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Protect Your Time: 8 Ways to Stay Focused on Important Stuff

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Click for photoHappy Monday! If you value your time – and who doesn’t – you need to be be protecting it at all costs.  It’s far too easy to spend hours each day doing things that don’t end up resulting in personal or professional gain.  You pick your head up at the end of the workday just to realize that out of all the things you got done, none of them were particularly meaningful.

This happens to everyone… at least once!

The key to good time management is to protect your time from the unimportant in order to focus on the important.  It’s really that simple.  But in practice, it can be difficult.  Because it sometimes means being a jerk.  Or at least coming across like one to people who enjoy time-wasting activities because it’s the only way they know how to work.

We have a word at Microsoft we use when our time is wasted: randomize.  I was randomized by him.  Please don’t randomize me.  This meeting is going to be randomizing, we can do this over email.  What a randomization! I’m not exactly sure where it came from – likely from the comparison of wasting time to a random number generator – but the basic idea is that if something is randomizing, it’s to be avoided at all costs.  I suppose it’s nicer than saying “you’re wasting my precious time”, especially for people who don’t know what the word means in context.

Don’t be randomized!

The single biggest time-waster in the corporate world is the all-too-prevalent meeting.  Most meetings are 50 minutes of people hearing themselves speak and 10 minutes of useful dialog or conversation.  You may not be able to avoid them completely, but you can sure as hell try.  More important stuff happens outside of meetings than in them.

As you may have read in My Day: The Way I Work, Rest, and Play, my workday can easily be filled from 9-6 if I’m not careful.  This certainly isn’t unique to my situation; it applies to lots of people.  Many people end up using evenings and weekends to “catch up” instead of for much-needed downtime.  Not fun.

Worse, they’ve convinced themselves that their job is to go to meetings.  I don’t know anyone whose job is just to attend meetings – or just read email for that matter – no matter what role they’re in… and for those who think it’s their job, my guess is that they’re filled with guilt because their contributions are severely limited.  They’re not actually doing anything.  Also not fun.

No matter what you do, you want to maximize your contribution.  You want to spend more time creating and producing than consuming.  You want great output.  You want to be someone who pushes the boulder another foot up the hill each and every day.  You don’t want to run in-place like the people around you!  Unless you’re a full-time hole puncher with 30 years of experience, you have something unique and significant to contribute.  Useless meetings take away from that.  If they’re not wasting your time directly, they’re still breaking up valuable opportunities to find flow in your work.  Meetings aren’t where you’ll make your mark.

It’s important to look at meetings – including phone calls – in terms of their opportunity cost.  An example of opportunity cost from Wikipedia: A person who has $15 can either buy a CD or a shirt. If he buys the shirt the opportunity cost is the CD and if he buys the CD the opportunity cost is the shirt.  The same logic applies to meetings.  If you attend that 60 minute meeting, what else could you have accomplished in that 60 minute, uninterrupted period of time?  That output is the opportunity cost of attending the meeting.  You need to determine if it’s worth it.  Sometimes it is.  Many times it’s not.

What I’ve found is that most 30 minute meetings can be handled over email if you can anticipate the outcome of the meeting ahead of time.  Most 60 minute meetings can be done in 20 minutes or less.  Just like work, meetings will fill the time allotted.  If a conference room is booked for 60 minutes, most people don’t start standing up until their 60 minutes have been used up.  It’s a strange territorial thing, like a pack of lions protecting their turf.  “I’m not going to get up, it’s still my time!”

Of course, the same can be said of the inverse – sometimes a 15 minute conversation can save 60 minutes of back-and-forth via email.  It takes practice to figure out the right balance.

Before getting into the tips, let’s start with a basic “what if” exercise.  When you look at a meeting on your calendar, ask yourself, “What if I didn’t attend this?  What’s the worst that could happen if I delegated, cancelled, or declined the meeting? Are you OK with the expected outcome?  If so, don’t go – ask for the notes or a quick verbal summary once the meeting is over.  If you still feel you need to be there, ask yourself, “what could I do to minimize the impact of not attending?”  Sometimes this involves writing a quick paragraph to outline your perspective and what you hope to get out of the time.  Give people time to respond over email first and you may not need to meet at all.  If you still need to meet, you may at least be able to shorten the time you need to spend.

Here are some proven ways to protect your time:

1. Ask for an agenda before agreeing to meet with anyone

Getting into a room to define an agenda is a waste of time.

Meetings should be about bounded problem-solving, not about determining what’s wrong – that should happen ahead of the meeting.  Lots of times you can take a look at the agenda and produce the same outcome without the meeting.  I’ve started to use a standard template for most meetings (apologies in advance if you’ve been one of the recipients):

”Could you send over an agenda for the meeting so we can make the most of the time?  I want to make sure I’m prepared, so please let me know want you’d like to cover and how I can help.”

Word of caution: sometimes people take offense to this.  But it’s perfectly appropriate to ask people to think about how they’re going to use their time before they actually do.  You have other things you could be doing, as I’m sure they do too.  When they send the agenda over, you can determine if the time is actually required.

2. Propose a new time for all meetings that are set for an hour

An hour is a long time.  Break down your workday, subtracting lunch, other meetings, and commute time, and you probably only get 2, maybe 3, hours each day to do stuff.

If you accept too many hour-long meetings, you’re going to be one of those people complaining that they don’t have time to do their job.  As mentioned earlier, lots of people will fill the scheduled hour because they think they have to – after all, it’s on the calendar.  Use time as a forcing function – schedule it for less time than you think it should take and see if you can do it.  Here’s how I usually do this:

My day is slammed with meetings and other commitments.  Let’s see if we can do this in 20 minutes – I promise to be on-time – and if we can’t get it done, we can always follow-up over email or schedule another quick sync.  Would 10 to 10:20am work for you?  If not, I’m also free from 3 to 3:20 or 4:40 to 5.  Thanks!”

The word of caution from above applies here too.  I remember the first time someone did this to me years ago, I felt dejected.  I got over it the minute I realized I needed to do it too.  Expect others to as well.  Your entire company can learn to work smarter.

3. Batch meetings together so you have time to complete real work

To do anything of value, you need dedicated, continuous time.  Time to get ramped up, into a zone, and time to finish.  Creative work is hard and isn’t usually done in 10 minute intervals.  It can take 30 minutes just to figure out what you’re going to do sometimes.

The solution to this: leave continuous blocks of time unscheduled each day.  This means proposing new times for meetings others have setup and taking a close look at your calendar before setting up a meeting to begin with.  Which day do you think would be more productive?

image or…     image

Imagine how much you could get done just by being proactive about this?

4. Setup quick standing meetings instead of seated meetings

It’s amazing how quickly meetings can go when you can’t get comfortable in a seat.  Whenever I can avoid it, I don’t schedule seated meetings.  When you’re standing, you’re constantly asking yourself “why am I standing?” and the motivation to sit can help push the meeting along.  It’s funny watching people go through this thought process in a meeting.

Along the same lines, you can schedule your standing meetings in a small, cramped space instead of a spacious conference room filled with snacks and projectors.  Use someone’s office or a shared open space instead of a place where people just “settle in and get comfortable”.  Most people will understand the motivation if you explain it.

I’ll take a 15 minute standing meeting in a small office over a 60 minute seated meeting in a conference room any day.

5. Avoid recurring meetings (without a clear agenda each time)

Recurring meetings have three possible states in my experience:

  1. They recur too soon (~50% of them)
  2. They recur too late (~40% of them)
  3. They recur just at the right time (~10% of them)

The majority of recurring meetings are just ways to book time on people’s calendars so you can get them together.  Lots of time, at least at Microsoft, if you try and only book a meeting as-needed, no one can attend because they have other meetings already scheduled.  Recurring meetings keep that time on their calendars booked just for you.

This means that recurring meetings either recur too soon (nothing to discuss) or too late (you should have already met – and sometimes have).  In rare occasions, the timing is just right.  Depending on where you work, you may not be able to get out of all recurring meetings – but you can try and make sure there’s an agenda sent ahead of time, or that they’re done standing in a small space 🙂  At the very least, you can quietly excuse yourself if you don’t find the meeting useful.

6. Kill two birds with one stone

I’ve scheduled meetings during time I had scheduled to pack up my office or walk to the post office.  I’ve scheduled meetings over lunch and commute times, even picking people up at their home to have a meeting while driving to work.  I’ve scheduled meetings in a racquetball court or during planned social events.  People usually understand – everyone’s busy.  What’s the difference where the meeting takes place so long as we’re both committed to the outcome?

As mentioned in my previous post, I like to combine at least one meeting each day with a quick walk outside.  Not only are we exercising our bodies at the same time as our brains, but it usually results in more engaged, creative conversation.

Meetings that serve a dual-purpose can really make a difference to your schedule.  Another way this comes in handy: instead of having single 1:1 meetings with folks, get a few of you together to save the trouble of passing the results on amongst the group.

7. Minimize back and forth responses in email.

Sometimes 2-word responses to emails can just invite a back-and-forth exchange.  “No” is almost never as good as “No” and here’s 2 sentences why not.

Email isn’t instant messaging.  It’s meant to be “asynchronous”, not real-time.  Frequently someone will ask me a yes/no question via email that I could easily just respond with a single word.  Of course, if I’m able to anticipate their reaction, or if I know their motivation to begin with, a little extra information in a single email can save us the back-and-forth.  For example:

Yes, that’s the way the product is designed.  We decided to do it this way because the data we’ve collected shows that people only use this feature in 0.05% of user sessions.  For more information on the exact implementation details and detailed justification, you should check out the specification (here’s the link).  After reading through, if you still have questions, please feel free to email.  Thanks!”

This applies to setting up time to get together as well.  Saying “I’m free at 4” is never as effective as “I’m free at 4.  If you’re not free at 4, could you give me a few options so I can choose the best time for both of us?”  You can save at least three emails that way.

8. Get out of the habit of answering your phone when it rings

Respond to all phone calls with an email or text so you can work when you want.  A great response to a missed call or a voicemail could be something like the following – concise with no wiggle room for follow-up:

“Hi Bob, I saw that you called.  Sorry I wasn’t available.  If this is about the trip on Friday, I’m currently booked on Alaska flight 416 and plan to get to the airport at 3:30.  I’ll wait for you by the gate and I’ll have the documents we discussed.  See you then – pls. email me if you have any questions.  Thanks!”

Unless it’s a member of my family or a close friend, I don’t answer my phone if I’m in the middle of something.  My voicemail asks people to send me a text or an email instead of leaving a voicemail (which takes time to listen to).  But if they do leave a voicemail, I almost always follow-up with email or text.  It forces people (including me) to be concise and keeps us from having to be available at the same time.

…ultimately, try shifting your mindset

Lots of people work this way: “I automatically accept meeting requests sent my way.”

It’s just a bad way to be productive.  Try this instead:

“If a meeting is the most efficient way to get this done, I’ll accept the request… once I’ve confirmed that for myself… and then tried to shorten the length.”

Some of this stuff may sound crazy.  Or it may be common sense to you by now.  The bottom line is that your time is the single most important resource you have in order to contribute to the world.  Don’t let time vampires or their meetings suck your blood dry!

Good luck!

Written by Mike Torres

February 15th, 2010 at 6:57 pm