September 8th, 2021
by Karl Hughes
Being focused is a wonderful feeling. I spent the bulk of my professional career writing code for at least a few hours every day, and I still enjoy spending regular time in what psychologists call “flow.”
The further I go in my life and career, though, the harder it is to find time for this sort of focused work. Having a dog, a child, a team to manage, and clients to communicate with makes it really difficult to reserve large blocks of time.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” –“Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
But I take pretty extreme steps to preserve that time. I’ve eliminated Slack from my company, I have a monthly “no-screen” day, I only check email twice per day, and (as I’ll discuss in this article) I have one “no-meeting day” every week.
These steps aren’t right for every team, but if you struggle with focus and productivity, they might be just what you need. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons that days or weeks without meetings can help your team be happier and more productive. Then I’ll offer some tips for implementing no-meeting periods so you can bring this practice to your company.
The Problem With Meetings
Meetings are interruptions. They’re often necessary interruptions, but when placed sporadically throughout the day, they can dig into your team’s productivity. Knowledge workers (programmers, designers, writers, etc.) are especially hard hit by these interruptions.
“A programmer takes between 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption. When interrupted during an edit of a method, only 10% of times did a programmer resume work in less than a minute.” – Chris Parnin
As a manager, your goal is to increase the output and happiness of your team. With that goal in mind, it’s easy to see how too many meetings could hurt your team’s performance. And managers need time for thinking as well.
In my personal experience as a manager, I can attest to the value of my time spent in deep work. It’s during those hours of focus that I uncover serious dysfunctions, come up with plans to help my team succeed, and think of new ideas that ultimately build our business.
Of course, engineering managers aren’t the only leaders who suffer from too many meetings:
“We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries: 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.” –Harvard Business Review, 2017
So if meetings are draining our productivity, hurting our bottom line, and damaging team relationships, why do so many organizations have so many of them?
Modern Meeting Culture
Meetings are a part of company culture and culture is hard to change. If your company is used to having hour-long daily standups, weekly retrospectives, and dozens of project-focused meetings throughout the month, it will be a struggle to change that overnight.
“Executives want to be good soldiers. When they sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings, they assume they’re doing what’s best for the business—and they don’t see the costs to the organization.” –Harvard Business Review, 2017
What’s more, some managers actually feel obligated to hold meetings.
Of course, some meetings are genuinely necessary. I can’t imagine running an engineering team or a business without time set aside to update my team, share important decisions, give employees performance reviews, or talk to customers on a check-in call.
So if meetings are bad yet unavoidable in modern business, what’s the solution? How can we balance making time to get things done with the need to communicate with the rest of our team?
That’s where no-meeting days come in.
Imagine a Day Without Meetings
“Humans build things by collaborating and working together. Breakthroughs and progress are a group effort, and it takes all kinds of meetings for that to work…. Work needs to be estimated and prioritized, designs need to be hammered out, and retrospectives are necessary for finding avenues for team improvement.” –Henry Poydar, StatusHero
A few years ago when I first started managing a software engineering team, I decided to try blocking my calendar so that I’d have at least one day without meetings.
I immediately noticed two things:
- I felt liberated on my no-meeting days. I was suddenly able to take on large, complex management tasks that always seemed to get backlogged before.
- Nobody else cared. Since my calendar was blocked, they just assumed I had prior obligations and scheduled around it.
After trying no-meeting days out for a few months, I decided to make them a permanent part of my weekly schedule. Even now, as a business owner, I have at least one day every week where nobody can schedule a call with me, and I’ve even tried whole weeks without meetings. Removing meetings does introduce some challenges, but (I believe) our company is better for it.
How to Implement No-Meeting Days (or Weeks)
Of course, I was not the first person to think of this idea. Pinterest rolled out a similar “no-meeting days” program to their entire engineering team a few years ago. After the switch, ninety-two percent of their engineers said they were more productive, and the practice eventually spread to other parts of the company.
While I haven’t implemented no-meeting days on the scale that Pinterest has, I can give you some pointers based on my experience and conversations with others who have adopted this practice:
1. Run a Trial Period First
Having a trial period of a month helps ease people into the practice. You can use this time to earn trust and buy-in because some higher-ups might be skeptical. “If the engineers aren’t meeting, how do we know they’re working?”
2. Learn to Use Asynchronous Communication
If people are worried they won’t be able to get their questions answered on no-meeting days, put them at ease by pushing them towards asynchronous communication channels. Tools like Status Hero allow your team to send daily status updates on their schedule so you don’t need everyone to be in the same place for your standup.
3. Batch Meetings Together
If your meetings are currently spread throughout the week with one or more every day, you might have to move some things around before implementing no-meeting days. Batching meetings is a good idea anyway because it’s really hard to get back into focus mode after the interruption of a meeting.
4. Communicate with the Rest of the Organization
While most of my teammates didn’t even notice I had blocked a day every week on my calendar, people might notice if your entire team goes dark all at once. Make sure you explain the experiment to people who might need to meet with you and see what they think of the idea. I’ve met very few managers who didn’t like the idea when they stopped to think about it.
5. Show Results
If you try no-meeting days or even a whole week, survey the team afterward. Let others know how the experiment went (assuming it goes well) so they can try it out. Building an organization that lets knowledge workers focus is a huge cultural differentiator.
6. Use an Alternative Schedule
Finally, if you’re an employee and your boss won’t agree to block off a whole day on your calendar, you might consider working an alternative schedule. For the past two years, I’ve worked on Sundays and taken Wednesdays off to spend time with my son and get chores done around the house. Some employers are more amenable to alternative schedules, and by working on a day when everyone else is off, you’re effectively removing the possibility of meetings anyway.
Good managers realize that the happiness and productivity of their employees are key to their success, but great managers realize that they also need to be cognizant of how they spend their own time.
“A great deal of a manager’s work has to do with allocating resources: manpower, money, and capital, but the single most important resource that we allocate from one day to the next is our own time.” –Andy Grove, High Output Management
Roughly fifty percent of meeting time is used effectively, according to one expert, so while removing meetings entirely can be a good solution, you might also want to consider making your necessary meetings more effective. If you try out “no-meeting days,” we’d love to hear how it goes.