82

The problem: I cannot work normally when I know I will be interrupted any minute.

Example:

  • My manager say we have a team meeting (all 12 members) with the big boss in 14:30.
  • In 14:27 I am already in a standby mode and cannot continue working normally, because I expect to be called any minute.
  • It's 14:35 nothing happens, everyone keeps on working. I text them in our skype chat "Aren't we supposed to go to the meeting already?", The response is "Why are you in a hurry? They will call us soon."
  • It's 14:50 - nothing happens.
  • 15:30 - we are finally called to the big meeting!
  • We sit in the conference room and another coworker (Tom) comes in and say "we need to talk about something important". Our meeting is called off and we return to our desks.
  • The meeting with Tom is over after 5 mins. Again we are on a standby to start our meeting.
  • 16:50 - nothing happens. Our managers do not inform us what is going on, are we having a meeting soon or not.

This is just one example. I was in situations like this many times and still can't cope with it and continue my work stress-free. The pressure of being called just now is distracting me from thinking about my tasks. Sometimes is 5 min wasted, but sometimes it can be an hour.

Measures taken by now: I talked with my managers, they don't get me seriously and say "Don't think about it, just continue working." They are not willing to change this process, while the only thing I want is to be informed what's going on (Do I have to wait 5 mins or 1 hour for example)

Question: Since nothing can be done from their side, I want to ask what can I do from my side to cope with this problem. How to continue working normally and not waste time waiting? Are there any tricks to concentrate and ignore this standby situation?

Update: This meeting was about our team performance and our salary raises depending on that. I couldn't stay carefree as I kept repeating in my mind what I would say about my projects.

RESOLUTION: The meeting did not take place on Friday (the day it was scheduled). In addition, my manager wrote in a chat that he joked about the topic and was not about "Performance Review". He apologized for joking about it (I suspect he saw my question here) and I replied that they should take these things more seriously. He later wrote "Let's go and see the boss. Now." We went and talked for 2 hours about how the reviews would be made from here on out and that this time everyone would receive an equal pay increase. Also, I planned my mini-tasks and now I feel better about waiting.

P.S. The location is Bulgaria, but I don't think this is common problem for companies here.

  • 15
    What country is this in? This sounds like a cultural difference. – Kevin Sep 29 at 2:02
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    At risk of disputing your claims about yourself: you can work normally when you know that you could be interrupted at any minute. You always could be interrupted at any minute, since someone might ask you a question or the fire alarm could go off. So, identify what in yourself is different about a pending meeting, where (unless it's cancelled) you will be interrupted, as distinct from could be interrupted. Think from there. Are you sure you can't just work, knowing that if/when you're interrupted, you will find a way to pick up again later? – Steve Jessop Sep 29 at 17:55
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    Another relevant reference to help convince your managers: paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html – Evan Benn Sep 30 at 5:10
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    @EvanBenn : I was thinking about this as well. Those managers need to read this entry, at all costs(far more than poor Nyagolova) – gazzz0x2z Sep 30 at 14:29
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    Don't leave us hanging, did you have the meeting at the end or not? – s.alem Sep 30 at 15:07

11 Answers 11

73

I'm assuming that advising you "just go on working" won't have much effect. The best compromise might be to try and find short, low-attention jobs that you can do around meeting time so you can instantly break off when you're called to the meeting and it won't matter if your mind isn't totally on the job.

These might be mundane administrative or housekeeping tasks (anything from cleaning your desk to sorting your email inbox or deleting unused files and documents), or other one-off tasks (conducting online research, interactions with nearby people, putting things in nearby places). If you can't easily think of these jobs, you could make a to-do list of such tasks in whatever format is quickest and easiest to access, and either tick them off as you do them, or if you don't have time after each task, revisit it in an idle moment and update the to-do list.

An alternative would be just to slack off around meeting time and search the web or play with your phone or chat with neighbors till you're called. If you're not going to get any work done, you may as well not try.

  • 46
    One additional suggestion: if what the OP is concerned about is what he's going to say in the meeting about his projects, spend some time writing and organizing a summary of his projects. If it's down on a piece of paper, ready to go, that may open up some mental space for working on other things. Ideally boiled down to a short set of notes so he's not reading from it, just using it as a reminder as he talks. – DaveG Sep 27 at 15:46
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    I once had a boss who was habitually late to meetings he had organized, and this is what I would do too (it was somewhat of a programming role so I couldn't exactly "work normally" for an unknown, possibly brief period of time whether I had wanted to or not). Basically cleaned my desk, tidied my work area, organize my files, empty Downloads folders, etc. – Alex M Sep 27 at 22:41
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    @DaveG Seems like a good answer, why don’t you post it as such? I’d like to upvote it. – 11684 Sep 28 at 9:57
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    @DaveG Don't think it's a he sir – Sombrero Chicken Sep 29 at 12:56
49

Don't pay attention on all this meetings times at all. Since even management is so unprofessional, that they don't care, why should you?

Concentrate on your stuff and only when meeting actually comes, you come in.

  • 18
    +1, this. What OP did was professional. What they did was unprofessional. There's no professional way to deal with people who behave unprofessionally, by definition, other than either not giving a flying -d-uck, or switching to another workplace. If a meeting (...) about our team performance and our salary raises is treated like that, it's basically like the top brass is saying "we don't give a flying -d-uck about your salaries, your time, your well-being or you at all" - either you allow it for some reason and ignore it completely - or you don't, and look for other place to work. – vaxquis Sep 28 at 16:19
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    @AndrewMorton I think that waiting for 2.5h for a scheduled meeting that was cancelled without being notified what is happening (or at least being notified that it is unknown what is happening) warrants an emotional response; IMVHO OP has every right to be upset. What surprises me is people telling her "nothing happened" or "it's not something that you should be bothered with" or "you should learn to cope with it". – vaxquis Sep 28 at 22:53
15

... what can I do from my side to cope with this problem. How [can I] continue working normally?

As your manager said, "Don't think about it, just continue working."

Are there any tricks to concentrate and ignore this standby situation?

Yes.

  1. Know by experience that this type of meeting is fluid, rather than in stone.
  2. Know that it has nothing to do with you.
  3. Make notes (questions/comments/suggestions) in your phone.
  4. You don't have to worry about forgetting them, because... #3
  5. There is no pressure because nothing you say (no question or comment) will change the outcome, because...
  6. The outcome is already decided. The big boss is just announcing it.

Nothing from you should indicate that "the big boss" is wasting your time.
Those are what I'd call "career limiting".

You've already mentioned this to your boss, which is fine.
But, don't mention it to your boss again - once is more than enough, since they're already aware.


One more piece of advice: If the big boss asks for questions/comments/suggestions, limit yourself to either zero or one. Especially zero (see #6 above).

14

In general: Write your thoughts and questions down.

(With respect to the upcoming meeting topic, of course.)

  • What are your ideas?
  • What problems and potential pitfalls do you see?
  • What questions could be properly addressed to you?
  • What questions do you anticipate (addressed to you others) that you could answer???
  • Depending on your role, is there a quick visual (diagram, design, other other imagery) you could sketch up quickly to contribute?

In this particular case, you "kept repeating in [your] mind what [you] would say about [your] projects." So, start by writing down what you're mind already has on repeat. Do this quickly, and make a second pass to flesh out details or prepare for questions you might be asked.

Etc.

This is a really good habit to get into, in my opinion, regardless of whether you have meeting anxiety (or ... we'll just say, flexible meeting start times). One of two things will happen, and often both in my experience:

  • You'll be well-prepared for the meeting. You'll look and sound professional and confident. And, you'll impress the heck out of everyone.
  • Your anxiety will fade, and you might actually find that after a few minutes of note-taking, your mind has stopped racing and can focus on your assigned work again.

This sort of thing really helped me personally. And at this point, if I know I've got a meeting coming up and I'm already well-versed in the topic — there's not much anxiety. If it's a new topic, I'm likely to take my mind out of that endless thought-cycle by writing my thoughts and questions down 15 to 30 minutes ahead of time. And then I feel OK.

9

It may or may not be applicable in this particular case, but I've found it a lot less stressful to work for an indeterminate time if I know I'll be able to take a minute or so to ‘park’ the work before going off to something else.

Especially if it's a task that involves a lot of thought, or juggling a lot of mental state, knowing I can spend a minute ‘dumping’ that to a piece of paper or text file lets me be much more productive and relaxed.

Of course, that's not always possible.  But in my experience, if a meeting is at an indeterminate time or has been delayed, people are generally more tolerant and don't expect you to drop everything instantly.

(Conversely, one of the most frustrating jobs I had was one where interruptions averaged every 10 minutes, and people expected me to drop everything and instantly be not only listening to them, but also remembering exactly what they were talking about…  This cartoon explains better than I can just how frustrating that can be!)

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    You get an upvote just for the cartoon reference! – stolenmoment Sep 28 at 15:32
5

The meeting is delayed? Just don’t work then.

Look, you are en employee for a company. While interacting with co-workers requires human interaction, I have news for you…

These are not really “human” interactions. These are business interactions.

In your case, your business task is to do work at your workstation until you have to do something else. Like be in a meeting.

If your boss tells you a meeting is happening at 14:30, then guess what? Stop working. Regardless of what is happening, just stop working.

The deal is you are not responsible for scheduling and delays; they are.

If you are being told to be ready for a meeting at a specific time, just stop what you are doing and that’s it.

Believe it or not, waiting for meetings is a part of the job as well. So just don’t worry about it.

  • 6
    I would also add to keep track of how long the meeting with delays actually takes, so that if there are any delays in deliverables, you can point to concrete reasons why they were delayed. i.e. "I planned a 40 hour workweek of 35 hours coding and 5 hours of administrative/meeting time. Due to unexpected delays, we ended up having 10 hours of meeting time, so deliverables were pushed off to the next workday" – Salmononius2 Sep 29 at 14:45
5

Most of the other answers doesn't take into account the update OP gave in their post, so I thought I'd throw in my 5c:

The problem: I cannot work normally when I know I will be interrupted any minute. How to continue working normally? Are there any tricks to concentrate and ignore this situation?

That problem is unsolvable. You are a human being. By definition, if you are aware that you can be interrupted with high-priority stuff any minute, you won't be able to work normally. Being aware of a possible interruption raises your adrenaline and/or vasopressin levels, depending on the exact setting.

You will be able to work normally as soon as you forget about the possible interruption, by doing something intellectually or emotionally engaging - but you will still be extremely annoyed by it when the interruption finally happens, and won't be able to work normally for some time after that, due to a sudden drop in adrenaline and vasopressin but also highly evelated cortisol level.

As long as you're a sentient human being and are not using hospital-grade drugs blocking the secretion and/or uptake/reuptake of hormones, there is no real trick here. You're being put in a stressful situation, and you're showing a normal reaction to stress.

This is actually a sign of both mental health and emotional sensitivity. If you really want, you can try to fight with it. I, personally, wouldn't. No job is worth getting numb and empty inside, IMVHO.

How to (...) not waste time waiting?

How to be productive while waiting for meetings to start?

This meeting was about our team performance and our salary raises depending on that. I couldn't stay careless as I kept repeating in my mind what I would say about my projects.

If you really want/need to be productive then, do things that are extremely low-priority and don't require any intellectual or emotional immersion (like mentioned by other people). I would look at other people in my team do, though - if they are slacking off while waiting, I'd also find e.g. a good online game to play or a nice video stream to watch :)

The real problem lies elsewhere, I think.

I talked with my managers, they don't get me seriously and say "Don't think about it, just continue working". They are not willing to change this process, while the only thing I want is to be informed what's going on (Do I have to wait 5 mins or 1 hour for example)

What you did was professional. What they did was unprofessional. There's no professional way to deal with people who behave unprofessionally, by definition, other than either not giving a flying duck, or switching to another workplace. If a meeting (...) about our team performance and our salary raises is treated like that, it's basically like the top brass is saying "we don't give a flying duck about your salaries, your time, your well-being or you at all" in your face - either you allow it for some reason and ignore it completely - or you don't, and look for other place to work.

Being treated like that should light a red light saying STOP in your head.


Also, concerning something I read in one comment here:

Do you plan to work longer at such a company, or is that a way to get fired?

Actually, that's a good point - if you want to continue work in a place when you will be treated like garbage, for any reason (e.g. a very urgent need for money, not being able to switch etc.) raising any concerns is not a good idea.

A meeting with your bosses boss is not when it's "time", it's when the bosses boss has time.

chuckle Nope. A meeting with my bosses boss is when we both have time. I'm not a slave - I'm a valued specialist in a highly competitive market. If my bosses' boss would treat me like OP was treated repeatedly, he would get my notice, as simple as that - and I would essentially expect the same from him. I'm not doing him a favour by working for him, and he's not doing any particular favour for me. We're exchanging my work for his money, and I don't recall anything about "slavery" or "obligatory loss of self-respect" in any contract I had signed :) If he wants me to wait - so be it, I'm still getting paid. If, however, he do[es]n't get me seriously when the subject is our team performance and our salary raises depending on that, then it's high time to update my CV again and browse some nice brand new job offers :)

3

Just filter out the time from the message.

In fact you might as well filter out the complete message, since in your workplace "we have a meeting at 14:30" seems to mean "we may or may not have a meeting sometime today/this week/next year."

When you do finally get called to the meeting, don't feel bad about taking as long as you need to "close down" what you are doing to a state you can recover from.

If the meeting organizer complains that you are "late" for a meeting which actually started an hour late, simply reply "sorry, but your inability to organize your work schedule is not my problem."

Final piece of advice: never set an alarm to remind you about things that might not happen on time.

  • 14
    If your bosses boss complained about being late, you would really say that? Do you plan to work longer at such a company, or is that a way to get fired? A meeting with your bosses boss is not when it's "time", it's when the bosses boss has time. And it's up to the underling to make time. Maybe at the expense of a full day of work if that's the state the company is in, but I don't think telling your bosses boss "well, that's your problem" is a solution to any problem. – nvoigt Sep 28 at 13:38
3

If I was told there was a meeting about to start shortly, then I would probably do some small tasks until the time the meeting is supposed to start. If there is still no meeting going on, then I would continue with small tasks until ten minutes pass by. Once it is ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin, I would probably start working on major task items until I am preempted by the team lead, manager, co-worker, etc. that the meeting is actually about to begin.

1

Productive, that's possible! Just find an activity with the following property:

  • leaves you in a state of mind very conducive to meetings right after

Some options:

  • read a novel
  • meditate
  • do a Sudoku
  • doodle
  • eat a light sandwich

And that's it.

I'm afraid work productivity is not a true possibility, because your manager is explicitly wasting your time. That doesn't mean you can't do something productive for you as a human being, but it will at best have second-order positive effects on your work performance.

More office-styled alternatives are perhaps:

  • read lore related to your work, e.g. history of a technology
  • play with the product you're making
  • urinate
  • organize documents
  • sleep under your desk

Good luck!

1

The Pomodoro Technique

Might be a practical way to deal with this, at least a modified version.

Perhaps slightly before meetings are scheduled, break up whatever you're working on into very small very achievable mini-goals and give yourself 15 mins to work on each one with a 5 minute break in between to check again if the meeting is really happening.

That means you should be able to get 3 of these done per hour, and get some stuff done even if the meeting is delayed for a really long time, like over an hour as in your example. It also means that you're either working or asking whether the meeting is happening, not both simultaneously, which should help you to actually concentrate during the pomodoros (pomodori?).

Tell yourself that a pomodoro is either going to be done, or not done. Simple. If you get summoned in the middle of one, think of it as 'burned', and then after the meeting have one final pomodoro where you start the interrupted one over from scratch. Maybe literally, as in you delete the work you did in the previous one and start over, if picking up the thread where you left off would take more effort. This means that at most, 15 minutes of your work and concentration will be wasted by this, which might be a little less frustrating.

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    +0: while Pomodoro may be a great solution in many situations, it's really disruptive vs intellectually or emotionally engaging jobs, e.g. engineering or design (as is, if I understand correctly, in OP's case). Pomodoro makes it impossible to enter the zone, and productivity suffers tremendously in things that require serious immersion. – vaxquis Sep 30 at 13:23
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    Couldn't agree with you more. This assumes getting into the zone being completely out of the question anyway because of the situation, and I'm only suggesting using it around the time of these meetings. As it's really hard to be motivated to work on anything substantial when the threat of interruption is imminent, focusing on smaller isolated chunks one at a time might be a good way to get at least something done. – davnicwil Sep 30 at 13:48

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