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Six Strategies to Survive Being Buried in Meetings

Have you ever had days or weeks when your calendar was filled seemingly to the brim with meetings? As an experienced software developer in a senior technical role, I find that I am being requested to attend more and more meetings, especially to provide advice or guidance to various teams and to participate in status meetings for various projects or groups I am involved with. At the same time, however, I am still expected to develop software – design modules, produce documentation, and sometimes even code. Trying to balance all the meetings with the time necessary to accomplish my development tasks can be quite challenging, so I want to share six strategies I use to manage my time.

1. Say No To Meeting Invites

The best strategy that I find the hardest to use is to turn down meeting invites. Being asked to attend a meeting is often an acknowledgment that your input is valued, especially the more senior the other attendees. Furthermore, meeting with senior technical or management people is often beneficial for your career, while repeatedly turning down such meetings is not. This produces a natural inclination to want to attend meetings. To combat this, I ask two questions to determine if the meeting is worth attending:

  • Can I reasonably expect to make a useful contribution at the meeting? In other words, will others benefit from me attending the meeting?
  • Can I benefit from attending the meeting?

If the answer to both of these questions is no then it becomes easier to decline the meeting invite. Unfortunately, few meetings meet this criteria.

2. Leave Meetings That Do Not Deliver Value

If you are in a meeting that is not providing any value for you being there, then one option is to get up and leave. Your ability to do this will depend on your role in the meeting and your corporate culture. I have heard that at ThoughtWorks it is considered acceptable and normal for anyone to leave a meeting at any point if they do not feel it is worth their time to be there. The organizations I have dealt with have not had such enlightened cultures, but I have used and have seen others use this strategy at times. This strategy works best when you are an optional attendee.

3. Tentatively Accept, Then Choose When To Go

Regularly scheduled status meetings are a significant percentage of the meetings I am asked to attend. This is especially an issue with being on multiple projects when each has one (or more) regular weekly or biweekly meetings. The biggest problem with regularly scheduled meetings is that they consistently use up your time, week after week, and I find that they deliver limited benefit for the time spent. One strategy I use is to only tentatively accept the invite for such meetings. This gives me the freedom to choose not to attend, whereas accepting the meeting creates the expectation that I will attend every one. This works especially well for formal meetings with published agendas and minutes. If the agenda has items that are worth my time to attend, I will, otherwise I'll just browse the minutes or talk briefly with someone else who attended.

4. Double Book Meetings

Double booking two meetings at the same time is another time-saving strategy. With two meetings scheduled for the same or overlapping times, you can choose which to go to, with an excuse for missing the other that almost every manager will accept. This works especially well when one of them is a regular status meeting that you can afford to skip. Another option is to attend a portion of both meetings. At the start of the first meeting if you point out your need to leave early, you can often get the agenda shuffled to talk about the issues requiring your attendance first. You can then leave for the second meeting having derived most of the value from the first meeting in a shorter period of time.

If your organization uses a shared calendering application that allows you to see the availability of others when scheduling meetings then using the prior strategy of tentatively accepting meetings makes it easier to get double bookings, as others will schedule meetings for when you are tentatively available. This in turn makes it easier to only tentatively accept their meeting, with the excuse that you may have another at the same time.

5. Penalize Projects For Meetings

A different strategy I use is to "penalize" projects for wasting my time in status meetings. I accomplish this by allocating a fixed number of hours per week to each project. If I only allocate four hours a week to a project, and the project manager wants me to attend a one hour status meeting each week, then that uses up 25% of my time for that project. I have at times emphasized this point. When asked in a status meeting how long it will take me to finish a task, I'll point out that I lost an hour due to the meeting, and thus have one less hour left in the following five business days to work on the task.

At this point you may be getting the impression that I think that status meetings are always a waste of time and do everything to avoid them. Not at all. Status meetings are useful for a variety of reasons, and I do attend a fair number of them. Since I am expected to produce work outside of meetings, however, I do need to ensure that I have significant blocks of non-meeting time available.

6. Schedule Meetings With Myself

It seems ironic that one solution to too many meetings is to schedule more, but it works. When I absolutely need to get a piece of work done, I'll schedule a meeting just for myself to work on the task. This strategy works best when your organization uses a shared calendering application such as Microsoft Outlook that allows you to see the availability of others when scheduling meetings. Other people trying to schedule a meeting with you will see that your schedule is busy and change the meeting time to accommodate you. If the topic is urgent, people may decide to meet anyways without you. In order to make progress on significant work tasks, I sometimes schedule full-day meetings one or more days in a row. The downside with doing this is that the next few days afterwards tend to completely fill up with meetings if I am not careful.

There are several variations of this strategy that I use as well. When others want me to review a design or document with them in a few days and ask when I will be available, I tell them to schedule a meeting with me. This ensures I'll have a block of time available that day to meet and go through what they want reviewed, rather than waiting till that day and risk having it fill up with other meetings. When I am waiting for others to do some tasks for me, and not seeing results for a significant period of time, then I will schedule a meeting with them which they will invariably accept. When they come to the "meeting", I review the tasks I am waiting for and then explain that the next hour (or however long the meeting is) is for them to work on these tasks. My logic is hard to turn down: if they had the time to set aside to meet with me, then they have the time to do my tasks.

Too many meetings can sap your productivity and prevent you from achieving the state of flow when working on a design or coding task. So a necessary component of managing your time is to manage your meetings.

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