No More Meetings

January 20, 2011

I’m a huge fan of the book REWORK by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. It’s the first book I read on a Kindle and it’s the only book I have actually read in its entirety. Anyone who knows me is probably at a loss for words right now because I’ve probably never read anything longer than a blog post."

I’m a huge fan of the book REWORK by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. It’s the first book I read on a Kindle and it’s the only book I have actually read in its entirety. Anyone who knows me is probably at a loss for words right now because I’ve probably never read anything longer than a blog post.

Today I came across a website called boycottmeetingday.com made by guess who?

Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.

This website, and the message it brings got me thinking a lot about some of the recent changes I’ve implemented in my life in order to be more effective. These changes I have made are disruptive (the good kind, like a disruptive technology) to some, and not well received by others. I thought I would break-down some of the changes that I have made and talk about the direct impact it has had on my life.

Avoid Meetings

The first change that I made was to avoid meetings. What? Avoid meetings? Isn’t it your job to go to meetings? – No. Far from it. My job it to build great software for a great company. A company that I care for dearly and that I’ve spent 10 years of my life with. While not all meetings can be avoided, most can. I’ll break down some of the quotes about meetings from REWORK and that you see on the “NO MORE MEETINGS” website.

Meetings break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow.

This is true and I believe that it is hard for most non-software/tech people to understand. Speaking from a software developer perspective, programming requires momentum; lots of it. It’s different than data entry, sending an email, writing an executive summary, or doing some other daily tedious procedure. It’s brain racking at times. We spend roughly 90% of our day debugging problems that sometimes we don’t understand. Each and every day is educational. We spend time on Google, StackOverflow, and other developer sites seeking answers to problems we have not been able to solve. Most people will never experience the strain involved in debugging a production application that is completely down for no explainable reason. Phones ringing, emails blasting, and people walking into your cubicle/office all demanding answers.

In order to debug you need momentum. In order to build new software, or add new features, or to fix non-important bugs, you also need momentum. There is nothing more derailing to momentum than the outlook meeting reminder. I wrote about this almost a year ago today and it still holds true for me. When your are in the middle of writing code, it could be an algorithm, some bug you just squashed, a brand new application, etc. there is no meeting important enough to pull you away from that. It is difficult to build momentum and once you have it you should do whatever you can not to lose it. When your day is broken up into small chunks of coding time, your chances of building serious momentum are slim.

The result of these distractions, or momentum killers, is the feeling of not being productive. In my case, I would make up for that feeling by going home and working after hours, distraction free. For the last five years up until about a month ago, I would work on average 60 hours per week. Sometimes more (70, even 80), rarely less.

Meetings are usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design)

This is also true. Every once and a while I’ll be invited to a meeting where we actually solve a problem by throwing a piece of code on screen and having some smart brains look at it, break it down, and fix it. Most of the meetings I go to involve defining a problem. We almost never leave a meeting with a solution to that problem implemented. In fact, a typical result of such a meeting is to set up more meetings. That’s not effective.

Meetings usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.

And if you factor in how late people are (I’m guilty of being late too) to the meetings and the small talk that goes on before and during the meetings, that information per minute is drastically reduced.

Meetings often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.

Ah, this one is risky to talk about. If I agree, then I’ve called someone I work with a moron. I’ll put it this way… I’ve been in a lot of meetings where time was wasted. I’m guilty of wasting time in meetings…

Meetings frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about.

This is common. What is more common is a meeting with no agenda. One of the changes that I have implemented is to ask for an agenda from the person inviting me to the meeting. I explain that I’m tied up with a lot of work and I’d like to prepare for the meeting to ensure that I can be effective in the meeting. Nothing but brutal honesty here. I am busy. So is everyone else. I like to be transparent about it too. In fact, my priority list is public and anyone at our company can see what I’m working on. The result of asking for an agenda can lead to answering questions or solving the problem right then and there and thus avoiding the meeting all together. This idea comes from The 4-hour work week by Timothy Ferriss. I must admit that I completely failed at my first pass at this. I just asked for an agenda and did not explain that I was busy on a high-pressure project. The result was a series of back-and-forth emails and a meeting that still took place. Since then I’ve learned to be more transparent. Most people don’t really care what you are working on but are generally understanding if your under a time crunch.

Meetings require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway.

This goes back to meetings without an agenda. If you invite a room full of people with a vague meeting topic, how can anyone prepare?

Kill the noise

Once I cleared my calendar of meetings then my next step was to remove my other distractions that keep me from being effective at programming. Email…

In my opinion, 95% of the email I get is spam. What is spam? Anything that doesn’t directly impact your current list of priorities, or your employment. I’m talking mostly about PSA’s here. Like I said before, nothing kills momentum more than seeing an email about refrigerator cleaning pop-up in the middle of the giant database delete statement that you just wrote and are about to execute. This is a hard one to figure out. Is this message important? Sure it is. To the company. We humans are sloppy and messy and always have to be reminded to do things. Even though I’m not associated with that refrigerator I can’t expect the company to send that email out to everyone but me because I think it is a distraction. I mean what is the company going to do, keep a “do not email about the refrigerator” list? That’s not reasonable to expect so you have to filter it.

I’ve created about 40 or so filters to keep my inbox free of distraction. When a corporate-wide email goes asking everyone not to print to a specific printer, I don’t see it. I was worried about this at first. I thought I might miss something important. I eased myself into this at first by moving these emails flagged as distractions to a folder. I would then review that folder at the end of the day until I was confident that my email filters were working.

This is my own implementation of the Gmail priority inbox. If you are not using this yet, then go get it. I hear that we are moving to the Google app engine which means I’ll get the priority inbox on my work email. Why does that matter? Because not only will my filters take care of the distractions, but gmail will make sure that I read the most important email first.

The second thing I implemented to help make myself more effective is to reduce the checking of email to twice daily. This was extremely difficult to do. I let my email consume me. I was checking email several times an hour, all day and night. In my car to and from work, in meetings, at the park with my kids. Whenever I heard that ding I was instantly consumed. What I thought I was doing was being ultra responsive to our clients and to my fellow co-workers. I later realized that what I was doing didn’t really have anything to do with being responsive and was having a damaging effect on my wife and kids.

Part of our mission statement talks about responsiveness. I made the mistake of thinking that being responsive meant responding to email as fast as possible. I realize now that responsiveness has nothing to do with how fast you respond to someone. To be responsive you need to focus on the needs of the person or company you work with. You need to understand how to fulfill those needs and follow-up. I can’t believe I got this wrong for so long. Is it better to respond to every email as fast as possible, sometimes shooting from the hip, or is it better to read the email within a reasonable timeframe, solve or attempt to solve the problem, then respond?

Shooting from the hip pisses people off. So to me the answer is simple. It is better to send a single email in response to something, than it is to send several emails, as long as that email response is within a reasonable timeframe (24 hours or less for most cases). Most people would prefer a response that said “I solved the problem, here is what was wrong, here is how I fixed it”, than responses that said “I’m not sure what the problem is but I’ll take a look”, “I still have not had a chance to look at the problem”, “Ok, I’m looking at the problem now”, and so on.

I struggled with how to reduce the checking of email to twice daily without telling anyone. I created this status quo that gave everyone the expectation that if they sent me an email I would respond almost instantly. Some people may have loved that “feature” but the cost of that “feature” was me being less effective for the company and working more hours than I should.

The solution was an auto-responder. I wanted to be as transparent, open, and honest with everyone about this. The email auto response is simple. It tells the email sender that due to a high workload (completely true, my priority list is impossible at the moment) I’m checking email twice daily, the times when I check and respond to email, how to contact me via phone for urgent issues, and I gave out my personal cell phone (not company paid) for emergencies. I can’t think of a better way to communicate to email senders that I will be responsive to them at these times and they can reach me instantly with a phone call if they have an emergency.

I’ve been getting great feedback on this. Some people have inquired where I came up with this idea. I encourage them to read the books above. One thing that I would love to improve is to automate the automated email. What I mean is that I’d like to be able to send that auto response to the email sender once per day. So if someone sends me an email 10 times in a day, they will only get the auto response from me once.

I realize that not everyone can have an email auto responder or can reduce email to twice daily checks. Some people have jobs that require them to sit in their inbox all day. I suggest reading about Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done as ways to reclaim your inbox and be more effective with email processing. I’ve implement both with success.

Focus in thirds

Another change that I implemented was how I approach my work day. We have these things called priority lists. I joke about them a lot because they are a moving target. You might come in to find project XZY your top priority, only to see that shift down to your seventh priority two hours later. The reality is that we can’t work like that and be effective. You can’t work on 30+ hour projects that move around like a stock ticker.

Each morning when I get to work I take a look at my current priorities. For that day I might be working on one single project all day, or several smaller projects. Whatever the case I take a legal size piece of paper and fold it into thirds. At the top of each third I write down an obtainable goal. This helps with my focus and keeps me on track. Whenever a distraction slips through and kills momentum, I go back to this list and it seems to help me get back on track quickly. An example of a list I created the other morning is as follows: 1) Create HTML helper to render custom sparklines (see my last blog post for info on Sparklines). 2) Write two performance queries and hook them up to drive the Sparkline views. 3) Setup a webserver and deploy the new performance application.

The most important thing about each item you list is that they have to be obtainable goals for that day. If you make them to high a level, you wont complete it.

Social cleanse

In the book, The 4-hour work week, the author talks about a media cleanse. No TV, News, etc for one week. I did the same thing substituting Facebook, Twitter, and Google news as my media. I removed all social and media apps from my iPhone with the exception of Path. I use Path to capture moments (such as taking my kids to the park) and share them with my wife in a more private setting.

This cleanse was only supposed to last for a week. It’s been a month… I do occasionally check Facebook and Twitter but those apps only exist on my iPad and I only use them when in bed trying to wind down from the day.

Just to be clear, I don’t think I was wasting time on Twitter or Facebook. In fact, if it weren’t for Twitter, I would have never learned about MVC (or would have discovered it much later). Some of the best work I’ve done recently has been in MVC. In fact, we won an award last year for an app that we built who’s core communication technology I heard about through tweets linking to Microsoft blog posts (WCF). What was I dong wrong then? Making Twitter and Facebook a focal point of some part of my day where I could have been more effective doing something else. For example, rather than sit in a meeting and small talk or read tweets on my iPhone, if the meeting is over or if I can no longer contribute, I’ll leave and get back to coding. That is much more effective use of time.

Update

A friend of mine said that he checked my Tweet stats and they supported what I wrote here in this blog post. Take a look:

Results

The results are amazing to me. I’ve been doing this for about a month and can’t believe how much more effective I am in all aspects of my life.

Work – Instead of working 12-14 hour days I’m working eight hour days. Within those eight hour days I’m getting more things done than I was when I was killing myself working longer days. This makes me much more effective for the company and it makes me a much happier person. I walk and talk differently. My head is clear and I see things more clearly. In fact, a peer told me the other day that they have seen a change in me for the better. That I was more pleasant to be around.

Home – More important than the impact this has had on work is the impact this has had on my family. My wife told me that I’m a changed man. My mother told me that she could see less tension in my face. My kids now say “I want my daddy” instead of “I want my mommy”. I’ve connected with my kids more within the last month than ever before. When I leave work, its gone. I don’t bring it home anymore. When I take my kids to the park, I focus on them and not my work email, or Facebook, or Twitter. I have more time to focus on school and my side projects after hours. I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders.

Life is good.