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So here's the deal and I 'm sure many can relate because I've had people say "yep, that's me too.". I will have a single meeting or string of meetings chained together that span say 2-3 hours with no break in between. Now I'm all about taking a bathroom break and getting a drink, but it seems like transitioning to 'heads-down' work after being actively involved in phone meetings for 2,3,4+ hours and I end up taking 30+ minutes often to 'get back in the mode'.

For example, I'll hang up then here is what I might end up doing:

  1. Go to the bathroom
  2. Clean my coffee cup and get a drink
  3. Stop by someones desk and say hello
  4. Check my personal email on my phone or news story (and related links) because I'm still burnt out from meetings
  5. Check StackOverflow...
  6. Take a quick walk around the building to stretch my legs because I was sitting too long
  7. Check my work email (ok this is not what I consider 'productive' work)

Guess what? 30 minutes gone!

It's like that feeling after running a race and needing a break so part of this is natural. However nowadays the multiple and long meetings are a part of my life and time is precious. It seems difficult for me to 'transition' back into heads down productive work after a string of long and actively involved meetings.

How do I break this cycle and reduce the time between concluding long meetings and reinstating heads-down productive work?

Thanks!

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Do these meetings not tend to produce action items for you to attend to personally? –  Carson63000 Feb 25 '13 at 20:06
    
Sure there might be action items as a byproduct, but I might have a timetable of a week to accomplish it, why? Not sure how that directly relates to my question. –  atconway Feb 25 '13 at 20:10
    
Belongs on productivity? –  Adam V Feb 25 '13 at 20:46
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@atconway: I was just going to suggest that if you do have action items, even if they don't need to be done immediately, it might be easier to get back into the swing of productive work if the first thing you swing into is one of those action items. Might save you from having to move your mental space too far in order to get from meeting to work. –  Carson63000 Feb 25 '13 at 22:10
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30 minutes blown after a string of meetings is not that long, how much time can you expect to shave that down to? 10-15 minutes? I think the real problem here is consecutive meetings amounting to half the day or more. Unfortunately that is a much more difficult thing do deal with-- work is not done at meetings. –  Angelo Feb 26 '13 at 14:43

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In my experience, you cannot. The mode of thinking that requires interacting with people and/or feigning attention needs to be moved into the working frame of mind, that for most jobs does not involve interacting with people in the same way.

Assuming you cannot limit the number of meetings, I try to adjust my schedule to deal with them:

  • Lump the meetings together if you can so there are fewer "boundaries" of lost time between meetings and work.
  • Arrange your schedule so that meetings end right before lunch or leaving for the day. If you're not going to do work, then you're not missing out.
  • Do frivilous work in that dead-period. Timesheets, emails, company training... stuff that isn't quite work, but needs to be done regardless so it doesn't eat away from 'real' work at inopportune times.
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I like point #3 here, that's the kind of material I'm looking for here. –  atconway Feb 25 '13 at 21:21
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If I have more than 3 hours of meetings in a day I just assume that day will get zero work done toward whatever project is being done. Like @Telastyn I will do a bunch of administrative busywork, or clean up my desk, or something equally useful but boring as dirt. It's better than the meetings after all... If there is a deadline or something else of importance, I will use that as an excuse to not attend the meeting (and in general, if a meeting is boring, should it really be taking place? if it needs to happen, do I need to be there?) –  jmac Feb 25 '13 at 23:16

I admit, I'm as much a victim of this as anyone, and it's something I still work on... probably a big reason I'm on The Workplace, is needing a break between meetings and solo work.

But here's somethings that I find facilitate the process:

  • Book around Lunch - if I can use lunch as that natural transition break between meetings and regular work, then I can absorb the mental shift by the natural break of eating.

  • Work the AIs (Action Items) immediately - Make it a default plan to start with any of the easy AIs - particularly good are the ones that involve kicking off a mail and waiting for a response, or another low-mental-overhead activity - like filling out a peice of paperwork. Although they may not be due immediately, they are part of where your brain is currently thinking, so they make a nice segway.

  • Have a list - in or before the meeting, have a list of what you most need to do when you have non-meeting time. For me, the "oh! I need to do that!!" bubbles up during the meeting and I write it at the top or in the margins. Walking back to my desk, I review the list and pick the thing I need to work on and start "uploading" it - thinking about what's up and what I need to do to get it done.

2-3 meetings back to back can be quite the context switch, and you may simply have context switch whiplash, which I'm not sure is 100% fixable. I do find however, that I do better when I focus on ramping up into something interesting (work I want to get done).

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This was very helpful too thank you for the feedback. Context Switch Whiplash is a great phrase and can be debilitating sometimes. –  atconway Feb 27 '13 at 20:34
    
What is 'AIs' ? –  Bjarke Freund-Hansen Mar 5 at 8:29
    
Sorry! AIs = Action Items –  bethlakshmi Mar 7 at 22:15
    
You are probably fortunate to work in a company where meetings are actually expected to have Action Items. I personally am used to meetings called for little other reason than somebody important had something they wanted to say, and couldn't be bothered or didn't think it was "appropriate" to summarize it in an email. –  Aaronaught Jul 30 at 21:53
    
The key to having a culture that generates Action Items is to start the trend and don't wait for it happen. If this meeting is allowed to waste my time, then I am allowed to finish the meeting asking "what did we accomplish? what do you need from me to move forward? when do you need it?" If the answer is "we accomplished nothing, we have no actions for you" then my answer is - great, keep me informed by email and I'll skip the next meeting. It's my time that was wasted, and I have to take responsiblity for it. –  bethlakshmi Aug 12 at 16:31

Try not to beat yourself up too much over this. Meetings should be kept short and to the point for this very reason, but are the most abused time-suck in the corporate world.

I try to triage my workload based on the level of concentration and creativity involved, how much time is required releative to when it is due. If I know the meetings are just too draining, plan on getting some of the easy tasks out of the way: catch up on email, return phone calls, etc.

When possible, block off uninterupted time for the more complex tasks. Any interuption can set you back anywhere from 15-30 minutes. There's pretty good research to support this.

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is it possible to reference the research that supports this? I would like to use it. –  motionpotion Jul 30 at 21:10
    
@motionpotion - I think there are additional links to original study in this article: blog.ninlabs.com/2013/01/programmer-interrupted –  JeffO Aug 7 at 18:39

I've sort of solved this problem for myself.

In the last few places that I worked there was some sort of a quiet room that is usually dark and empty. I've noticed that some muslim coworkers have been using it as a prayer room, and I'm not sure whether it was intended for that or a perhaps it is medical room, but suffice to say that I've been able to find a place like that in all of the large companies I've worked for recently.

I've been visiting that room and spending some time meditating there. Now I haven't been big on meditation thing until I actually tried it, and for me personally it's not a spiritual matter but more of a concentration and 'mental reset' exercise. Perhaps even just sitting alone in silence for a bit where nobody bothers you may be sufficient.

Whenever I feel spent or in a state of mind where I can't focus on any one thing and end up wasting my time on unproductive tasks (happens frequently after long meetings), I take 5-10 min for some of that time alone in the dark. Afterwards I end up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle whatever problem needs tackling.

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The best way I've found is to keep your to-do list (you do have a regularly updated to-do list, right?) in a very visible place. I personally use Toodledo to manage my tasks, and I keep that as my home page. This way, whenever I have an urge to open a web browser, the first thing I see is my list of action items. With a written to-do list, which I often use to take down small items, I simply keep it in front of me during the day, right next to my keyboard. This isn't foolproof (I'm here, aren't I?), but it has definitely helped me out a lot.

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The problem isn't so much knowing what I need to do, it's more about getting back to what I need to do. –  atconway Feb 25 '13 at 21:22
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The problem you're describing is one of attention switching. For me, simply seeing the list helps me focus back on the next task at hand. In the end, of course it all comes down to motivation. For me, simply seeing the next action item in front of me serves as a motivator; I'm sharing that in case that works for you as well. –  eykanal Feb 25 '13 at 21:25
    
This and @Telastyn's answer are exactly what I try to do. –  enderland Feb 25 '13 at 21:33

Institute within a team/project/group/division/company blocks of quiet-time. Unfortunately for us all, meetings are necessary, but we can minimize their impact to our day by setting aside and respecting blocks of no meeting times. Eliminate afternoon meetings (pretty drastic I know). One, two or three no-meeting days a week. Just imagine how much you could get done.

  • Multitasking is a myth. Individuals cannot perform multiple activities that require serious and/or significant thought. We are serial by nature.
  • Before you can contribute to an existing body of work you must first immerse yourself in that body of work.
  • The act of immersing yourself in a body of work requires a period of uninterrupted time from a few seconds to multiple tens of minutes. The more complex the problem the longer it takes.
  • Engineering (I work for an engineering Firm) by its nature is complex (I am guessing everyone elses work is too)
  • A seemingly short interruption may cause a team member to lose a significant amount of time (possibly 30min or more)
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