You can never get back lost time. Which is why many people end their workday feeling frustrated and stressed out – and then have a “second shift” after the kids go to bed so they can catch up. But where did all that unproductive time go and why does it happen in the first place? Let’s start with why, and then where, and then I will give you two very practical suggestions to make it better.
We will start with Parkinson’s Law. If you have not heard of it, you have probably heard of its primary dictum: work expands to fill the allotted time. Parkinson was not an economist, but his law is an organizational behavior variation on the First Law of Demand: demand goes up as price goes down. In this case, when the price (of your time) is zero, demand will consume all available supply.
You may argue that your time is not free, and I hope you are right. But if you are a salaried employee (as in the British Civil Service studied by Parkinson) your time is both a fixed and a sunk cost to your organization, so the incentive to use every available minute of it is no different than the desire to run a production line 24/7 – it may not be free but it is fully paid for already so the marginal cost is zero.
Now we come to the Tragedy of the Commons, and the closely related Common Pool problem. These are problems in which a shared, finite, valuable and openly accessible resource is free or “unpriced”. Because the resource is free, demand consumes all supply and because the resource is openly available, consumption happens in a highly inefficient first-come-first served manner. Imagine ranchers grazing their herds on public lands in Montana or fisherman pulling lobsters from Penobscot Bay in Maine. There is a strong incentive toward overextraction and inefficiency as individuals compete for this valuable resource according to their own selfish best interests (i.e., to maximize short-term gain).
So how is this relevant to your back-to-back meeting problem? You likely have two standing meetings which recur at excessive levels, unproductively clogging your calendar: the 1-1 Update and the Team Meeting. Like the Tragedy of the Commons, these meetings are a natural response to a finite, valuable, shared and “cost-free” resource – I refer to the time of decision-makers, influencers and resource-holders we all need to accomplish our objectives. The 1-1 Update and the Team Meeting are how people “reserve” this valuable resource, whether that time is actually needed in the moment or not. With everyone fighting for their fair share of others’ time, a doom loop of collectively mis-allocated time and destroyed productivity results.
I promised two practical suggestions and here they are. 1) Eliminate all standing 1-1 Updates, except with your boss and your direct reports. You will find yourself much more available to those who need you when they need you, and you’ll have more time to work directly on your own priorities. 2) Limit your team meetings to 10% of your total time (inclusive of all meetings where your whole team is together, e.g., regular weekly/monthly team meetings plus strategic planning, annual planning, talent reviews, team development, etc.). This should require no more than 20 days annually when accounting for weekends, holidays, vacations, sick time, etc.
If you wonder about the source of this wisdom, it comes from personal experience at the school of hard knocks. I spent over 20 years in a corporate environment where back-to back meetings were the cultural norm, and I learned very early that I could not function that way. Through a bit of trial and error I discovered these heuristics, and adherence helped me consistently keep about 30% of my time open and available for desk work, informal interaction and old fashioned management by walking around.
I can’t promise you the same results, but I would enjoy hearing about it if you make the attempt – if you kept reading to this point you likely have very little to lose by trying it out.