Embrace the whitespace

How often do you hear from a colleague that they wish they had more time in the day to get work done? I hear that refrain constantly, and admittedly also say it more often than I’d like. Your coworkers don’t actually want more time, they want more productive time, and by extension less meetings.

I had to connect with a colleague of mine recently over a very important, time sensitive topic. The urgency of this was real because there was an external deadline and some serious consequences for missing it. I say that because almost all other deadlines and milestones set are usually done internally and somewhat arbitrarily. When trying to find a joint time to meet, this colleague’s calendar looked like this:

Now that’s not the worst I have seen, but it made it super hard to find a time to connect. I had already set up the purpose of the conversation with an email (having escalated the urgency) so they knew why I wanted to meet, but I had to then go back and ask them to tell me what time was OK and they had to move things around to meet. Nothing in that calendar you see above indicates any time of prioritization or urgency; as far as I know every single meeting scheduled could have been more urgent than mine, or totally pointless chit-chat. I realize that it’s kind of absurd for me to start a blog post about the important of white space with a story about scheduling a meeting, but the point I’m trying to make is that I had an objectively urgent matter that needed to be discussed, and the challenge in finding time with the one individual that could help resolve it due to the other meetings on the books. As a colleague of mine used to say, “When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent”.

When I was early in my career, I saw being busy as a signal of being productive and important. I observed senior contributors and managers hustling from meeting to meeting, taking working lunches, and speaking in clipped, stressed voices, emphasizing the urgency of whatever it was they were focused on. There was a senior executive who even had this sign outside of his office with different cartoon faces, ranging from happy (it was never turned to this) to the red ‘angry face’. There was even one with a skull and crossbones, which I interpreted as imminent death to anyone who dared disturb him. As I advanced in seniority, I of course also followed many of these behaviors because, well, I thought that’s what you just did. I delighted in scheduling (and participating in) meetings, having early and late calls, and never taking more than 20 minutes for lunch. The feeling of productivity was there, and I seemed to be rewarded with raises and promotions, but what I can’t say is weather my performance had a particularly high level, or if it was mostly the perception of my performance. A key metric I shared during a self-review was the number of calls I had done over the course of a year as if that in and of itself was an achievement worthy of praise.

Now that I’m a lot older and hopefully slightly wiser, I realize how counterproductive it is to fill your work days so completely. If anything, the situation is even worse these days with distributed work forces and the ease of online meetings. Less than 10 years ago I distinctly recall having to talk to several executive assistants and have them each look through physical calendars to set up a big meeting — today anyone at the office can ‘grab time’ from someone at anytime by putting a calendar invite in. As a result everyone is forever hustling from meeting to meeting, always showing up a few minutes late because of being back to back, and never really focusing on the topic at hand because they are still trying to process the previous discussion. Layer in omnipresent laptops in conference rooms, instant messaging like Slack with its never-ending notifications, always-connected mobile devices and you have an environment where everyone seems busy all the time, but aren’t accomplishing enough. I see a lot of noise being generated which feels like work, but isn’t necessarily helping us accomplish our objectives.

I’d like to be in this meeting! via GIPHY

How do we get to a better place? By treating the white space on our calendars not as unproductive time to be scheduled over, but as time to focus and get work done and also reflect on the key challenges we’re facing. Paul Graham, has a very popular piece about the Maker vs Manager schedule — I mostly agree with what he says, but I think a key difference now is that everyone has fallen into that Manager schedule and there’s not much value seen in time unscheduled. I believe we all need to push back on this and recognize that even for senior leaders whose time is at an absolute premium there is a lot of value in having large blocks of white space in the calendar.

In order to get more white space time each day, we first need to realize that we are all part of the problem. We’ve made it super easy to schedule meetings and take each other’s time, but there are many other ways to work effectively besides meeting face to face. There’s not a whole lot of discussion these days of asynchronous vs synchronous work thanks to the always-on culture but we really need to revisit how workers can and should engage each other, and which tools work best for different types of work. Before scheduling that next meeting, think about what you are trying to accomplish, how it might be accomplished, and consider if a face-to-face meeting is the best way to achieve the objective. Could you craft a well thought out email with specific questions that an individual could address? If you have a question could you research and find the answer yourself without taking your colleagues time?

The second way to reduce meeting time is to guard your own time a lot more fiercely. This is very very hard to do in the modern workforce! Do meetings have specific goals and a defined agenda, is there clear ownership of follow-up items, is the meeting time and duration respected? You have to demand the quality bar for what constitutes a meeting rises to the point that you won’t take meetings unless they meet that threshold. And even then you have to be prepared to say no to meetings when there’s not clear value in it. Always reject meetings with titles like ‘catch-up’, ‘discuss’, ‘connect’ with no additional context, unless you genuinely just want to chat with someone with no expectation of making any work progress. I’ve always been amazed at how focused someone will be on taking up your time with a meeting but when you are unavailable they somehow can figure out whatever it is they needed help with.

The third aspect of evolving away from the meeting culture is empowerment of individuals to be able to make decisions and move forward without the consent of a huge group. This one I find is more challenging in Silicon Valley’s collaborative, open culture where opinions from team members of all experience levels and seniority are often welcomed and encouraged. That’s not a bad thing, per se, and is one of the things I like most about working at a tech company. What does culture have to do with meetings and getting more time? I find that in flatter organizations without clear lines of decision making, consensus is often built through a series of meetings with various stakeholders, often reviewing more or less the same content, until a clear consensus is achieved and people can move forward. It is very important to be transparent, but managers and senior leaders are paid more because they have more responsibility and accountability, and shouldn’t be afraid to make a decision. Dithering is extremely costly, both in the direct cost of having people meet more then they have to, as well as the opportunity cost of keeping your team in second gear while they await a decision. If you empower your employees and make sure they understand they are accountable to take smart risks when it comes to important decisions (and of course allow them to seek guidance when needed) you’ll find your calendar slowly freeing up as people do the work rather than talk about doing the work.

Next Monday when you are reviewing your work week and see the endless color bands of meetings in your calendar, take a step back to think about how you can add more white space to your week. It’s well worth it!