Too many meetings, and no time to get sh*t done

Ways to organize your calendar and reclaim your ‘Focus-Time’

‘Zoom fatigue’ is a term that isn’t alien to today’s remote world and there are numerous articles published on the internet on how to battle it effectively. With this essay we will be focusing on ways to organize our calendars better as individuals and teams so that we aren’t overwhelmed with those endless meetings in the form of stand up calls, team retros, 1:1s, design critiques, leadership meetings etc, and find time to actually focus on doing hands-on work.

Photo by Josh Duke on Unsplash

The teams at my organization are distributed across geographies and time zones just like any other global tech firm. Hence staying in touch and collaborating via video conferencing has been the norm even before the start of the pandemic.

My calendar on a regular work week has an average of at least 25 to 30 meetings scheduled!

I also know of colleagues who have way more meetings than that! No doubt phrases such as ‘Not having enough time to do work’ or ‘Too many meetings’, isn’t something new, at least to most of us!

The concept of ‘Focus time’ a.k.a ‘No meetings time’ has helped people at my workplace find time to do hands-on work without being interrupted by meetings. Infact, our company even has the first day of every working week called ‘Get Sh*t Done Day’ just to allow people to work in peace and be more productive.

No meetings on Mondays. Period.

The fact that this being a company wide initiative, it has been ingrained a lot more deeply in people’s minds, and hence easier to adhere to. However, there are exceptions too where a few folks don’t mind having a 30 minute slot (or whatever) booked on their Get Sh*t done days. But, who cares? That’s a personal choice, and its their calendar! There is always that meeting that needs to be prioritized and your calendar has to accommodate it! Isn’t it?

https://neenjames.com/get-productive-be-quiet/

I’ve also known teams who’ve customized their calendars based on what worked well for them. Instead of having just a single day reserved to ‘No meetings’, they would block a fixed slot every day because they found that to be more productive than the former. The bottom line is, being aware of what works for your team irrespective of your team’s size and communicating the ground rules, so that everyone is encouraged to try and stick to it.

‘Team-wide focus times’ tend to have a higher likelihood of being successful than ‘Personal focus times’.

Are these still relevant in today’s remote context where the lines between work life and home chores have blurred an awful lot?

I am going to be honest here. My answer is “Yes and No”. Ever since the pandemic, I realized I was no longer able to adhere to my calendar anymore. Get sh*t done Monday’s couldn’t help much! Not to mention the 3hour ‘deep-work time slots’ we attempted within our team in addition to this!

Every half hour interval between one meeting and another were mostly consumed by juggling between kitchen chores, attending to my toddler’s morning duties, grabbing a quick meal or even having a shower for that matter! It was almost impossible to focus without being disturbed by either meetings or personal stuff. Meetings are important, but it can be super annoying that you aren’t able to complete those wire frames, design those interactive prototypes, create the product spec or write a few lines of code without any interruption.

The stress was getting to me, and I could feel it.

My heart goes out to those folks who have children at home or ailing elders who need to be attended to alongside work.

That’s when I decided to regain control and get better at performing the balancing act. My solution was a slight change in perspective. I began adding all my personal chores to my work calendar.

Since my office work was brought home, my home had every right to invade my office’s calendar. Agree?

You tend to take your personal life’s schedule a lot more seriously now that you have committed specific slots for cooking, breakfast / lunch /coffee breaks, attending to the kid’s chores, child’s nap time and not to mention, your start and end time. It sure isn’t easy, but certainly doable.

The point is to let your team know when you are available and when you are not. Simple.

All of us are human, and we have lives to live outside of work. So, what’s the harm calling it out? Off course, you might have to make a few trade offs and plan your home chores based on when your entire team has a daily stand-up for example.. Its a healthy give-and-take where you and your team need to make adjustments according to either of your situations and contexts.

The question you should be asking is,

What does it take for me and my team to be productive?

Experiment with your calendars, try out different ways of working, ensure you aren’t clocking way more hours than needed.. that is simply not sustainable. Incase you feel there is an opportunity to reduce a meeting and do an asynch stand up on Slack, do it. May be not all meetings need you all the time! Communicate it with your team that you will be available on SOS basis. And, incase you are experiencing a burn-out, take an off-day from work and give yourself time to recuperate.

Being honest and supportive with teammates, colleagues, reports and managers is important for this to work. Remote working is here to stay! Being smart and thinking long term is the key.

Here’s how my current calendar looks after the various permutations and combinations I explored. This has worked well for the past couple of months for me personally. I must admit that it did take some effort and discipline to adhere to.

My day begins at 6am simply because that’s the time my toddler is usually asleep (and so is my team). I get 2.5 hours of focus-time, every single day! I also get a share of the team’s focus-time too! Isn’t that pure bliss?

I realized I had to include just 4 items (marked in yellow) in my calendar:

  1. 6am:Kasi begins work’
  2. 8:15am to 9:30am: ‘Daddy duties — Please do not book this slot’
  3. 12:45pm to 1:30pm: ‘Lunch break’
  4. 2:30pm: ‘Hard stop — End of day’

I can’t deny that the earlier months were quite hard and it did take me a while before I finally decided to refuse meeting with people who blocked slots on my calendar post 3:00pm.. or for the matter of fact, if I continued working until 8:30 / 8:45am in the morning without attending to my kitchen chores.. these things tend to have a cascading effect and takes a toll on your entire day, personally and professionally. Getting picky about what meetings I went to and didn’t, really helped too.

Does that mean I am recommending all of you to become morning birds and start working from 6am. Absolutely not! All I’m saying is,

Plan your calendar around your personal life. Figure out what works for you, your team and your context.

Until then, Happy remote working folks!

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Kasinatha Rao

Senior designer at Atlassian. I write about Design, and what it means to be a Designer in the world of tech.