How discretionary time can transform your life and work

In college, I didn’t have the luxury of time. While many of my peers would languish over their papers for weeks and study half-heartedly for exams over hours, I had small pockets of time to get my work done. Since I worked full time, and sometimes also part time, to support myself during school—and took 17–20 credit hours a semester to get the most bang for my tuition buck and finish faster—I had limited time to get my homework done. Result: I hyper-focused and didn’t waste time. I graduated magna cum laude.

In graduate school, it was the same. Only enter a complication: running my own business and becoming a mom. I thought I was crunched for time before—suddenly, lack of time (and lack of sleep) was a real thing. I stretched my two-year program over four, and focused on growing my business as I became the sole earner for my family. I graduated with a 4.0.

Today, I’m glad to report that I’m no longer trying to juggle school and work, but motherhood certainly forces time management if I want to be successful at . . . well, anything. If I want to show up for my family when I’m not working, and for my clients and students when I am working, I have to be the master of my energy, focus, and time.

For me, and for many of the people I coach, discretionary time is a game-changer.

What is discretionary time?

Put simply, discretionary time is intentional blocks of focused time. You can use that space for self-development, such as reading, journaling, or learning a new skill; focused work like writing or strategic planning; or really anything that requires your singular focus. I’ve seen myself and many of my clients 4x their productivity simply by building in consistent discretionary time into their calendars.

I define productivity a bit differently than most. Here’s my take: Productivity means getting more, better work done in less time. I don’t see productivity as simply busting out a bunch of work from 9 to 5. Instead, productivity should free up breathing and mental space so you can show up full and creative the next day.

Research shows that the average worker gets interrupted, on average, every three minutes and five seconds. It can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task—to regain the ground lost to interruption. That can add up to six hours of wasted time per day!

With many of us working from home, I see an opportunity for change. If you want to embrace the power of focus, start with discretionary time.

How can I implement discretionary time?

If you want to build space in your life and work, I suggest starting with thirty minutes in the morning. Can’t do thirty? Start with fifteen. If needed, get up earlier to show up for yourself in this big way. Eventually, bump up this time until you are pushing the limits of what you can do within your work parameters. If you work at a company, talk to your boss and team about your desire to focus in and do the most important work each morning before opening up your email or chat—and assure them you’ll be showing up bigger and doing even better work (because you will). You might be surprised at how supportive a boss can be when they see your desire to be intentional and productive with your time.

My colleague and coauthor of Growing Influence, Ron Price, was able to build in four hours of discretionary time while president of a global company.  How much time can you make?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Block time on your calendar. This makes it real! I block off three hours every morning for focused work.
  • At the start of each week, make a plan for how you’ll use your discretionary time. I do this on Sundays and start my week feeling organized and ready to embrace my workweek.
  • Avoid checking your phone, social media, or email until after your discretionary time. Personally, I aim to check e-mail after 11 a.m. every day.
  • Feed your brain with good, growth-oriented information in the morning. Avoid news, social feeds, or anything else that pulls your brain from being focused and sharp.
  • Turn off all notifications on your computer and phone. Those email dings and Instagram notifications aren’t serving you.
  • Put your phone in another room or turn on Do Not Disturb. I leave my phone on silent all day, and it makes a huge difference in my ability to stay focused.
  • Create habits leading into discretionary time. Mine: drink 16 ounces of water, make coffee, roll out my yoga mat and book, read and stretch for about ten minutes, get to work. Your morning routine may look different, but the point is finding a rhythm to your day that signals to your brain that it’s time to focus and be creative.

When will I start to see the benefits of discretionary time?

Immediately. But you’ll be able to see a measured increase in focus and productivity within a couple of weeks. Stay the course—keep that time protected like a mama bear keeping her cubs safe. It is your space to show up, for your work and for yourself.

A clear but not-as-easy-to-measure benefit I hope you’ll uncover is enjoyment and purpose. When I start to feel my engagement or excitement for work slip, I can often point to letting my discretionary time slip. I ask myself: Am I checking email before my planned time of 11 a.m.? Am I looking at my phone in the morning, and scrolling through the texts I received, before I start my day? Did I plan well on Sunday so my week was organized? Answering these questions honestly, and adjusting as needed, helps me get back on track.

Discretionary time is one of the most powerful, transformative practices you can integrate into your life and work. I know because I’ve seen the impact on myself and my clients. I hope sharing my experience helps make an impact on your life too.

What adjustments will you make to create space for discretionary time? What morning habits have you created to make space for discretionary time? Share with me in the comments—I love learning from you.

2 Comments

  • Carolyn Reply

    This is amazing and much needed in my life!! (Have you noticed advice/suggestions/ideas present themselves during critical moments in our lives?) I’ve been in a funk for the last six months (during COVID-19) where my writing stopped, my RA is worse and I cancel work hours due to the pain. Thank you for sharing this post!

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      I’m so glad it is useful for you, Carolyn! And yes, I have absolutely had times where the right advice/insight came at the right time. I’m sending reenergizing, creative, and productive thoughts your way!

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