So much of academia is about administration. It’s a constant swirl of teaching, research, email and meetings.
Oh.My.God. The meetings…
I used to think that most work arrived by email, but after looking closely at it, it’s clear to me now that the critical point at which work gets created is in meetings. Email, as painful as it is, is really about people requesting a response to the fact that work needs to get done; students asking for extensions, colleagues asking about that project you are working on together, program managers asking about that new course design… All this updating can suck the energy out of anyone’s day and make it hard to get things done.
As I see it, there are two main responses that I can take to email: I can react to email, responding and updating as the requests come through, or I can be proactive about the fact that people will want to be updated on progress and I can work to minimise email before it ever gets sent. You might be thinking that the best way to do that is to send the update before it is asked for, but in fact, that only adds more volume to the email problem and really only shifts the timing of the email that I need to write anyway. There’s no net benefit in that.
How I tackle this problem is with my calendar. More specifically, by planning the most important 15 minutes of my day into my day. Here’s how:
- Work gets generated in meetings.
- Meetings are where work gets discussed.
- Most of the time, no work occurs in the meeting, it occurs some time later.
- Few people get clear about the outcome of the meeting when the meeting is happening.
- Clarifications of what to do next, (or worse, no clarification ) occurs later by email or in another meeting.
At the end of each meeting, I take 15 minutes to get clear about what was discussed, what the next actions need to be, what success looks like and to put all that into my task management / project management system.
I’m a fan of OmniFocus for this step, but it doesn’t really matter. The key is to make sure that before you do anything else that you have committed it to your system.
The problem in more detail
Modern organisations like universities use software to help people to figure out how to manage their day and to coordinate. The ubiquitous calendar now sits on desktops, mobile devices and, occasionally, in paper diaries <– Yes, this is still a thing. The point is that software (and paper) calendars often pre-suppose how long time slots should be. Usually it is sixty minutes, sometimes half an hour. Rarely is it anything else. The problem here is that people then schedule meetings to fill these 1-hour slots – even if the meeting doesn’t need that long to achieve its purpose.
As a side note: have you ever been in a meeting and watched it slide from focussed discussion down into trivia as the meeting passes its half-way point? People realise that if the meeting concluded ‘early’ but before the time that they had mentally scheduled for it, that they would be in this interstitial space with ‘not enough time to begin something else’ before the next meeting (or teaching, or writing slot…) so instead of going back to their desk, they ‘fill up the time’ with chatter or barely relevant tangents/riffs on the meeting purpose.
Solving the problem in meetings that I organise
I schedule meetings for 45 minutes and then conclude them on time. At the conclusion of the meeting, I get up, leave and go to a private space somewhere to collects my notes, decide on next actions and put everything into relevant projects or as ext action items in my OmniFocus list. This is the most important 15 minutes of my day. It is in this 15 minutes that I can get on top of things. I can plan. I can figure out how the next things I need to do fit into the overall picture of my work and career. Doing it then and there has enormous pay-offs. If I don’t consolidate my thinking into clear actions soon after the meeting has concluded, then I run the risk of forgetting important things, or diving into next actions before I’ve had a chance to understand how it all fits together, making me less effective and less efficient.
I’ve learned over time that for that 15 minutes to be effective, the worst thing I can do is leave the meeting and go directly back to my desk; often colleagues will follow me there for a ‘chat’. On the surface of it, this chat is related to work somehow, but in reality this often little more than them filling in time before the next hour begins. My theory is that because this idea "…any meeting that finishes earlier than an hour suggests that people now have a little bit of ‘free time’ before the next o’clock rolls around has been so thoroughly socialised in the organisation, people will look to fill that ‘free time’ and will not feel guilty about it. I avoid this time-suck by going out and finding a space where I can sit down and collect my thoughts. By the time the next o’clock has come around, I’m clear about what I need to do and have clarified my next steps. I can go into the next meeting not still thinking about the last one.
Solving the problem in meetings that I am invited to
Over time I’ve watched carefully how meetings play out and I’ve noticed how their effectiveness seems to diminish – especially once 80% of the scheduled time has expired. In fact, I’ve noticed the 80/20 rule works pretty well in meetings. Most of the important action in a meeting occurs in the first 20% of it. Depending on the relative importance of the topic that the meeting is about, or who is in it, I have two main options available to me:
- Leave with 15 minutes of the meeting still to go and go and collect my thoughts/actions, or
- Stay and turn 80% of my attention to pulling together my thoughts and actions in the meeting while keeping a lazy ear on what is going on as the meeting grinds to a close.
Either way, the outcome I seek is that before the next thing in my calendar rolls around, I am clear about the outcomes of the meeting I’m in/have just left and my head is ready and focussed for the next thing.
I’ve found that this 15 minutes is incredibly important as it allows me to be certain about my next steps and it helps me to structure what may future work looks like. Once it is all in OmniFocus (with due dates associated) it is just a matter of executing my task list.
The last piece of the puzzle is to schedule project updates for relevant stakeholders. I have a TextExpander snippet that I use to pre-format a project update report that I send out on the schedule I’ve established every X weeks (depending on what the requirement is.) This proactive updating mens that I hardly ever get those status update emails from people that I’m working with on projects.
All of this is possible because I slow down after a meeting finishes and take just 15 minutes to consolidate and plan next steps. Running from meeting without taking the time to consolidate is a sure-fire way to end up frazzled at the end of the day and not know what the next steps are.
Take the 15 minutes. Plan for it. You can thank me later.