Recently, I saw a post on LinkedIn featuring a table created by Todd Herman. The table illustrated the degree of inefficiency that results when we divide our time into multiple projects. This really got me thinking about my experience as a Project Manager.
I have managed up to 30 initiatives at once, and this inevitably decreases the quality of service. In my work, there are rarely times when I am not juggling multiple projects. We can debate whether it's more effective to be 10% focused on one task than 100% scattered across many.
But the issue goes deeper
Todd's rationale can be applied to more than just project management: the number of activities and, particularly, meetings we have every day - especially when working remotely. Even when we work on a single project, we have meetings all day, and no matter how hard we try to stay focused and be productive, we still feel exhausted at the end of the day and feel like we haven't achieved anything.
Let's say that while I'm writing this article, I get notified that I have received an email. I stop writing, switch screens, and read the email, which is actually an invitation to a meeting. I open my calendar, check my availability, answer the person, and return to this article. There are at least three context switches in less than five minutes. And how many of these context breaks do we have throughout a day or a week? Countless! If you stop to think, it can be quite discouraging, right?
But OK, let's accept the fact that the famous "multitasking" profile is almost part of our DNA. Sometimes, I even like to switch between tasks; depending on the complexity of some, it helps me weigh more before considering something finished. However, the real reason that motivated me to write this article is that I have an anxiety trigger called meetings, just like that, in the plural, underlined, highlighted.
If there's something that causes me anxiety, a feeling that I'm not being efficient, that I'm not having time for what really matters, among other feelings that even give me gastritis, it's looking at my calendar and seeing several meetings throughout the day, often adding up hours without a break between them, or with small intervals between them, which are not enough to do anything that requires more focus or attention.
I believe there was a time when people who lived jumping from meeting to meeting were considered important. Having a full schedule of commitments as if it were synonymous with being at a higher level. But then you enter the meeting and realize that many of those people shouldn't even be there. Or your participation is barely perceptible. Or worse, the famous meetings that could have been an email.
Every time I participate in a useless meeting (yes, in the 21st century, this still happens - a lot!) I think about its cost. I think about the cost per hour of the people who are there, how relevant the subject is to them, and/or how relevant they are to that subject.
Whose fault is it?
Often, it is not (only) the person who scheduled the meeting (believe it!) but the company culture. Old habits die hard.
What's the solution? I'm not sure. But I have some tips.
As someone who needs to balance the fact that, although it is a trigger, it is a necessary evil, I share here some learnings I have had along my way in the form of a list of suggestions/tips. If any of them are useful, it was worth reading this rant, right? (LOL!). If you have any suggestions beyond these, please leave them in the comments!
- Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself if the subject could be solved by email or message. I know it seems basic, but in the rush of the day, many good people get lost because they are in the famous autopilot mode and end up scheduling a meeting without thinking about it.
- When scheduling a meeting, try to anticipate the subject of the meeting or even provide material for pre-reading. The title is essential to synthesize what will be discussed and help the participants to prepare. If you can include a brief description of what will be discussed at the meeting, even better. If not, it ends up being that meeting in which it is decided to schedule a new meeting precisely because they realize they need information that they do not yet have.
- Practice empathy. If people's calendars are shared with you, check them before sending the invitation. Try to find a time that less impacts the people being invited. Put yourself in the other person's shoes: Would you like to be called to a meeting that overlaps another one that was already scheduled, or on Monday at 8 a.m., lunchtime, or late Friday afternoon if the subject is not urgent?
- Meetings are for alignment and decision-making. The famous "status update" does not need a meeting; it can be done asynchronously, either by email, message, or with the support of activity tracking tools. Although checkpoints are important to ensure alignment and space for the team to discuss directions, make sure that this time is valuable for the team that is there.
- Meetings need an objective. Always keep in mind and align with the participants what the goal of that meeting is. Dispersion always happens, and other topics arise, but if a topic needs a meeting, ensure it is discussed and resolved in that time frame. The team may even decide to change the objective of a meeting due to a certain urgency, but this must be agreed upon.
- Limit your audience. It's also basic, but it needs to be remembered. Talking to many is talking to no one. People disperse, do other things in parallel, and do not absorb even 10% of what was discussed. If you need to involve several teams, for example, invite representatives who have decision-making power and/or can pass on information/guidance to others, if necessary.
- Meeting Notes — yes, but with focus. I personally find the act of writing minutes horrible. Precious time is lost transcribing what was said to record what people should have paid attention to. If someone who should have participated could not attend the meeting, reschedule the meeting. After all, if the meeting could have occurred without them, they would not need to be included and would hardly read the minutes or watch the recording. However, I am very much in favor of whoever is responsible for conducting the meeting making a brief summary of what was decided during the conversation, listing any pending actions and their responsibilities, as well as the next steps.
- Focus day. A practice that I have seen very common in some organizations and teams is the adoption of the focus day. This is a day without meetings, usually Friday or Monday, but I have seen them use Wednesday too. It works even better if everyone in the team/organization adopts the same day as a practice, but nothing prevents an individual from self-managing in this way. It is something that I have adopted and highly recommend! You can (or cannot) block your schedule with an all-day commitment and put an automatic response explaining that this is a day that you need focus and that you are avoiding meetings, with a gentle request that, if it is not an urgent matter, avoid scheduling meetings with you on that day. That way, you guarantee a day without interruptions and can have more decision-making power over how you will use your time.
- Utilize time management tools. One tool that I particularly recommend is Clockwise, but there are certainly several others out there. Google Calendar also has some cool features, so it's worth exploring them! With Artificial Intelligence becoming increasingly present in our daily lives, there are already extensions and bots available to help us manage our time more effectively during meetings.
- Take ownership of your time. Ultimately, nothing is more liberating than controlling your own time. While this may not always be possible, there are still ways to have some level of control over it. For instance, I typically put a recurring Out of Office event during lunchtime, with an automatic response declining meeting invitations during that period. I also ask my teams to respect that time, as it's an important break for me. Additionally, I block off fixed Focus Time events at the beginning and end of each day to have quality time to read emails and messages, plan my day, and tie up loose ends. This prevents people from scheduling meetings during these times, but if an invitation does come up, I evaluate whether I need, want, or can afford to spare that time to attend the meeting. You can do the same for breaks throughout the day if you feel like you need them.
- Or simply say no. There are days when we're not at our best, times when we need to focus on a particular project or moments when we need more introspective time. In such cases, accepting a meeting invitation can be the worst decision we can make. If possible, just say no. Ask to schedule for another date/time, advance the subject by email/message, or do anything else that helps you ensure that if you do need to attend the meeting, you'll be at your best.
I could go on, but I think I've already gone beyond what I intended when I started writing. I hope this has been a useful read and worth your time.
Caroline Lara holds an MSc in Social Communication and a degree in Advertising, with 10+ years of Project Management. She has been a Senior Consultant for Digital Projects at Avenue Code since 2022. Carol is passionate about collaboration and innovation and enjoys traveling, reading, trekking, and connecting with nature. She also likes to spend time with family, friends, and her dog, often taking long walks on the beach.