Yes, I’m being passive aggressive… Just want to get this out there.
What do you think, Lozzi…
That is by far the worst feeling. During the meeting, someone calls upon your wisdom and guidance but you have no idea what they’re talking about. There are sly ways to get around it, answer with a question, etc. But everyone knows you have no idea.
We all do it, we all sit in meetings and ignore what’s going on and decide to focus on something else we consider more important. We make the decision that this meeting isn’t worth my time so I will focus on something else.
We justify it by calling it “multitasking“.
You can’t do it!
You can’t multitask. You can’t. The human brain is not built to do more than one thing at a time. You can’t focus on 2 things at once. Many people can’t walk and look at their phone, but they try. If you’re saying to yourself, “you’re just old, I can do it, I multitask all the time”. Well, you’re wrong. You’re actually wasting time context switching: getting your brain reacquainted as you jump task to task is a time suck, and breaks your focus.
Don’t believe me, here’s some proof, and if it’s on the web, then it has to be true:
Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attentionItalics added, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_multitasking
Humans… don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794
Why do we think we’re so good at something that doesn’t exist? We compensate for our inability to multitask with a remarkable ability to single-task in rapid succession. Our brains aren’t a volley of a thousand arrows descending on an opposing army. Our brains are Robin Hood. One man with one bow firing on all comers, one at a time.Italics added, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/if-multitasking-is-impossible-why-are-some-people-so-good-at-it/248648/
Pretending to multitask, context switching, can greatly impact your performance and output, here’s a great example from a developer point of view: How Context Switching destroys Developers Productivity and how to fix it.
Now that we’re in agreement, let’s talk about our meetings
We all do this, we all decide that a meeting is not as important as something else I want to work on. We may not consciously make this decision, but we do make the decision. We multitask. We shift our eyes to our screens, sneak a click or two in, then we’re typing away and completely forgetting we’re even in a meeting.
Sometimes this is forced upon us, we have too many things going on, too many emails, too many meetings, too many blog posts to write. Time management, attention management, energy management is necessary and that’s a whole different topic.
Sometimes we think I can focus on something else for a good reason: it’s a meeting I don’t need to be in; the discussion doesn’t regard me; this other task is really important; it’s just boring. Let’s take these one at a time (Am I missing anything?)
I don’t need to be in this meeting
This is fair, but you’re in it, so commit! I get pulled into meetings where I’m not bringing any value. These are the easiest meetings to multitask during. Most times I get away with it too. I pull away from my laptop to hear the topic, check in on the meeting, then back to my task. I’d be more efficient if I didn’t have to switch context, even for a moment. Why am I even here.
I love Elon’s advice:
If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leavehttps://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/elon-musk-knows-how-to-run-a-meeting-heres-how-he-does-it.html
This is hard to do in real-life. I can’t just get up and walk out. I may be able to have a conversation about it, and have the room agree I can leave, but let’s be honest, that never happens.
Instead, consider your time as valuable, and treat it like gold! Way before the meeting, make the decision. As you get meeting invites, consider:
- What’s the agenda? If there isn’t one, ask for one.
- Are you the right person for the meeting? Maybe a teammate is better suited and can take your place (don’t pass the buck because you don’t want to go).
- Are you needed at all? If you’re invited to be kept in the loop, politely decline and ask for the important notes you need to be aware of.
If you accept the meeting, then go and be an active participant. You’ve set the expectation you’re going to go: so go, pay attention, take notes, drink coffee, crack a joke, and stay engaged.
Take the agenda one step further. If the meeting organizer doesn’t review the agenda at the start of the meeting, ask them to. Keep everyone on the same page, help everyone keep focused.
The discussion doesn’t regard me
Depending on the size of the meeting, this can happen very easily. Large meetings are easy to get lost in. However, review the bullets above, if you decided to attend the meeting provided the agenda, then stay engaged.
If there is a side discussion, or the meeting is covering content about a topic that doesn’t pertain to you, keep paying attention. Don’t sneak in a little side work or write a quick email. It’s a trap, it can quickly move from one innocent quick reply on Slack to 25 minutes of not paying attention.
Depending on your role, you can help drive the conversation back to the meeting agenda (it’s so important to have that agenda defined). Some people who run meetings are not bold enough to ask to take a topic offline, or put it in the parking lot. That’s okay, we don’t all have to be that bold. However, if you lean towards being bold, then speak up for the entire room, for the entire meeting. Keep it on track and focused.
When you say “let’s take this offline” then do it, for the sake of everyone else. I like to poke at my colleagues: if they start the sentence with “let’s take this offline, but…” I immediately say “OK, what’s next” and won’t let them continue. I do it light heartedly and we all laugh, but the reality is we sometimes use this statement so we can have the last say on the matter. I’ve done it too, shame on me.
The other task is really important
I’m a developer, architect, team lead, etc. I know and agree with and understand the legitimacy of this statement. Sometimes prod issues come up, our managers have last minute asks, clients can be demanding, etc.
Go back to the above points, if you know the agenda, and decided that you would attend, then you’re needed and should pay attention and participate. If something last minute has come up, share with the room immediately.
Discuss it with the other members of the meeting, then decide what to do:
- Take time up front and focus on that other task. This will set the expectation that others shouldn’t expect anything from you during this time. Then when you’re done, make sure to say it, make it obvious (close your laptop), etc. If they need you, ask them to explicitly call your name and get your attention before they start engaging you.
- Leave the meeting. It could be decided that they can continue without you and someone can bring you up to speed later.
- Reschedule the meeting. If you are needed for the meeting, they may decide to reschedule.
- Be vulnerable. State the problem you have and ask: “what do you think, should I wait for the end of this meeting or jump on this now?” You may be surprised that others may have a point of view of the critical nature of what you need to work on.
- If there isn’t an important task, yet, but you have a feeling something may come up during the meeting, be transparent with the team. Set the expectation you may be pulled away. I have said:
“I need to monitor this Slack channel, we are deploying to production, my team has it under control, but may need me for…”
“I just heard so and so (upper mgmt) is having an issue with xyz, I asked them to text me directly if they need support…”
“Sorry, I have to watch my phone, my wife is pregnant and heading to the doctors…”
Set expectations. If you know you’re going to “multitask” then don’t go, don’t waste your time or theirs.
It’s just boring
Suck it up, buttercup.
Meetings aren’t supposed to be entertaining. Sadly, we do like some meetings over others because of the meeting organizer or attendees. Some people make meetings fun over other meetings. Check yourself, the meeting isn’t supposed to entertain, it’s to get some work done.
If you’re pulled into a meeting where you may not contribute, like a town hall or an informative sharing session, then take notes, stay engaged. As you think of questions, write them down, then ask when appropriate.
I’m sorry, I’m not sure what else to say, sometimes boring meetings are necessary, and you just get through it. Commit to focusing, take notes, and don’t watch the clock, that slows down time.
It’s about setting expectations, for yourself and the meeting organizer. With expectations set, meetings can be productive and a good use of time. Death by meetings is real, it can be exhausting to be in meetings all day. Your time is gold. Don’t be afraid of asking the question “am I needed”? There are ways to ask this to the organizer:
- “How do you see me being involved with…”
- “How can I maximize our time during…”
- “Is there a pre-read I can review so I can understand…”
- “It doesn’t look like I’m needed, am I missing something…”
- “Am I needed? Could I read the notes afterwards?”
I’m talking to myself, help me
I’m guilty of this just as much as the next person. If you’re reading this, and will be sitting in a meeting with me, I welcome you to call me out if you see me multitasking. I do believe that we waste time in meetings, and if I can optimize my time in meetings, that will make my work more efficient, that makes my team more efficient. If I’m multitasking, help me improve myself. Let’s come up with a code word… Muskrat. Say “muskrat” and let’s all refocus.
Now back to the meeting…