Becoming a manager can easily lead to meeting after meeting, here are some ways to protect your diary against meeting fatigue.
Meetings can be a great way for teams and companies to make important product decisions, plan how different features need to be implemented, and keep everyone working towards the same goals. But meetings can also be pointless, hours-long distractions that waste time that could be better spent building and shipping the actual product.
Engineering leaders, in particular, can get caught up in unnecessary meetings. As a senior leader, there’s often pressure to make sure you’re aware of everything that’s going on, even if that means inviting you to every meeting possible – whether you’re needed or not.
Here are a few ways to take back control of your time.
1. Have a calendar to start with
If you haven’t got a clear idea of how you intend to spend your time, your colleagues will happily decide for you. An empty, open calendar is an invitation to lots and lots of meeting invites.
Your calendar should include:
- Blocks of time dedicated to focused work. If you don’t schedule the time to dive deep into your most important tasks, you are unlikely to get the chance to do it.
- Blocks of time set aside for meetings and one-to-ones. By controlling when you have the majority of your meetings, you can at least limit their impact on your day.
- Blocks of time for responding to emails, admin tasks, and coordinating with your team.
Of course, any schedule like this will always be a bit idealized. Things will always crop up, and there likely will be the occasional emergency meeting you need to attend, but that’s not the issue we’re trying to address. This is about making sure that you aren’t getting invited to every meeting that’s happening because people think you are free.
2. Review your calendar
Assuming you have a somewhat functioning calendar, the first step towards protecting it is to make sure everything on it makes sense. Alexis Haselberger, a productivity and time management coach who’s worked with teams at Google, Lyft, and other tech companies, recommends regularly reviewing your calendar.
For every meeting on your calendar, Haselberger says to consider whether it’s worth your time or not.
Then, even if a meeting is worth your time, is it most effective in its current format? Often the worst meetings are the ones that serve a purpose but take up more time than necessary.
If it’s not immediately clear looking at your calendar whether certain meetings are worthwhile or not, Haselberger suggests tracking things for a few weeks. You can take notes after each meeting, or change the color of different meetings in your calendar. You could mark unproductive meetings in red, productive meetings in green, and meetings that need some modifications in yellow.
3. Remove, reduce, and rearrange
Once you know what scheduled meetings you need to address, Haselberger suggests three strategies: remove, reduce, and rearrange.
For truly unproductive meetings, you want to remove them entirely from your calendar. “We invite people to meetings because we don't want them to feel left out, which is a really nice sentiment, but it really destroys our time,” Haselberger says. She suggests telling your coworkers that you don’t need to be invited to every meeting and that your feelings won’t be hurt if you aren’t. Another option is to send a direct report on your behalf.
For many meetings, the best thing to do is to reduce something, whether that’s how often meetings happen, the length of the meetings, or the number of your team in attendance. For example, many weekly meetings could probably be every two weeks or even monthly.
Similarly, according to Haselberger, the reason we have so many 30-minute or one-hour meetings is that those are the blocks of time our calendars default to. If 30 minutes is too long, reduce the meeting to a 15-minute standup. Or if three of your team is presently attending a meeting, consider whether one could go and provide a short briefing to the others.
Finally, Haselberger suggests rearranging your newly pared back calendar. “Try to turn your calendar from a 'Swiss cheese calendar', where you just have holes all over the place, into something where you have larger blocks of open time to get deep work done.”
4. Set up a meeting approval process
With your new and improved calendar in order, it’s time to take a few steps to keep it protected from unnecessary meetings. The simplest way is to make sure you have some kind of meeting approval process in place.
If you have an executive assistant, Haselberger suggests telling them exactly what kind of meetings you are open to and getting them to automatically decline any others. It takes all the emotions out of it. “Your executive assistant is going to be much more ruthless,” she says, “Because they don't have the same type of emotional connection with the people who are asking for your time, and their job is to protect your time.”
If you don’t have an executive assistant, a tool like Calendly can help. You can set it so meetings are only scheduled at certain times and you are the one to approve anything that goes on your calendar.
5. Campaign for better meetings
“I think taking the bold stance of ‘I don't show up at a meeting unless there's an agenda’ is a pretty good idea,” says Haselberger. And while extreme, it will at least prevent you from getting caught up in long meandering meetings where no one has an idea about what is going on.
Similarly, if you take a stand on meetings starting on time, finishing on time, and sticking to the agenda, you are much less likely to get caught up in unnecessary meetings.
Haselberger also suggests having “organizational agreements” that define what meetings are for – and crucially, what they aren’t. People should know if simple project updates are meant to be emails and not video calls.
With her clients, Haselberger has found that there is often a lot of emotional resistance to getting rid of or saying no to meetings, and that many people worry that they are going to be judged. “But what I find is that it’s totally fine,” she says. “People are happy you’re not taking this meeting. They’re not like, ‘Wow, she’s doing a terrible job over there.’ They’re usually like, ‘Oh, I want to be more like her.’”
Organizations are never static. New projects start, new deadlines get set, and new meetings are necessary. Over time, entropy kicks in and everyone’s calendar starts to fall apart.
Every few months you should repeat this process. Check that the meetings you’re attending are important and appropriate, and if they’re not, fix or remove them.