How a Single Meeting Can Derail an Entire Day

If I’m not careful I can find myself spending my entire day performing tasks associated with running the business: checking email, taking phone calls, scheduling meetings, communicating with our employees, documenting processes, and the like. As we’ve grown it’s been harder and harder to carve out uninterrupted time to program and work on other important projects that will help grow the business. I’ve had to work harder and harder to guard my schedule. In doing so I often think back to an essay from 2009 by Paul Graham entitled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

This is 100% true as far as I’m concerned. It’s also difficult to convey effectively to other people, especially those who aren’t “makers.”

Honestly, I’ve found that even a scheduled 15 minute phone call can throw off an entire day. How? Here’s an example: if I know that I have a call at 1 PM, I know I need to wrap up lunch by 12:50, which means I need to start preparing lunch at 12:20, which means that I need to start my workout at 11:30, which means I need to wrap up programming by 11:15 so I have time to quickly check my email. On some days that might be totally fine. On other days I might be dead in the middle of something at 11:15 and need the flexibility to grab a quick snack and then work for another hour or two or three before working out and eating lunch. Knowing I have that 11:15 cutoff changes what I’ll dive into at 9 or 10. Having a fixed stop time completely changes my approach to the day.

A strategy that I’ve found to be effective is to batch together meetings whenever possible. If I have two or three in a day, I’ll plan to do other miscellaneous work in between meetings and essentially “take the loss” in hopes of freeing myself up for the remainder of the week. Another strategy if I really need to get something done is to adjust my day so that I have a 2-3 hour chunk of uninterrupted time at some point. This might mean getting up early, working later in the evening, or deciding to only answer critical emails for the day.

The real answer though is the same as it always has been: schedule as few meetings as possible, only when they’re truly necessary, and keep them as short and as focused as possible.

2 comments on How a Single Meeting Can Derail an Entire Day

  1. Tim Coleman says:

    Managing meeting’s is a huge challenge for anyone who is responsible for their time, i.e. business owners. In a corporate role it’s more of the way it goes, you get paid the same either way and blaming falling behind on too many meetings will likely lead to promotion, which will get you more meetings!

    As a business owner, you’re measured on your productivity almost exclusively. This flips the corporate meeting centric culture paradigm on its head.

    Mark Cuban said don’t take a meeting where you’re not being written a check. That’s wishful thinking, not many, himself included likely have the luxury of such a policy. The trick with meetings is to find what works for you, no two businesses are the same and neither are the people within the company itself. If your business focuses on enterprise sales you better be having a LOT of meetings or you’ll lose. If your business is to develop a new application, keep your meetings to a minimum to maximize your development time.

    For me, my secret recipe is absolutely no more than two meetings a day, and preferably never back to back days with two meetings a day. This allows me to get work done, and work with the outside world at the same time. It requires a little discipline but for me, in my business I’ve found this to be the happiest mix. I tend to thrive on short sprints so breaking up a period of time with a meeting isn’t a big factor, again I think it really depends what you’re doing.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Well put Tim!

      Your Mark Cuban comment reminded me of something else I’ve heard him say: he rarely takes phone calls, he tries to push everything to email. We like to joke internally whenever someone says the “do you have just 15 minutes for a phone call?” line that we’d like to say back to them “do you have just 15 minutes to put together a cohesive email outlining the benefits of working with you?” Joking aside, if it’s not something important, I usually will push sales people to outline stuff via email, both to save time but also as a better reference for the future.

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