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Sorry I was on Mute, Can You Repeat the Question? Why We Over-schedule


Anthony Mersino

June 28, 2019

7:12 AM

Ever try to schedule a meeting with someone only to see their calendar is completely blocked? Or have people show up to your meeting 15 or 30 minutes late because they were “booked back to back all day”.

More than ever we seem to be suffering from an addiction to busy-ness. We are so over-scheduled that we have no slack time in our lives which causes a negative ripple effect on us and others and saps our productivity and effectiveness.

Why We Are So Busy

Being busy has become a badge of honor and something to brag about for many of us. Everyone is complaining about feeling over-scheduled even though it is something that is under our control. If we aren’t working long hours and evenings, how else will others know how important we are?

There is also a real pressure to deliver or to at least look like you are delivering. While right now the job market is great, with more jobs than people to fill them, this has not always been the case. After the downturns in 2000 and 2008, many organizations cut staff dramatically and pushed to do more with less. So many of us learned to work in environments where there was a palpable sense that asses were on the line, and people needed to produce to keep their jobs.

And the easiest thing to monitor is hours worked. If the boss sees that I am working long hours, won’t they think that I am doing great work? Looking busy, or working lots of hours is an easy proxy for managers to use for productivity. But most of us know that activity and results are two different things. Managers should encourage activity but reward on results.

Another easy measure of people’s productivity is responsiveness to emails. Managers may seem to be testing with how long does it take people to respond or whether we respond off hours or on weekends. Which results in people compulsively checking emails and trying to clean up their inboxes. Clearing emails somehow feels productive.

Most People Have Back to Back Meetings

And for busy people, back to back meetings seem to be the norm.

In many organizations there is a value placed on consensus, so many people need to be involved in each decision and therefore meetings are full of people. There is also FOMO and I’ve worked in companies where people just show up at meetings because they don’t want to be left out.

At one particular client, the motto seems to be “Have No Small Meetings”. It is easy to have a meeting where 20 people show up. At least they show up physically or join by phone. Unfortunately, almost none of them are present. They are face down on their laptops or phones and don’t hear the conversation or add any value. This lack of focus has a real cost.

For most people, this busyness and over-scheduling shows up as full calendars. People are double and sometimes triple booked.

The Consequences of Being Over-Scheduled

Our tendency to be over-scheduled has some significant negative impacts.

  1. We have No Slack Time for Problems. Since we have no slack time, when problems inevitably occur, things escalate quickly. A team I worked with years ago had poor quality in production (due to imposed and unrealistic deadlines). They would plan their sprints but within the first few days of the sprint there would be a production issue where the Dev Managers called meetings for ‘all hands on deck’. The delivery of the sprint goals suffered and quality worsened, increasing the likelihood of future problems. Do you see the spiraling nature of this type of work?
  2. Delays Compound, Like Traffic. If you have ever sat through a phantom traffic delay, then you have first-hand experience with how things get backed up. When meetings are back-to-back, small delays have a ripple effect which impacts everyone. When your key stakeholder doesn’t show up on time for your meeting, do you start without them? Do you wait? Do you go back and re-hash everything when they do show up 20 minutes late? Arghhh…kill me now!
  3. Things Slow Down. Being over-scheduled means everything takes longer. I can’t schedule a meeting with the key players for 2 weeks because everyone’s calendar is full. This type of predictable delay is rarely anticipated in advance.
  4. We Don’t Do Deep Thinking. Cal Newport published an excellent book on the increasingly rare skill of deep thinking, called Deep Work; Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Trust me you probably don’t have the time to read it; you don’t even have the time to watch this 5-minute video summary: Deep Work Video. My point is, being over-scheduled and sitting through back to back meetings is likely to prevent you from thinking deeply about your work and gaining the benefits of creativity and productivity.
  5. Feeling Unsatisfied and Unproductive. Ever have the feeling that you “didn’t get anything done because you sat in meetings all day”? Perhaps because you did? Or do you find yourself trying to squeeze a full day’s work into the early morning or late evening when no one else is in the office?
  6. Pain and Suffering in Meetings. Meetings can be painful enough, but when people are not paying attention, we all suffer. Multi-tasking and lack of focus and attention will make meetings take longer and they drain our life energy. How many of us have heard the line, “Sorry I was on Mute, Can You Repeat the Question?” Which is odd because your mute button has nothing to do with your hearing.

People Use Meetings as Slack Time

I’ve started to see another phenomenon where people are using meetings as a form of buffer or slack time. This worries me.

Some people use meeting time as a way to get their other work done. They join the meeting but aren’t really there. If they are in person, they are heads down on their laptop. If remote, they put their phone on mute and then do other things like clear their inbox of unread emails.

Some people purposely double and triple book themselves in meetings and then choose to attend the one meeting they want, or none of them. Ironically, they feel more freedom to blow off meetings when they have several at the same time. Plus, being double or triple booked reminds us how important we really are!

I attended a leadership update recently where I observed one of the key attendees shopping online during the entire discussion. When the actions that were “agreed” during the meeting were started, he protested violently that he didn’t know anything about them. Of course not, because he was shopping during the meeting.

What To Do Instead?

Clearly being over-scheduled and having too many meetings is a problem. So what can we do instead?

1. Think Small 

If you are the one organizing meetings, you can reduce a lot of the meeting noise just by having smaller and shorter meetings. Add people gradually, based on a true need to participate. Use a follow-up email to inform people who want to be informed.

2. Stand Up or Walk in Your Meetings

Standups have proven to be a good way to keep meetings shorter and more focused. Standing up usually eliminates multi-tasking during the meeting and will often incent better meeting behaviors and shorter meetings.

Similarly, try a walking meeting. Walking meetings are great when you have just 2 or at most 3 participants. I had a manager years ago who would smoke a cigar while pacing the parking lot every afternoon with his key deputies. It was a good time to connect with him and get aligned (though I don’t think all that cigar smoke was necessarily helpful).

3. Practice Good Meeting Hygiene

We all know how to have an effective meeting. Right? At least do the basics like have an agenda and meeting purpose. Start and finish the meeting on time. Keep meetings focused on the E.L.M.O. Principle or use a parking lot.

4. Leave Slack in Your Schedule

Recognize that over-scheduling is a sign of weakness, not of strength. Attending meetings doesn’t make you more important. You and only you are responsible for how you spend your time; you are not a victim of others.

And your life energy is your single most valuable asset. You have a limited number of hours to achieve your purpose and make an impact. Be purposeful about how you spend those limited hours. Be picky about the meetings you choose to attend and politely decline all the others.

5. Be Present When You are in Meetings (and ask others to do the same)

You are using your precious life energy when you join a meeting so be present. Give others the gift of your focus and attention. Listen intently and ask powerful questions. Engage in moving the meeting forward.

Lack of attention and time wasted in meetings is painful and unproductive. You can choose to do something different.

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