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I'm concerned about my team's ability to find and protect their time for deep thinking/working. Much of what they are being asked to produce requires deep thinking, research, and writing time. Things that can't be done in 15 minutes.

One thing they brought up to me was that the number of meetings on their calendar was out of control and this was impacting their ability to carve out time to think and get their work done.

So I looked at everyone's calendar. At a minimum, I see that most of us on the team have 2 hours of meetings daily, with some days being closer to 6 hours. Update - the meetings aren't in a single block of time, they are scattered throughout the day.

So I did some math and made some assumptions (yes, I need eyes and brains to check me on it):

  • If we assume between 10-30 minutes of prep time happens before a meeting (or just not doing highly focused work because you know you can’t get into anything heavy)

  • If we assume 30 minutes post-meeting to reorient yourself (using the data point that it takes 23 minutes to get refocused after every interruption and rounding that to 30 minutes)

That means that even with just 2 hours of meetings a day, 50% of our 8-hour day is spent in, prepping for, or reorienting ourselves after a meeting.

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Not going to lie, I didn’t expect that. I felt it, I kinda knew it, but I didn’t trust the math in my brain.

Is this an accurate and defensible way to calculate the impact of having X hours of meetings a day on an individual's "deep thinking" time available?


For simplicity, assume that this math is for folks who are individual contributors, not people managers. Being a people manager throws a curveball into the math because of the time expected to help/coach/guide direct reports.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Nov 7, 2022 at 9:25

7 Answers 7

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Yes, that seems to be about right.

This phenomenon isn't new or specific to knowledge workers either. The industry uses the terms "setup time" or "tooling time" to describe the process to set up a process in a factory to produce something else.

As an example:

If you produce spoons, you can produce 1 spoon a minute. If you produce forks, you can produce 1 fork a minute. Retooling the factory to produce one instead of the other takes 30 minutes.

So obviously, if you want to produce forks and spoons, you optimize tooling time to happen once during lunch break, so from 8-12 it's forks only in rapid succession and from 12:30 to 16:30 it's spoons. Producing one fork, then retooling, then one spoon, then retooling, then a fork again is madness.

The industry has known this for... ages. It's obvious.

If you want to optimize your knowledge workers, optimize retooling time. If there are meetings, don't have three over the course of the day and then another two tomorrow. Have them all at one day. Or have them all in a block in the morning. Just don't sprinkle them over the course of the day, that is equivalent to producing one spoon, one fork, one spoon, one fork...

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    It can also help to combine meetings. If people have five meetings in a row in slightly different groups, how about combining those into one? Saves tooling time, saves repeats.
    – Borgh
    Nov 4, 2022 at 13:30
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    "The industry has known this for... ages. It's obvious." - it has known this for production. But one might assume, not for desk jobs :-)
    – puck
    Nov 4, 2022 at 18:08
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    I think your advice is much too soft for serious knowledge work. If that is what is required even 2 hours of meeting per day is just too much, not to mention 6. It is possible to organize 2 hours of meeting in more and less smart ways around the day but the actual problem is that workers spend way too much time in meetings not that the meetings are organized in bad ways throughout the day.
    – quarague
    Nov 4, 2022 at 21:11
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    It is worth noting that meetings are work. They are often the most intense brain work because of the density of new information. As such, it is not necessarily effective to stack meetings evaluating a potential supplier, planning a release schedule, diagnosing a production problem, and so on all into one morning. Any one of those requires engagement, and there is as much retooling between each as between any one and "real work". (when it is not the case that a meeting requires someone's active engagement, the person should probably not be in that meeting)
    – Josiah
    Nov 5, 2022 at 23:50
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    ls 'context switch' time, is the usual trendy phrase (also mentioned in another answer)
    – Fattie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 15:24
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I think this is an XY problem.

You think that you need an accurate way to calculate the impact of meetings on your team.
What I think that you need is a way to tell people to leave your team alone, and to come to you instead when they want something from your team.

No one really cares if you go to them with a spreadsheet and a formula and wave it in their face. They might look at it and make interested noises and pretend to listen to you, but they're not really interested.
Why?
They have a job to do which requires your team's input in order to complete it. They think that the best way to achieve that is to pull your team into meetings whenever they want. No amount of formulae and tables will change that fact.

Your job is to be the interface between those people and your team.
You have to show them that there's a better way of achieving their goals.

You could sit and chat to these people.
Tell them that you want to find a solution to the problem of the constant counterproductive meetings: that your team aren't able to focus because they're not given any contiguous blocks of time in which to work.
Ask them to send you any requests that they may have for your team's time, and that you'll handle these requests.

This way you can control when your team responds to external requests and when they focus on work.

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    This can backfire. I have a manager who tries to do this but actually makes it worse. Someone (let’s call him A) needs my input. My manager talks with A first, but lacks the knowledge to solve the problem (wasting A’s time and his time, just to explain the problem). Then my manager talks to me (maybe in our weekly 1:1 meeting) but it turns out we need A. So my manager sets up a meeting with me, A and himself. So we have three separate meetings, waste several manhours and need a week to answer a question A could have sent me over Slack and I could have answered in a minute.
    – Michael
    Nov 7, 2022 at 8:13
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    @Michael I meant "handle these requests for your team's time", eg. by scheduling meetings at convenient times, and not "be a go-between". But I think that situations like the one you describe are also fine - it's the system working as it should. 'A' shouldn't contact you directly because doing so undermines your manager by bypassing their job function. Sure, that time A could have sent you a message and got a response instantly. But not every time. And if A can do it then B, C, and D will want to do it, too. Not to mention that it's disrespectful of your time and your manager's job.
    – Aaron F
    Nov 7, 2022 at 18:35
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One thing they brought up to me was that the number of meetings on their calendar was out of control

Then bring it back under control. You're the manager, it's your job!

Don't look for some magical formula you can hide behind. You've identified the problem: too many meetings, too little time for work. Solve that problem by cancelling all unnecessary meeting. Every unneeded meeting is a loss of time!

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    I appreciate the sentiment of your answer. If all meetings were under my control and organized by me, your approach would be the answer. In this case, meetings are being booked by other teams, which means I need to demonstrate the material impact on my team to drive change. In this case, a formula or rule-of-thumb metric would be helpful to show the hidden impact on their ability to do deep thinking.
    – JC007B
    Nov 4, 2022 at 13:22
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    @JoeStrazzere No firm change plan developed yet. However, by drawing attention to the problem and quantifying it, that's the first step in the change process. I can use this to talk to leaders in other groups and with our senior leadership about things we can do company-wide (or btwn teams) to reduce the number of meetings.
    – JC007B
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:58
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    @JC007B Would it be an option to designate chunks of your team's time as focus time, and block that off on their calendars? "We can't book a meeting with team X on Wednesday afternoon because they don't have any available time" may be more actionable and easier to understand for team Y, compared to team Y having to figure out if they're meeting with team X too often.
    – Milo P
    Nov 4, 2022 at 21:33
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    @JC007B "meetings are being booked by other teams, which means I need to demonstrate the material impact on my team" - do you really need to though? In many cases it may be acceptable to simply state that your team is available for meetings during these hours and not during those hours, and then to simply decline or reschedule any meetings anyone books outside of the stated times.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 5, 2022 at 2:31
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Why don't your people block "focus time" in their calendars? Whatever works for them and for the team - maybe the mornings, the afternoons, or maybe every other day. You can even set the calendar (Google calendar at least) to decline new invitations that fall inside the focus time blocks.

Others from outside the team will get the message pretty quickly. First they won't see the afternoons as available for scheduling their meetings, and if they try anyways they will get declined. There may be some grumbling but if you as the team lead stand by these rules and defend the team against the outsiders it should eventually settle down.

It also pays to disable new email and new chat notifications during the focus time. Most things can easily wait.

We have done this in our team and after a while it started to really help.

Good luck!

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  • 100%. As the manager of a team you can book a meeting with your entire team for a 4 hour block every day. That "meeting" is deep focus work, and everyones calendar is full so nothing else can go in it. If anyone tries to book over that slot directly with your team members, they should tell them to talk to their manager, and you tell them no. Nov 7, 2022 at 15:02
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Essentially you are dealing with context-switch overhead and meeting-inefficiency.

Context-switch overhead

An engineer requires time to load the context of their task into working memory (and onto the machine). Each time they context-switch, that investment is lost.

It can take even hours to get "into the zone". And it's infuriating to be interrupted. Unless one is being paid by the hour, in which case they may shrug their shoulders and upstream takes the hit.

If you desire precise numbers, you could perform an experiment. But unless the company is huge, it would be a poor use of energy. It won't tell you anything that you can't deduce from common sense.

Meeting inefficiency

Meetings sink focus. Not only is time lost that could have gone somewhere else, but attention is a finite resource. And if 'connection-with-superiors' comes to associate with 'staring-into-space-80%-of-the-time', that's not gona play out well.

Getting to the root of the problem

Use common sense. Observe your own alignment / incentivization and that of others.

Consider the corporate machinery as an extension of the engineering challenge. How can this meta-machine be improved?

toxic ethos / corruption

Consider hypotheticals. What if management is top-down with engineers at the leaf-nodes / bottom-of-the-structure? What if a situation arises where a capable engineer presents a (job-security) threat to their manager/management? The manager experiences a conflict of interest. Self-interest (preservation of role) pushes them to maintain an air gap between their subordinates and their superiors. To encapsulate for the wrong reasons. A corruption occurs.

Solutions

We're not here to fix the world. We're here to fix ourselves.

The best engineer I ever worked with would constantly say "How can I serve the company best in this moment?". As I learned from this individual and came to adopt this mantra, I started to act as a free radical, applying focus where appropriate. And at some point the work is done, and it is time to journey on. This is as it should be.

If you are contributing (even passively) to a toxic social hierarchy where you consider your 'corporate status' to be greater than those 'below' you, you are now part of the problem.

So the first step is to (re)align your own intentions. Then you are within your own power. "How can I best serve?" may now be applied.

Speak candidly within your sphere. If you are blocked by upper management, can you unblock higher up the chain? If not, could your life-force be better applied elsewhere?

Use common sense. Be a facilitator. Let those around you know it. Invite discussion. Humility wins.

async model

Using Slack/Discord/... allows async contributions. Team members contribute when they have bandwidth. But constant notifications reduce productivity.

updates

One practice I've enforced is that each team-member leaves a daily update at the end of their working day in an #updates channel.

  • What they did
  • Any issues outstanding
  • What their immediate TODO list looks like

Then as coordinator I need to start work a little early and keep on top of that.

initiative

If I have to solve a problem that requires 3 team-leaders, sometimes it's best to go to each one individually, gather all information, figure out solution, then make a temporary channel on Slack/Discord, dump the info, ask for feedback or a 👍. Once I've got 3 👍s it's actionable, with minimal disruption. Nobody's spending a moment staring into space while some meeting discusses something not relevant to them. And, unless it was urgent, everyone responded in their own time, so context-switch disruption was minimized.

promote meritocracy

Companies that promote developers to managers tend to experience a win, as then the manager naturally understands the constraints of the developers. Most meetings emerge from needs of technical teams to joint-solve issues. A meeting is often a "last resort".

common sense

If you're a manager without a s/w dev background, you just need to apply common sense.

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Other answers have addressed the key result:

Yes, the context-switch to have a meeting is well-known to be costly to deep-thinking time. The results of your model showing inefficiencies aren't totally unexpected.

But I want to address a major item your model omits: that the results of meetings are often the inputs to the deep-thinking.

One of your staff members may be far more productive by skipping a meeting, and staying in the flow, but if two others are blocked from doing their work while they wait for instructions or a decision from the first staff member the efficiency of your team may be reduced. The global efficiency might be increased by a team meeting, even if the local efficiency on one person is reduced.

If all of your staff members are deep in thought, developing a new product, but they never had meetings with the customers to understand their requirements, they may be very efficiently developing something useless. Travelling fast in the wrong direction may seem like it is efficient, but it turns out not to be.

Don't get me wrong: meetings that should be emails, meetings scattered throughout the day, meetings that involved too may people or the wrong people - they are all a problem for efficiency, but your model is inaccurate because it only considers the downside of meetings.

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  • This. Meetings shouldn’t be wasted time. Good meetings have value. The problem is bad meetings, not meetings in and of themselves.
    – Michael
    Nov 7, 2022 at 8:17
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Well, if your people are spending 150% of their day in meetings, something is clearly amiss :-)

Suppose we actually had, in our 8 hour workday, 8 one hour meetings we didn't need to prepare for (odd though that might be). Would these really be scheduled over a 12 hour period, leaving a half hour break between each meeting, and one break after the last meeting, so people would try to get started with their work again, only to be interrupted by the next meeting?

I think people are smarter than that. If the next meeting looms, they'd prepare that meeting, or do other simple work (visit the toilet, clean their desk, check their mails, ...). They wouldn't start on the big task knowing they couldn't make any progress.

And this shows one possible solution to the meeting problem: combine meetings. Schedule them tighly enough that there is "post reorienting time" only once a day. Declare meeting free periods and enforce them.

And of course, all the usual advice about making the meetings themselves as efficient as possible.

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    Why have those meetings in the first place? Nov 5, 2022 at 10:20

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