This post is another one by InRhythm’s own Jack Tarantino. For the full post and additional links, check out the original “Calendar Tetris is an Antipattern” on his website.
It’s time that we took back our work day from our calendars and Calendar Tetris is the first thing that has got to go. Calendars are a tool and like every tool they should be used appropriately.
Does your calendar look like a Jackson Pollack painting? Maybe more like a Piet Mondrian? Then you’re probably suffering from Calendar Tetris. Calendar Tetris is a problem where you constantly have to shuffle around items on your calendar because there’s so many of them they can’t all fit. When it’s particularly bad, you rarely have an open spot on your calendar and you’re frequently double-booked. At it’s worst, I’ve seen a coworker triple-booked at minimum every hour of the workday for an entire week.
Brendan Nelson argues that the constant scheduling of meetings is taking over our lunch hour! And I agree. I feel guilt and just a tinge of shame when I decide to take my full lunch hour (What Nelson calls “white collar truancy”). And nobody has ever told me I’m explicitly not allowed to take it. I’m just used to running out to get whatever’s cheap, quick, and delicious and going back to my desk to get some reading done. But the disappearing sacred ritual of a lunch “hour” isn’t the only thing that Calendar Tetris is affecting.
Constant meetings ruin productivity. And everybody knows it. Ray Williams points out in Psychology Today that managers think that 30% of the meetings that they’re in are a waste of time. And that’s just the meetings that they know are wasteful! What about the ones that could have been avoided altogether? In another article, Dr. Sally Augustin points out that even small interruptions can cost you. Interruptions of as little as 3 seconds can double the number of cognitive errors you make afterwards and longer interruptions flush your working memory leaving you 15-20 minutes behind in your work.
A lot of people think that just because they’re senior or because they’re a manager that they necessarily have to be in meetings all day. You don’t need to go to all those meetings though! Take, for example, the CEO of a busy and valuable company. You would assume that they spend all day in meetings in board rooms and drawing on whiteboards but Jason Fried argues that he tries to keep his calendar as open as possible in order to get real work done.
A lot of the trouble with an extreme volume of meetings comes from not using the tools around you correctly. For example, do you need a meeting for an announcement or could you just send a quick email? Do you really need to put time on Sully’s calendar or could you just walk over to her desk and ask “Hey, sorry to interrupt, do you remember what we decided to do about all those UFOs?”? And yes, you should always apologize for interrupting people. Meetings are huge interruptions and drag people and their ability to focus far away from real work.
What’s on your calendar? Does it need to be a formal meeting? The answer for most meetings is a solid “No”. For the most part you could send out a quick email, slack message, or just stop by somebody’s desk to get them to answer a couple questions. Does somebody need to sign off on the decision? Stop by their desk next! You just saved the whole team half an hour of not being sure why they’re in a room with everyone. Anything that doesn’t need to be a formal meeting needs to come off your calendar right away. Put things that you need to talk about into a todo list and get them done with relevant people when you get to it.
Does that meeting need to be recurring? I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people walk into a room, announce “we actually have nothing to talk about this week” and walk out again. That was a huge interruption for nothing. Or when I see that people have skipped the meeting smartly but they still have the room reserved which is confusing for people looking for a quiet place to talk. Any time somebody invites you to a recurring meeting, you should be asking them if it’s really necessary to plan a second meeting when you haven’t even had the first. How do they know you’ll need to talk about a particular subject again at exactly that time in 2 weeks? Recurring meetings are generally a good way to waste people’s time. The only recurring meetings I think people should have are a morning standup and a weekly/semi-weekly retrospective. Everything else can go.
The worst part about going to meetings is that they interrupt what could otherwise be productive work time and it takes a long time to get back in the groove of what you were doing. A very effective way to mitigate that loss is to group your meetings together. This reduces the amount of time that you waste before and after the meetings. Try to group all your meetings into the morning, before you go for lunch. Or block off certain days as pure work days. Say you only take meetings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so that you have 2 days a week that can’t be interrupted. Imagine how much you can get done with all that meeting-free time!