by Brian de Haaff
You versus your calendar: You’re fighting for time to get your real work done. Nervously eyeing the clock. Each day is a relentless sprint from meeting to meeting, but the calendar always wins. It goes something like this:
8 a.m.: Start work
8:15 – 12 p.m.: Booked with meetings
12:15 – 12:30 p.m.: Lunch (while catching up on email)
12:30 – 5 p.m.: Booked with meetings
You wearily plea with your boss for help, but he’s just as busy with his own meeting schedule. Eventually, you resign yourself to the fact that you won’t begin your actual work until the end of the day, when the meeting reminders mercifully cease (at least until the morning). You surrender your workdays to an endless loop of meetings.
There’s a reason these meetings all seem the same. The organizer has no agenda, no clear goals, no questions or actions items for attendees. The meeting drags on and on, wasting valuable time for everyone involved. These meetings are stealing something valuable from you – the time to think deeply and be productive.
Now, I’m not suggesting we say goodbye to meetings overall. On the contrary, I think it’s important for teams to connect often – sometimes even daily. The problem arises when meetings are consuming more time than the actual work.
I recently faced this problem myself. My calendar was filling up fast. I expect this as the CEO of Aha!, even though we spend as little time in meetings as possible. I enjoy checking in with the team, customers and potential job candidates.
But I had less and less time to think through the big issues that affect the team and the company. So I blocked off Wednesdays as meeting-free on my calendar. I call it “Wonder Wednesday.” It’s my time to work and think deeply about the business.
I realize that not everyone is able to block off a full day on their calendar. But here are five things you can do to lighten the load when you’re drowning in meetings.
Block off time
You might not be able to block off an entire day each week, but I bet you have a few hours here and there. It’s reasonable to carve out chunks of time to do your work (or even to take a lunch). This doesn’t mean being inflexible if a teammate needs you during one of these chunks. It’s simply ensuring that you have enough time to get work done or take a needed break.
Before you automatically hit ‘accept’ on an invite, take a moment to think about why you’re needed. If this isn’t totally clear, ask the organizer why they included you. “What is the purpose of this meeting? How can I help specifically?” You might find that your attendance is not actually needed to move the work forward. For example, the organizer might need information that you could easily share via a document or report. Or perhaps they’re looping you into a project that you will only have peripheral involvement in. In this case, ask for meeting notes instead.
Even if you’re not the organizer, you can help keep things productive by setting parameters — show up on time, stay on topic and follow up with any tasks that come out of the conversation. Also, consider asking the organizer for an agenda beforehand. Even if it’s not a formal document, simply having some bullet points about the topics of discussion and desired goals for the meeting can help move things along. Don’t be afraid to kindly redirect the conversation back to the agenda when the conversation takes a turn.
Everyone has experienced the ‘standing meeting’ that starts off as necessary and grows ineffective over time. If you have one of these on your calendar, think about what you could do to improve it. Maybe it’s automating a report for a weekly status meeting or emailing ahead with prepared talking points to help encourage others to stay on track. Also, consider asking the organizer if you’re still needed at these meetings. Perhaps there’s a recurring meeting that no longer requires your attendance or only needs you for a few minutes at the beginning or end.
Talk to your boss
If you are truly drowning in meetings each day, talk it over with your manager. Have an honest conversation about how these meetings are impacting your schedule and explain that you need more time to get work done. Who knows – maybe your manager is struggling with the same issue. The epidemic in your workplace may be symptomatic of larger organizational issues, and your honest assessment could help prompt action.
You might not be able to overhaul a meeting-heavy culture, but you can protect your own corner of it. Do what you can to ensure you’re getting to the work that really matters.
It’s worth it to take steps to protect your time and work. Is attending that meeting the only way you can learn something critical? Are you critical to decisions that need to be made in that meeting? If not, don’t go. The calendar may be a mighty force, but it doesn’t always have to win.
Brian de Haaff is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! and the author of Lovability. His two previous companies were acquired by well-known public corporations. De Haaff writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life. For more information, visit aha.io.