time is highly valued and successful work often corresponds to length of working-hours. Effective time management and short working hours would be considered a violation of time norms and thus, vastly unattractive or even hindering to individuals. Discussing different approaches to time management ultimately means questioning modes of cooperation. Organizational efficiency programs, such as tools to measure time and attendance therefore need to discuss the extent to which collaboration and productivity are important – because as individual time planning increases, results and less attendance should become the focus of attention. It is therefore advisable to shape a culture which values results, rather than face-time.