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Understanding the Key Problems to Reclaim Time For Meaningful Work
It’s 5:00 on a weekday. You stand up to stretch. You’ve been in meetings (or on Zoom calls) all day with barely a break. You’ve been multitasking as much as you can, shooting out emails and Slack messages whenever you can divert your attention, coming back to the calls whenever you need to chime in or listen or catch up on something you missed.
Now you need to get some actual work done. That presentation won’t create itself, and next quarter’s OKRs won’t write themselves. Will they?
How did it get like this? How did our days get so wrapped up in meetings that we barely have time for other work? How is it that the more time we spend at an organization, the fuller our calendar gets with little chance of it ever moving in the opposite direction? How is it that the more senior we get, the more time we spend in meetings? Are they the best use of our time? The best use of everyone’s time? Is there a better way?
I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but we have to ask them more often. We seem to take for granted that we fully occupy our time in meetings where we often pay little attention and have little time left for activities where we could add significantly more value.
In conversations I’ve had and my experience, this is the list I’ve put together, I’ll be interested in adding to it, so let me know your thoughts and expect this to expand.
“Should I schedule another meeting to follow up on this?”
That’s probably one of the most common meeting phrases in all of meetingdom vocabulary now. And it is pernicious. We use meetings to manage our own tasks and the tasks of others, ensuring projects move along through ongoing meetings. Rather than taking ownership of items, we use meetings as markers to ensure everyone is managing tasks. So multiply that across all the projects each person has, and it’s easy to see how meetings multiply so quickly.
How many meetings have we all lived through that could have, and should have, been an email or chat? Probably most of them. Meetings are too often about updating everyone. The irony is that we have to block out time on calendars and have meetings to do updates because everyone is too busy with meetings to catch up on updates without meetings. It’s a vicious cycle.
Fear of missing out. Unfortunately, we are partly our own worst enemies with to meetings because we don’t want to be part of the “out group”. So we push to be involved in meetings so not to be on the outside of decisions or information from meetings. Which speaks to the problem above of meetings that should be emails or chats, and to the problem below of politics and perception.
We also use meetings as a tool for politics within organizations. Much like FOMO above, we often feel the need to be involved in important meetings to be perceived as important. On the flip side, many people also want to have meetings with many important people to feel or be perceived as important.
Purpose (or Lack Thereof)
One major complaint I’ve had and heard is the lack of purpose in meetings. One leader I talked to told me, “If there is no clear agenda or purpose to a meeting, you can count me out.” It’s easy to have meetings because we’re uncertain about next steps, but is that a good enough purpose for a meeting?
It’s also easy to let a meeting run its course with no forethought. I think there is a place for that and I value certain open meetings. But even that is an agenda and structure. Too often though, we don’t put any time into thinking about how to structure meetings to get what we need and move on.
Number of People
Have you ever looked around a room and calculated the cost of a meeting? With enough important people in a room, the cost of a meeting could run thousands of dollars. It amazes me that companies expect reports for the $10 lunch you had, but we’re okay with large meetings costing hundreds or thousands of dollars daily.
When you boil it down, the problem with meetings comes from us using them to manage tasks and push things along, disseminate information, manage uncertainty, increase stature without consideration to the right purpose, structure or people involved in those meetings.
To break the meeting cycle and get valuable time back, there are some things we can do now. They are not necessarily easy or quick, but it is worth putting in the effort to prioritize our time for important, meaningful work. Which happens outside of meetings.
Own Your Work
Stop relying on meetings to get work done. Don’t use them as a crutch or reminder that you need to update your roadmap or send out a quarterly report. By all means, put a reminder on your calendar, but don’t gather everyone back in a room for a status update. We need to own our work and using meetings sparingly and for better ends.
Rather than calling a meeting for updates or general discussion, we should take care of those things outside of meetings. This will involve some culture change (see below), fewer meetings so everyone has time, and a willingness to focus at the meetings we have. Meetings should be finish line events, with background available beforehand.
Change Your Culture
To accomplish many of these changes, it will involve culture change for teams and organizations. We’ve become too dependent on meetings in many organizations. It will take an effort from leaders to make it happen, but all of us need to contribute wherever we can. If you own meetings, make them better. Or get rid of them wherever you can.
Before you even set up a meeting, define your objectives for the meeting. What do you want to accomplish? What will success look like for that meeting? Can you get to success another way? Through some conversations or discussions with a few people over email?
If you have a meeting, structure it so everyone knows what to expect and send out the materials that everyone needs beforehand. It may be too much to expect them to read it at this point, so you may need to allot some time at the beginning to review. At one company I worked for, we used the Amazon practice of reading documents at the beginning of every meeting before we even started. Whatever the structure, make it clear.
Reduce People and Meetings
Wherever you can, reduce the number of meetings you have and the number of people involved. It will allow you more free time and quicker meetings. Let people know what you’re doing and why. Make sure everyone knows they aren’t being excluded and that you are moving to a “meeting-lite” strategy and will communicate in other ways so they don’t get FOMO.
We need more people to say no. Say no to meetings and question their value and efficacy. Not belligerently or maliciously, but with good intent. It should start with each of us as we pare down our meetings and the meetings we attend wherever possible. Especially leaders. Set an example.
Let’s prioritize work.
Good Reasons for Meetings
With all that said, there are good reasons for meetings. Once we’ve pared down significantly the number, and seriously questioned how many we’re having, how often we’re having them and who is involved, we should use meetings appropriately.
I’ve laid out some broad categories for meetings.
Mapping and Ideating
When it comes to mapping out processes, flows, user journeys, etc., there is no substitute for being together. We can say the same for ideating around problems and solutions. These are inherent activities that involve teams and multiple perspectives and are important for meetings.
Strategizing and Planning
Strategizing and planning are broad, so don’t fall into the traps above. But as long as you avoid the problems we discussed and take the steps to avoid unnecessary meetings, creating strategy for your team and organization, and planning will be important meeting topics.
Final Decisions and Shared Understanding
Like I mentioned above, making final decisions is important. And a good idea to do together in a meeting format. If everyone has been informed and together through the process, then the final decisions and the meeting can be productive, structured, and outcome-oriented. This is also a good place to ensure shared understanding.
In creating a culture and creating relationships, there is no substitute for time together. So eliminating that would be folly. Meetings are critical for building rapport and building relationships.
There is a lot of gray area with meetings. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be in our current situation. But we desperately need to reclaim our time. We need to prioritize meetings appropriately so they are valuable again, and not the default for everything. We need to ensure that we’re adding the most value both in and out of meetings.
Best of the Rest
How to Declutter Every Aspect of Your Work Life (podcast) - This was an interesting listen on decluttering work. It had a few thoughts on meetings but also workspaces, calendars and other work related things.
Product Roadmaps: Love, Hate (and Hate) - And How To Fix Them (podcast) - We just published our latest episode on product roadmaps. I’ll be writing more about this topic and probably referencing this podcast again, but wanted to link it here for your listening pleasure.