Often, we look for time management tools to fit more things into the 24 hours of our day. Sometimes we wonder how some people have time to do so many things.
In the reflection The Jar of Life, posted on YouTube a few years ago, a philosophy professor tells us that the success we have in our life will depend on how we manage our time and explains why.
In the reflection, he uses a jar to explain that the essential things in life (family, health, aspirations) should be placed first, which he represents with golf balls. Then, he fills the jar with stones representing other important things like work, the car, and the house. Afterward, he uses sand to mention the rest of the things that take up our time but are not necessary. He explains that if we first arrange the stones and sand, there will be no space left for the golf balls, but if we place the golf balls first, we will find room for the stones and the sand.
Very wisely, he ends his reflection by telling us that no matter how busy our life may seem, there is always space to spend time with a good friend.
How do we translate this to our busy lives, where our days start and end with meetings?
Often, we treat our days like an orange, squeezing every minute and second out of it. We start overlapping activities when our day is already one hundred percent booked. We make calls while eating, in the car, during our children’s practices, at the supermarket, and other activities.
How many of us have ended a workday after attending meetings all day and thinking our day was unproductive? Sometimes we assess these days and believe an email could resolve some of those meetings. In other cases, we understand that our participation was unnecessary. Sadly, we realize we spent so little time on the important discussions that we could not achieve its goal. When we ask ourselves what we can do to be more productive, we should explore when, how, and why we have meetings.
When do we have our meetings? We should ask ourselves, do we have control over our calendar, or does our calendar control us? Although we should strike a balance between setting limits and being flexible enough to achieve our goals, it is crucial that we feel in control of our calendar. What do I mean by this? Many times, the rest of the universe has control over our days, the week takes shape (or loses it) as people send us invitations, and before we know it, we have lost control of our week and time.
Every person is unique, and we all have different needs, so a “one size fits all” calendar does not exist. That is why I want to share some of the practices that I believe can help you structure your calendar according to your specific needs:
– Personal activities – What activities do you want to incorporate into your calendar? Do you want to exercise, have lunch with a friend, attend a continuing education seminar, visit your parents, or take your child to practice, among other things? Putting these activities in my calendar (even if they are outside of working hours) helps me schedule my work life around the things that are important to me. It’s the process of creating boundaries within the calendar. This doesn’t mean these boundaries are set in stone, and we won’t have to alter them occasionally, but it helps us stay organized.
– Meeting Days & Times – In my experience, and this may work differently for each person, I find it helpful to have spaces or blocks of uninterrupted time to work on my tasks. Similarly, 1-hour gaps between meetings don’t give me that opportunity because when I feel productive and focused, I almost have to enter another meeting. I separate blocks in my calendar to schedule appointments. The sessions are tight during these periods, but I leave 15 minutes between meetings whenever possible. I won’t lie, it’s exhausting, but it’s my way of adjusting my calendar to have those other days of uninterrupted blocks to document, create, and innovate.
The other practice that helps me with schedules is that I try not to schedule meetings on Monday mornings or Fridays after 3 pm. On Monday mornings, people come to organize themselves and attend to their priority lists, and operational areas are usually busy on Monday mornings. Most people are burnt out on Friday afternoons, so meetings tend to be less productive.
– Virtual vs. In-Person Meetings – Let’s be strategic about which meetings should be in-person and which we can have virtually. Here are some of my Rule of Thumb:
- Meetings of 30 minutes or less can typically be remote.
- Critical or issue escalation topics should be in-person.
- Working sessions should preferably be in-person, but if the team is committed, many tools already facilitate these sessions virtually. Currently, I use Miro and have used Conceptboard.
- I’m not too fond of meetings where part of the team is remote and the other half is in-person, as conversations are created in the in-person part that the virtual team loses.
Why do we have meetings? How many of us have experienced appointments dropping into our calendars like meteorites? Nobody notifies us; they keep appearing. In the blink of an eye, our week is fully committed. Sometimes we are called to a meeting, and we don’t know why, and the worst part is that after the session is over, we often realize that our participation was unnecessary. As part of taking control of our calendar, let’s validate the need to participate in the meetings we are called to. It’s not to decline the meeting but to validate if our participation is necessary. Is it something we can delegate? Is it a matter that can be resolved with a 5-minute call? If we need to participate in the meeting, is that hour viable for us? We won’t always be able to accommodate this, but we should always keep our limits in mind and not be afraid to make pushback and ask for other schedule possibilities. In most cases, these schedules can be adjusted.
How do we conduct our meetings?
In addition to when and why we have meetings, we must evaluate how we run them.
Much has been written regarding these logistics, and several methodologies exist. For example, Jeff Bezos, Executive Chairman of Amazon, is known for setting the first part of the meeting aside for participants to read the deck of what will be discussed. Although the method of running meetings may vary from company to company, here are some general points that may be useful:
- Agenda – unless it is a meeting called to inform of a merger, purchase of a company, or some other executive announcement, we must all arrive at meetings knowing what we are there for. We cannot expect productive meetings if people arrive without knowing what will be discussed. I’m not talking about creating a formal document. Often, simple is better; a few bullets in the invitation are enough for people to know why they are being called and be prepared for the meeting. If a document is going to be discussed, we must include it in the invitation and allow people to check it before the meeting. Not everyone analyses information at the same speed.
- Punctuality – This is a factor that I struggle with. Although I always let people know if I’m running a few minutes late or need to reschedule, I still have a lot of room for improvement in this area. We must respect other people’s time. Let’s give notice if we aren’t able to attend a meeting or be late. Let’s not leave people waiting without prior notice. Likewise, let’s respect everyone’s agendas. If we scheduled a one-hour meeting, let’s be aware of the time and end the session on time. If we need to extend the time, let’s ask if everyone is available, and if not, let’s schedule another time when everyone can participate and end the meeting.
- Let’s Listen – Many times in meetings and other work sessions, we do not listen attentively. We “listen” to answer, and sometimes our colleagues haven’t finished expressing their idea, and we are already arguing why it’s not a good idea. In the book “You’re not listening” by Kate Murphy, which I recommend everyone should read, the author tells us: “To listen does not mean, or even imply, that you agree with someone. It simply means you accept the legitimacy of the other person’s point of view and that you might have something to learn from it.” We can learn from every conversation if we have the humility to recognize that the other person has something to contribute. In that case, we will achieve better results, connect better with people, and have more productive meetings.
- Summary of Agreements – I love this tool and use it whenever possible. It has happened to me many, many, many times that when two people “understand” that they agree on a point and the agreement is summarized, one of the people says, “No, that wasn’t it.” Suppose we don’t rephrase the agreements and ensure all participants are clear. In that case, people leave the meeting thinking something different, which later causes problems, including unexpected meetings.
- Meeting Notes – Related to the previous point and trying to have everyone on the same page, sending notes after meetings help reinforce the agreed-upon points, and ensures that each participant understands the agreements and the action items. I firmly believe that, in the workplace, we are all adults, and a meeting minute shouldn’t be needed for someone who has committed to a task to do it. However, experience has shown me that sending agreements after a meeting is valuable and necessary. This also serves as a starting point in subsequent sessions, so those who couldn’t participate know what was agreed upon. And, when we have to go back months and years to revisit agreements, we can refer to the notes. As I mentioned in the section on sending agendas, sometimes we think of minutes as formal and bureaucratic documents, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. While there will be meetings where formality is necessary, an email summarizing the agreements and action items is often more than enough.
- Be Mindful – Much is said about mindfulness, but how do we apply it to our work environment? It’s about being present, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Have you been in meetings where most participants are answering emails or texts? In these meetings, a lot of time is wasted recapitulating and repeating questions because, although people are “there,” they’re not there. Has it happened to you? That someone writes to you from another project, and you want to answer quickly, but you lose track of the meeting you are in. Have you found yourself in a forum but thinking about something that happened in the previous session or will be discussed in the next call? That’s what mindfulness is about – being here and now. It’s about being aware of ourselves and realizing when our mind disconnects from the present moment to think about other things. If we all contribute and focus on what’s being discussed, the meeting will be shorter, and each participant will have more time, which is what we all demand.
It’s about something other than maximizing our calendar to have more meetings or having a one-size-fits-all solution that solves all our time management problems. It’s about taking ownership of the process and understanding that if we lose control of our calendar, we gradually lose control of our lives. Let’s maximize our time to attend to our responsibilities, but at the same time, let’s strive for quality of life and do the activities that are important to us.