Watch your time - Part 2

Protect your most precious resource

Uwe Friedrichsen

12 minute read

Sheep grazing on a dike

Watch your time - Part 2

In the previous post, we identified time as our most precious resource. We saw that we are always confronted with a lot of tasks and expectations of other people. We also discussed that quite some of them turn out not to have any value for us or other people we care about. I call such tasks time killers.

I then discussed egoistic time thieves as an example of time killers – including the distinction between time thieves and people you help to grow because not everyone reaching out to you automatically is a time thief.

In this post, we will look at some more time killers. Let us start with one of the worst, I have encountered in my professional career.

Avoid regular meetings

One of the worst time killers I encountered are meetings.

Most people I know have terribly crowded calendars, especially if they work for bigger companies. Meeting next to meeting next to meeting.

A big fraction of those meetings are rooted in the unhealthy enterprise habit of installing regular meetings every time a communication short-coming shows up or something does not work according to plan. To make things worse, in many places this habits became independent and people set up regular meetings for every trifle even if not a single problem is in sight.

From all what I have learned over the course of my career, this does not help. Most of the time, this is trying to solve a quality issue by adding quantity. Rarely these meetings are worth the time they cost everyone in the room. Usually, they are just a multiplication of waste of (life-)time. A mindless sacrifice to the heartless gods of enterprise habits.

If your communication sucks, fix the problem. Do not add more broken communication. This does not fix anything.

If you lag behind plan, fix the problem. Do not endlessly talk about it, depriving the people in the room from valuable time to fix the problem.

The same is true, if managers set up mandatory team meetings every few weeks because of “team spirit”. If you want to foster team spirit, start with a common goal, a common perspective and work towards them with your team. Do not set up meetings. They are not a replacement for the aforementioned.

And so on.

Also, most regular meetings – even if they were useful in the beginning – become an end in itself after a while. They are only continued because they exist and nobody dares to question them while all participants silently roll their eyes when thinking about the meeting.

“But how to forward information then?”, you might ask. Many of those regular meetings are set up to pass on information and discuss issues that might have arisen. Well, as the meme goes: “This meeting could have been an email.”

This is especially true for regular meetings that are set up just to pass on information. There are much more efficient ways to simply pass on information. You can write an email, you can send out a newsletter, you can even share a voice or video recording of you telling the news.

The receivers of the information can read or listen to the news when it works best for them. The best part: Consuming the news this way tends to only take a fraction of their time.

“But there could be issues that need to be discussed!”, you might argue. Well, wait until there are issues that need to be discussed in such a usually big group of people. Most issues can be solved in much smaller groups without needing formal meetings. And if you really need a bigger group, you can still set up one meeting for it. But you do not need to waste the time of a whole group of people by setting up regular meetings just because there might be issues that need to be discussed.

Also, especially regular meetings tend to be another manifestation of Parkinson’s law: Meeting contents are added or stretched to fill the time available, no matter if they are relevant to the participants or not.

Therefore, I try to avoid regular meetings whenever possible. And if I cannot avoid them, I always ask if there are better ways to accomplish the intended outcomes.

I can only recommend you to do the same: Try to avoid regular meetings. They tend to be one of the biggest time killers in many companies.

Avoid meetings with vague goals

Then, we have normal meetings.

Too often, they are set up way too long, without a clear goal, without an agenda and way too many people invited because “they might contribute to the solution” or worse “they might feel passed over otherwise”.

Usually, these meetings are set up to tackle some kind of problem. But unfortunately, most of them are held in a “let us talk about it and see what happens” way. Or the sheer amount of people invited makes focused, goal-oriented working towards a solution impossible. To make things worse, those meetings always consume all the time scheduled, no matter if any useful results are accomplished or not.

Such meetings – especially in enterprise contexts – tend to be mere time killers, a waste of time for everyone attending. 1

Therefore, I also try to avoid meetings without a clear goal and a clear agenda. If I want just to “talk about it”, I rather do it in the coffee kitchen. There, everyone can decide on their own if they want to spend their time for “talking about it” or not.

Of course, I am not always successful and sometimes I am also stuck in a meeting that feels like a big waste of time for most people in the room. But pondering the expected value of a meeting upfront and actually rejecting meetings that do not look worthwhile helped me to clean up my calendar a lot over time.

Again, some people consider this behavior rude. But then again: Who is rude? Me rejecting pointless meetings? Or the people who carelessly set them up time and again because it has become an inconsiderate reflex, because it is so easy to set up meeting after meeting, because it is so much harder to ponder better alternatives, to go where it hurts and tackle the actual problems – this way wasting the (life-)time of many people?

I can only recommend you to do the same. Most problems can be solved in better ways than setting up meeting after meeting. Thus, avoid pointless meetings.

Strive for a better meeting hygiene

Of course, some meetings are useful. But before you set up a meeting, ponder if you could also achieve the same outcome in an asynchronous fashion. Would a short email conversation or a Slack thread also suffice to find a solution? Or is there too much ambiguity involved for written communication?

If it needs to be a meeting, it should

  • have a clear goal and agenda
  • be short
  • only invite the people absolutely necessary to achieve the goal

The goal and agenda create focus. A bit of time scarcity enhances focus. And limiting the participants to the people who are absolutely necessary to achieve the goal avoids distractions. Everyone else can be informed about the outcomes afterwards. And if someone then should have an important comment, it is still possible to respond to it. But time is not wasted upfront.

If I really have just a vague idea and need some discussion to see if it helps to advance the topic, i.e., that I cannot offer a clear goal and agenda, I am explicit about it. I also do not invite lots of people but just ask a few persons (rarely more than 3 persons) if they are willing to have such a discussion with me. I do not set up a big meeting and invite everyone who “could contribute”.

Finally, there are one-on-ones. Once in a while, people simply need to catch up with each other. Then reach out to the other person and schedule a one-on-one together. But do not set up a regular meeting. If you think, you do not talk often enough with that person, ask yourself why. Maybe it will help you to identify some other time killer that stands in the way. But try to avoid setting up a regular meeting as a solution.

More potential time killers

Meetings and time thieves are two of the biggest time killers, I was and still am confronted with in my professional career. I tried to illustrate how I tend to approach them and how I try to find the balance, how to shed off the actual time killers without sacrificing the useful parts.

There are a lot more potential time killers that lurk everywhere. E.g., the whole agile ceremony from Scrum, SAFe and alike are mere time killers if they do not contribute to the underlying goals of agility, swiftly and flexibly responding to feedback from the users, if continuous learning and adaptation is not part of the process. If your agile approach is just plan-based software development in a disguise, all the sprint plannings, PI plannings, retrospectives and often even the daily standup meetings become a mere waste of time.

Also, a lot of controlling overhead does not generate added value. If things do not work as desired, many company leaders often start adding more and tighter controlling instead of tackling the actual problems. This whole added controlling turns out to be a big waste of time for everyone affected without improving anything – in the worst case depriving the people from improving things because the controlling overhead eats up their available time.

Then, often there are a lot of “voluntary” tasks in many companies and it is implicitly expected that you invest your time in some of them. Also, the IT community always expects people to “share”. While this sounds good at first sight, often this just means, other people expect you to spend your time for their benefit, taking the shared without giving back.

And. And. And. There would be so much more to mention.

Again, not everyone and everything asking for your time are bad per se. But it is important to ask yourself if the time you need to invest – your most precious resource – is worth it. Does it create value for you? Does it create value for other people you care about? Is the balance between supporting your own goals and other people’s goals still in balance? Or is it a time killer?

In the latter case, you should try to reject the request – even if the heartless gods of enterprise habits are not pleased. While this is a humorous paraphrase of enterprise reality, you should be aware that this can turn out to be your biggest challenge: Enterprise habits. It is likely that you will face incomprehension up to hostile reactions if you dare to challenge commonly accepted habits, no matter if they are just a waste of time for everyone – even for the people attacking you for questioning the habit.

It is perfectly fine if you decide that you are not in a position where you can risk negative reactions or worse, that it is just too draining for you to deal with the incomprehension. Yet, based on my personal experience the most effective way to get more time for the things you really care about is tackling the time killers, even (or especially?) if they manifest as dysfunctional enterprise habits.

Summing up

Time is your most precious resource. It is the core currency of your life. Everything translates back to how you spend your time. Hence:

Protect your time!

We are always confronted with a lot of tasks and expectations of other people and quite some of them turn out not to have any value for us or other people we care about. Those tasks are time killers and should be avoided.

You will not be able to avoid all tasks that are just a waste of your time. Also, sometimes the value of a task may not be obvious at first sight. Hence, we should not reject everything immediately we do not see value in. Instead, we should question those tasks in a constructive way first to better understand their value or the lack of it.

Asking yourself “Is this task worth this much of my time, my most precious resource?” will help you to judge tasks differently. Some tasks will become more important. Some tasks will become less important. And some tasks will become irrelevant.

To be honest: I am also not able to perfectly avoid all pointless tasks that only feel like a waste of time. And I am sure, I sometimes involuntarily waste the time of other people (sorry if I do!). And sometimes, I invest time in something just to ask myself a bit later what drove me to waste so much time with this pointless thing. Thus, if you should think you are not good at managing your time: I am the last person to judge you.

Nevertheless, thinking about time as my most valuable currency helped me quite a bit to readjust my priorities and to shed off (at least some of the) pointless time killers. It is an ongoing process and I have to readjust continuously. Sometimes, new time killers sneak in silently. Sometimes, my priorities change. And sometimes, I learn more effective ways of using my time. But keeping in mind that time is my most valuable resource helps me a lot.

Maybe it can help you, too.

For everything that remains after we shedded of the time killers, we have all those wonderful time management methods … :)

  1. To be more precise: Some people actually find those meetings useful – for various unhelpful reasons like evading responsibility, flattering their egos, being devoid of ideas and hoping that others will solve their problems, having the impression of having done something, or alike. Still, from a broader perspective those meetings are just a big waste of (life-)time and (company) money. ↩︎