One of the core practices of my work with clients, and my engagement with academics on social media, is to remind you to notice what they’ve done. I wrote about this practice several years ago: You get a lot done. I send out an email on the last Friday of every month, to both members of the Academic Writing Studio and newsletter subscribers, with prompts to help you review the month just finishing and set some priorities for the month ahead. I start every Meeting With Your Writing with a prompt to notice what’s taken your time and energy in the past week.
Meetings have always been a prominent part of what gets scheduled, and they seem particularly prominent in reports of academic work in the shift to remote working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve already written a bit about how the fact that all your meetings happen in the same place can blur them all into a big mass in your memory. My focus there was on your perception of how busy you were in a day full of meetings. Creating physical breaks between meetings, in which you move around your space, stretch, get a glass of water, go to the toilet, and so on, is also important for meeting your physical needs, which I talked a bit about in relation to your home office setup.
I want to return to the way you think about meetings in general. The other problem with talking about your activities in the form “I had 6 meetings yesterday” or “I’m in a lot of meetings” is that it feels meaningless — worthless, pointless, trivial, futile. The time you spend in meetings feels wasted, a distraction from your “real” work. I acknowledge that there are bad meetings but I’m not convinced eliminating meetings is possible or even desirable. I also don’t think they are a “necessary evil”. Meetings are often a good way of accomplishing particular tasks. I want to shift your focus to what makes meetings meaningful and/or useful, starting with how you talk to yourself about meetings.
A sense of accomplishment
The purpose of a practice of noticing what you’ve done is to give you a sense of accomplishment. What makes a meeting meaningful (or not) is the work that happens in the meeting. You want to feel like the work you have been doing has purpose, that you are moving important projects forward. The problem with the term “meeting” in this context is that it refers to a form, a container in which certain types of work are accomplished, rather than the work itself.
The popular complaint about “another meeting that could have been an email” implies that there was an important purpose served, though it could have been done more effectively another way. Although we talk about them far less often, there are also email exchanges that would have achieved their goals much more efficiently and effectively as a meeting (even if that’s a 2 person meeting taking place over the phone, commonly referred to as a phone-call).
Focusing on the work done in a meeting is more likely to give you a sense of accomplishment than focusing on the form. At the most general level you need to allocate a specific meeting to one of the larger categories you use to think about your work: teaching, research, service/administration. Then you want to identify which particular project within that broad category this specific meeting serves. You also need to think of the meeting as one of many activities that moves a particular project forward.
Practicing making meetings meaningful
When reviewing your activities, identifying what a meeting accomplished will make a difference to your overall sense of having spent your time well. If you feel that a meeting really was wasted, you might consider what you had hoped the meeting might accomplish. Being more specific in your disappointment provides a better basis for accomplishing what you hoped for by other means. A specific actionable disappointment is better than a general sense of despair.
You might still feel like the meeting took a lot more time than was really required to achieve it’s purpose. Perhaps it was badly chaired and went off track. It is also possible that, like other aspects of your project, it really needed the time and effort that went into it even though you wish it didn’t. Building relationships and building consensus are also accomplishments, as are partial or failed attempts to do so.
Experiment with telling different stories
You are probably cynical about how much difference this will make. I encourage you to experiment with it. If you notice yourself feeling like your time has been wasted in meetings, pause and look more closely. You could use the prompts I use at the end of A Meeting With Your Writing:
- Leave breadcrumbs about the content of the project for Future You: what do you want to remember, what do you need to follow up, etc.
- How has your project moved forward during this meeting? Both in general — I’m more clear about … ; We’ve made a decision about … ; we’ve reached a milestone — and in as much specific detail as you need to feel like you accomplished something, however small
- Make some observational notes about your focus. No judgement. How was your focus? What helped you focus? What distracted you? What strategies for managing distraction and focus did you try?
Adapt those prompts however you need to so they work for you.
This is a practice of noticing. Resist the urge to judge the meeting as “good” or “bad”. Just notice what happened and what was accomplished. Nothing will magically happen the first time you do it. Try doing this regularly for a few weeks.
After a few weeks, perhaps in your end of month review, you can reflect on whether this practice changes how you feel about how you spend your time. Set reasonable expectations. It’s not going to make you a raving fan of meetings. Notice what feels different.
Other posts in this series: