I love meetings. Getting to know other people, understanding the challenges they’re facing, and searching for ways to help them succeed is tremendously fun and rewarding. Helping others navigate the software industry is a big part of Test Double’s mission, too, even when my direct involvement is limited to an introductory sales call.
I hate calendars. Each morning, I wake with ambitions of what I might accomplish. The possibilities are infinite! That is, of course, until I open my calendar:
It might not look like much, but this is enough to immediately deflate my hopes of a productive, rewarding day. When I see a day like this one, I know that I’ll have at most 3 hours in the morning of focused productivity (and the pressure of being time-constrained will diminish that focus). The afternoon may only have 2 cumulative hours of meetings, but they’re so spaced out that there will never be enough time between them to focus on anything else for very long. My personality compounds this problem, because I tend to exert a lot of emotional energy in meetings, and the attention residue following a meeting is anathema to concentration.
Sadly, by the end of each day, I inevitably find myself manically checking a rotation of inboxes—typically e-mail, Slack, Twitter, and iMessage—as if I’m desperately searching for a substitute to the feeling of validation that I find only comes from deep, focused productivity.
As a result of all this, when I see the (admittedly modest-looking!) calendar above, I’ve learned that my day is ultimately going to shake out more-or-less like this:
So while I might love the conversations and insights of nearly every individual meeting I participate in (a rare joy in itself, and why I love working at Test Double), their cumulative effect on my productivity and happiness is profoundly negative.
Is this actually bad?
It might shock you to know that I am not the first person to complain about meetings. There exists prior art.
In fact, I’m sure many of you have worked with managers who would lament that their entire day was wall-to-wall meetings. I’ve glanced at more than a few such managers’ calendars over the years to call them on this bluff, but—sure enough—their days were always an unrelenting gauntlet of overlapping, synchronous social commitments. If I showed them my calendar above, they’d rightly scoff at my complaints. Even as I type this, I can hear the voices of Managers’ Past dismissively telling me, “that’s nothing! Behold the tire fire that is my existence!”
That’s the main reason why, to this point, I’ve come to view my daily frustration with my calendar as a personal failing on my part—after all, others definitely seem to have it much worse than I do.
But do they, really?
I’m no longer so sure that a day half-filled with meetings is superior to a day totally engulfed by them. In fact, strategic consulting and training engagements in which every day was like one never-ending meeting have been among my favorite work experiences. I voluntarily attend numerous conferences each year in which I’m talking to people constantly, from my first sip of morning coffee to my last swig of late-night whiskey. When my role is to be 100% social and present—contrary to all of my complaining about meetings—I actually love it! So wherever the problem lies, it isn’t with meetings per se, it’s more likely based in their costs relative to my other responsibilities and ambitions.
In truth, the problem’s root cause is the fragmentation represented above: only 20% of my calendar shows meetings, but over half my day is somehow impacted by them. If 20% of my responsibilities required me to attend meetings, that would be perfectly fine with me… so long as they only consumed 20% of my time. This tremendous efficiency gap—in which nearly half of each workday is wasted—regularly leaves me feeling guilty and ashamed over how little I’ll have accomplished with respect to the other 80% of my work. And when a day’s meetings don’t prove to be valuable, it’s even more demoralizing.
What can be done?
If I were setting out to paint my kitchen, I’d never think to insert 60-90 minute gaps between the painting of each wall. Doing so would force me to clean up unnecessarily often, re-mix the paint each time I returned, and monopolize the space for hours longer than necessary.
And yet, what would be a woefully inefficient painting schedule is the default state of any knowledge worker’s calendar. We receive more invites (at times we don’t control) than we send (at times we do). We graciously maximize our stated availability for the convenience of others. We even take some solace in the fact we’re not alone in feeling harried by the constant context-switching demanded by our schedules. But deep down, we all know we’d be better off if we were more intentional about our time.
So, how can you start improving your relationship with you calendar? Here are a few ideas:
Don’t default to meetings: I receive frequent (awesome!) e-mail introductions from mutual friends & acquaintances, and my default response is to suggest that we schedule a call. Meeting someone is definitely the best way to get acquainted, but there’s no shame in first sorting out whether a meeting would be worth their time, as well as yours
Protect your mornings: Focus, creativity, and cognition tend to be strongest when we first wake up. As much as I fancy myself a night owl, I recognize that entropy is a one-way street, and each day tends to become more chaotic as it unfolds. As a result, I don’t take any meetings before noon each day, and I do my best to avoid communication until I’ve applied deep focus to something important
Talk to your team: Meetings are a group activity, so if you hope to change how you have them, you’ll need to win over your colleagues. Fortunately, this problem is familiar to everyone, and an agreeable solution (say, deciding on a common meeting window each day) is probably pretty achievable—but it won’t happen unless you communicate!
Name your times: In the interest of being maximally hospitable, it’s common to offer others the courtesy of sending an invite at whatever time is best for them, but this often results in slower responses and more back-and-forth, as if being able to choose any time is an example of the paradox of choice. Instead, provide a limited set of options from a narrow, defragmented range of times that are designed to help them choose while preserving your productivity
Consider using a tool: Scheduling and calendaring software is infamously bad, but some tools can be useful, especially if you’re uncomfortable with directly suggesting to others that you’re too busy for them. I gladly pay $10 a month for Calendly, if only because it depersonalizes the self-imposed constraints on my availability while still giving others the control to choose the best time for themselves
Push back: It’s really easy to schedule a meeting and really hard to decline one. That’s especially true of recurring meetings. If you suspect a meeting isn’t necessary, (kindly) say so. If you’re finding that a weekly call isn’t valuable, you’re probably not alone. I recommend everyone read my friend Kevin’s new book on Meeting Design to learn how to get more value out of meetings and to justify the deletion of recurring events that have outlived their usefulness
I’m still only at the beginning my journey to being more intentional about where my time goes each day, so I’m sure I’ll be tweeting more thoughts as this experiment unfolds. If you have any advice on how individuals and teams can better corral their calendars, feel free to e-mail me and I’d love to hear about them (and then negotiate over whether it’s worth your time to have a meeting about it)!