That Didn’t Need To Take An Hour

Have you ever finished something and thought to yourself, “That didn’t need to take an hour?”

In my world, I have an endless stream of requests to do something for an hour. I just looked at my calendar for the next two weeks and almost everything that someone else scheduled and invited me to is for an hour.

In contrast, all of the things I (or my assistant) have scheduled are for 30 minutes. And many of them will take five minutes.

If you schedule a meeting for an hour, it’s remarkable to me how often it takes an hour, even when it doesn’t need to. Three hour board meetings, especially when board members have traveled to them, take – wait for the drum roll – three hours.

During the day, between Monday and Friday, I generally have a very scheduled life. I go through phases where I shift into Maker Mode, now no longer schedule anything before 11am my time (with occasional exceptions), and try to have a very unscheduled weekend. But Monday to Friday looks like the following:

This Week - A Normal One

Over time, I’ve come up with some approaches to deal with this massively over-scheduled life in order to stay sane. Here are a few of them.

30 minute schedule slots: I’ve tried it all. 60 minutes. 15 minutes. 5 minutes. 45 minutes. 37 minutes. The only thing that I’ve found that works is 30 minutes. If I schedule for 15 minutes, I inevitably have too many things in a day and get completely exhausted. If I schedule for more than 30 minutes, I find myself twiddling my thumbs and trying to get finished with the meeting. 30 minutes seems to be the ideal amount to get any type of meeting done.

A walk: If I have a longer, more thoughtful discussion I want to have with someone, I go for a walk. I have four routes around downtown Boulder – 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute walks. All of these walks have the same loop so even when I schedule for a 60 minute walk, I have an easy way to turn it into a 30 minute walk if it’s clear that’s all it’s going to take. Or, if I’m into the first 15 minutes and realize it needs to be an hour, I just extend to the 30 minute segment. My worst case on a walk that goes too long is that I get some steps for my daily Fitbit habit.

Phone calls: I schedule almost all phone calls, except for ones with high priority people. This high priority ones interrupt whatever I’m doing or get done on a drive to and from the office. If you hang around me, you’ll see that my phone rarely rings (except for Amy) and I rarely make calls outbound as most of my world runs on email or real-time messaging.

End everything early: I try to end everything when it’s done. I jump right in and finish when we are finished. When you give things 30 minutes, you don’t have time to futz around with intros and catch ups. When someone starts this way, I break in and say as politely as I can, “What’s on your mind?” On the phone, I minimize chit chat and just try to get to the point. And, after five minutes when we are done, I revel in the notion that I’ve got 25 minutes to do whatever I want.

I’m always experimenting with new things. What do you do to keep meetings manageable and sane?

  • Time is the currency of our generation. It’s amazing you are so accessible to so many people – yet still make time for writing/blogging and being accessible virtually via twitter and email.

    Question though – how does texting fit into this? Do you text with partners/founders you work with and if so how do you keep it reasonable?

    • I hate texting but at this point have accepted it’s part of the world. Mostly Amy and I text emoji’s back and forth. I keep iMessage up on my screen and treat it like chat. My partners and I use Kato for real-time and Voxer for audio.

  • Joe Maruschak

    I do a number of things to keep it manageable and sane. I don’t have any great hacks. I approach the problem in a ‘meta’ way that is just me being aware of who I am and how I work well.

    First, I know that I am in ‘maker mode’ from 5am until noon. I am wired this way and have learned that if I don’t get up and work, I won’t get anything done so I need to take advantage of that time.

    If I have to do meetings, it put people I know in the morning so I am fresh. I am impatient in the mornings. I want to get things done. if you try to meet with me in the morning and be ‘exploratory’ it just does not work well.

    My mind wanders when I try to get work done in the afternoon, so I have learned not to try to get work done then. I schedule meetings that are either strategic, that don’t require focused ‘work sessions’ or reserve this for people I don’t know well, or for those ‘big meetings’. First time meetings are scheduled at this time. These can be more exploratory as I am less impatient and feel better about letting ideas wander.

    I task bundle if possible. Context switching kills me. If it is economic development stuff, I try to schedule all that on one say so I am not bouncing back and forth from meeting with entrepreneurs to city planners, as the back and forth ping pong match exhausts me. I try (not always possible) to keep the day ‘on topic’ or to have a theme for the day.

    I do all calls a half hour and in the mornings on Tuesdays. I again, bundle them all up and plow through them. This gives me a list of small tasks (usually intros, getting someone a document, etc) that I bundle up to get done in the mornings.

    I take Fridays off from meetings, though one always sneaks in. I only take Friday meetings that are high priority, and they are often longer ones when they do happen. I like to lead into the weekend ‘slowing down’ with either a full day or work, or, if necessary, a long meeting that is ‘deep’ so I can go into the weekend in a mode thoughtful and reflective.

    I try to get the quick hit meetings done in the early week and transition from tactical to strategic work as the week progresses. If I don’t do this, then I am uptight all weekend.

    It all comes down to controlling the rhythm. I also have learned to start saying no to a lot of things.

    • Great suggestions. And – the punch line – saying “no” – is super key.

  • Zack Kanter

    Good post. I’m interested in the point about 15 minute time slots causing you to be burnt out at the end of the day. It seems that your energy is not constrained by time, but rather by number of topics or people engaged. Have you considered a hard stop on number of topics/people in a day? You may find that the 15 minute time slot is appropriate for a meaningful portion of the meetings, and perhaps you’ll find more unstructured time in your day.

    FYI, this is called Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It is from a tongue-in-cheek essay penned in The Economist in 1955: http://www.economist.com/node/14116121

  • Eric Page

    I organize my meeting times around my desired outcomes. It’s based on research from Israel on parole hearings, indicating that early morning and early afternoons are the most likely times for people to switch from a default position to something riskier. (http://www.wired.com/2011/04/judges-mental-fatigue/)

    So any meeting with an investor or a prospect is early AM or PM. If I’m looking to keep the status quo or it’s a networking type meeting, I hold it late morning or late afternoon.

    • Yup on Parkinson’s Law – I should have mentioned it – thanks for pointing it out. I find that I end up uncontrollably jamming in too many 15 minute meetings so it’s the magnitude of meetings that wears me out. Additionally, part of the joy of 30 minute meetings is that so many take 5 – 15 minutes so I have a lot of built in space in my schedule because of the 30 minute reservation.

      • Zack Kanter

        I think this was meant as a reply to my comment (though I highly recommend checking out the link in Eric’s comment…I think this may have been referenced in Thinking, Fast and Slow – also a must-read if you haven’t gotten to it).

  • Rick

    Brad,
    .
    What would you say your “job” is? It amazes me how you don’t look at anything for what it is. You only focus on numbers, time slots, etc. You’re like a robot. Everything is predetermined and fits under some label. Do you ever just look at something for what it is THEN decide how to deal with it?

    • Re: “You don’t look at anything for what it is.” You clearly don’t know me very well.

      • Rick

        Right.
        .
        I was talking about you scheduling everything in neat time slots and seeing product/market fit by numbers instead of market needs/wants. I just don’t understand it.
        .
        Do you think it’s an OCD thing? I get that way on some things and I have to remind myself not to see the world as perfect rows of things or a set of clearly defined steps that take the exact same amount of time. Sometimes I’ll try to make every task in a plan have the same amount of sub-tasks even though the task should NOT.

        • It’s not OCD, but probably so O characteristics.

  • Rick

    Oh hey I forgot. Now that you’ve destroyed Boulder. If the lynch mob comes knockin’ let me know and I’ll come help you fight your way out of town. lol

  • David Mitchell

    Thanks, Brad – very helpful. Question: do you in any way prepare people before they meet with you for the first time, with guidelines for how you like meetings to go? My assumption would be people get thrown off by “what’s on your mind?” as often they’re not laser focused. I love the need to be clear and on point, but just wondered how quickly people’s behavior slots into it. Cheers

    • It varies. I used to send out a “how to meet with me” note but there’s now so much on the web that it should be easy for the person to prepare by just doing a quick search on Brad Feld Meeting”

      • David Mitchell

        Makes sense – and has your “meeting failure rate” (where you walk away thinking it was a waste of time) decreased over time because of this?

        • Yes. And, I changed my attitude. My goal with every meeting is to learn one thing. As long as I do that, the meeting was successful from my frame of reference.

          • David Mitchell

            Awesome – love the approach and perspective. Thx!

  • Matt brown

    I have a question: in a 30 minute call, when talking to entrepreneurs for the first time, do you recommend taking the first 5-8 minutes to summarize your fund (size, stage, investment thesis, industries of interest, metrics you look for) and asking about the background of the entrepreneur/ the story of how they founded the company? In other words, is it better to spend the first 1/4 of the call building rapport and then dive into due diligence questions or is it more efficient to immediately dive into their deck and ask questions?

    • I dive right in. I’m happy to talk about our fund as much as anyone wants, but I don’t lead with it.

  • Chris J Snook

    I think what I have learned from you most in the last year is how you turn inefficiencies from your own professional and personal interactions into an open dialogue/web content and dynamic road map of how to be in relationship with not just you, but also other powerful leaders and doers. The accessibility you give all of your audience to your process and thinking while it occurs in real time is unprecedented and I marvel at how you crank it out so prolifically with all of your other commitments. Someone at a University should do a deep dive into the archives of your blog and modernize the “How to win friends and influence people” concept of Dale Carnegie with FeldThoughts, and teach it as a general ed requirement at all universities. Thank you for the pearls of wisdom.

    • Hah! Thx – big smile. See you Monday – if the weather is nice let’s go for a walk. And no more than 30 minutes .

      • Chris J Snook

        Yup and if I am any good at being relevant and interesting Ill earn bonus time hah. :)Love it

  • Benjamin Walker

    How did you schedule meetings when you were an Entrepreneur?

    All the best!

    • I experimented a lot but I had different modes. My favorite approach was “phone”, “meeting”, and “programming” mode. Over time “programming” included “writing proposals” and “installing shit” and there were stretches where I was profoundly chaotic, never on time, and always over extended. So I’d experiment some more.

      • Benjamin Walker

        Absolutely awesome hearing your thoughts! Cheers, from Dallas!

  • Kelly Quann Bianucci

    A relevant idea on how to better use the short windows in between calls and meetings: I found that I often have days packed with meetings and phone calls, usually in 30-minute increments, and I would often be left with 10 or fewer minutes between calls. This used to be frustrating because I couldn’t do anything meaningful in those little in-between time windows, so I’d end up browsing the internet or on Twitter/FB/etc. Now, I keep an audiobook handy to listen to between calls while I walk around my office; it’s significantly increased the number of books I complete, while making better use of those short time windows between calls.

    Looking forward to following this comment thread to read others’ suggestions on this topic!

  • Albert S

    In my opinion most meetings are not necessary. People want to meet because they feel they are doing “work”. I find that a large portion of meetings can be avoided by using either email or a 5-10 minute phone call. If I do have to take a meeting I require an agenda emailed ahead of time, so that we stick to what needs to be discussed.

    • Dennis Forbes

      The treatment of meetings as productive ventures, regardless of outcomes, is exactly the source of the problem. Meetings are really, in many instance, work avoidance.

      One way to make meetings pay for themselves is to demand post meeting notes / minutes be posted. When you see a duration of 2 hours, an attendance list a dozen people long (so three full work days), and the minutes are essentially filler, it becomes more obvious what it really was.

      • I don’t think you guys have a very good sense of what these meetings are like. Brad has grown from entrepreneur, to angel investor, to VC.

        His role has grown from being the hands on person building a company to being someone that helps those people that are building companies. (Not to mention all sorts of other engagements like interviews.)

        People like Brad place a very high value on their time and don’t have meetings for the sake of meetings to “avoid work”.

        • Dennis Forbes

          How is your comment at all cogent with either of our comments? This very entry by Brad is dismissive of waste-time meetings, so any rational reading of our comments have us agreeing with Brad, yet you portray it as if our comments apply to him? Your contextual reading comprehension needs work.

          • It was implied that the meetings that passed through the gate are all important and worth taking in the first place.

            And yea, sorry I did misread your comment – I thought they were applying to him.

  • Seems like most of your meetings are 1:1 or 1:few? For big meetings, having standing meetings helps.

    • I have lots of both. I occasionally do a standing meeting with a bigger group but it’s hard to rally everyone if that’s not their going in expectation.

      • Def have to give notice and be respectful for standing meetings, esp “standing” standing meetings.

  • isn’t 30 minutes the default setting in google calendar for new meetings? if so, that means others that are getting onto your calendar are specifically requesting 1 hour. that is interesting.

    good point about trying to “end everything early”. also, i have heard people talk about having stand up meetings (your version would be “take a walk” meetings / interactions).

    something to think about: “no back-to-back meetings”.

    back-to-back meetings seem to take away thinking time, and causes people to be in a hurry (be quick, but not in a hurry – john wooden).

    if i am sitting at coffee shop for a meeting at 8am, i schedule the meeting for 1 hour in my calendar (or you would schedule it for 30 minutes), and wouldn’t put another meeting on the calendar until 10am at the earliest. that gives me the time to either spend alone thinking after the meeting (chilling out or winding down), doing activities that were talked about during the meeting (getting things done while they are on my mind), and not being in a hurry to get to the next meeting (thus, not focusing on the current meeting and constantly looking at one’s watch — which can be rude and distracting). also, by not scheduling back-to-back meetings, it gives one the ability to extend the meeting / conversation / walk if it is an enjoyable interaction.

    • Michael de la Maza

      60 min are standard in my Google calendar.

      • Cody J Landstrom

        I think you can set your own default

        • but people have to know how to change that default…

      • …so maybe technology can change the behavior of people in this case?

  • diimdeep

    Don’t scale image to column width, it is extremely blurry, i’m on Retina Display and it’s got even worst. It’s like this for me http://img.labnol.org/di/jpg_vs_png.png

    • He probably did that on purpose to hide the information.

      • Yeah – I did. There’s nothing confidential on that but there was no reason for it to be precise.

        • anon

          It’s still pretty easy to read. For instance, the long Friday meeting with Mattermark…

          • Yeah – that’s cool. I’m not bothered by it. I wouldn’t have put it up there if I wanted my calendar to be a secret.

  • I’ve been using 15 minute time slots in Google Calendar and feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been nervous about going to 30, but you’ve given me the incentive to try. Thanks!

    • Yeah – I tried 15 minutes two different times. The first lasted about a month before I gave up. The second lasted two days before I realized it was going to end badly again so I went to 30.

  • Brad you would hate doing business in most of the rest of the world, where substantive topics only get discussed after hours of wining and dining!

    Seriously though, how much do you think your ability to organize your schedule like this is transferrable to the masses? Or, put another way, what was your experience with executing this strategy before you had the reputation and social hierarchy benefits that have come with a successful and highly visible career as a VC and thought leader?

    The dynamics of social hierarchies around meetings is something I’ve been discussing with Dennis Mortensen in the context of the x.ai product: what are the implicit rules that we use when we decide which party will set the meeting time, location, and duration? How hard will the host try to make it convenient to their counterparty?

    • I’ve been messing around with this since I was in my early 20s running my first company. I used to have “phone time”, “meeting time”, and “programming time.” I was religious about the modes, except when I wasn’t.

      • Right, but how has your experience changed over time, as you have become more recognized and successful? Has it changed? Specifically I’m wondering about other peoples’ reactions to this and any “opportunity cost” that it created for you.

        I think most people, myself included, are afraid to be as abrupt as you are because they are concerned it will rub others the wrong way. You are a “known entity” so I give you the benefit of the doubt from previous interaction and other social proof when you are brief. However the same interaction with someone I didn’t know might make me uncomfortable and decide not to do business with them.

        • I try not to ever be rude. I’d like to think that I’m a thoughtful, kind, easy to approach person. I’m sure I screw that up plenty, but I always try to be 100% in the moment with people when I’m interacting with them. I’ve always had way more to do than I had time for – in my first company I worked 100+ hours a week for a lot of years. I still work 60+ hours a week with some spikes and the amount of stuff that comes at me today is probably 100x what it was when I was in my 20s (maybe more). So it’s all just a gigantic long term effort to enjoy life as much as possible up until the point I die.

  • The thing is, when I’m in a meeting, I’m not working. It’s difficult when the rest of the world still relies on meetings to get decisions made, but honestly, it often creates unnecessary work for everyone in the room… except for the person who called the meeting of course.

    I’m currently experimenting with scheduling in-person meetings only on Fridays. Having a meeting during the week and during the middle of the day destroys anything resembling productivity.

    I’ve tried it all too. I’m currently enjoying the Pomodoro technique. I have a timer running on my Mac that reminds me to take a break after 25 minutes. I dig it.

    In fact, I’m so obsessed with productivity that I am in the process of creating a time management system with an accompanying soft-cover journal which incorporates the Pomodoro technique, Zeigarnik effect and the Eisenhower method. If you’re interested, I’ll send you a copy when the prototype is finished.

    First comment, long-time reader. Thanks for sharing, Brad.

    • I like Pomodoro when I’m writing. I can usually do four segments before my brain starts to mush out.

    • Kwame L. Dougan, Esq.

      I use a Pomodoro-based software called ActionAlly. You create tasks for the day or to complete in the future and includes settings to “interrupt” you if you’re distracted (e.g. writing about time management on a blog you didn’t post, or when a meeting goes too long).

      For in-person meets, it’s good to schedule either a call afterward or another meet that requires you to leave the room. As you start to walk, the other(s) will get to the point, really quickly!

  • “I revel in the notion that I’ve got 25 minutes to do whatever I want.” … so whats that? What do you do to fill the time before the next 30min block?

    • All over the map. For example, right now I’m responding to emails (including all the comments on this post – via email).

  • I recently used Gcal settings to schedule things ending at :55 so meetings become 25 minutes by default or 55 by default. I also changed the default time to 30 (well :25) so that meeting don’t default to longer than that. Its a small change but makes a big difference.

    To your point, its amazing how many people follow the time left perfectly giving me 5 mins between the next/call or meeting which are sometimes really needed.

    • Super smart. I think I’ll do that.

    • I’ve been doing this for awhile. It’s great at setting expectations. And 25m defaults means I have to really want a longer meeting when scheduling.

  • My default meeting time is 10 minutes. If someone wants longer than 15, they have to sell me on it.

  • I love the walk routes, such an awesome way to get personal and multitask your fitness. Great idea 🙂

    • destresses the situation too. and you find out things about people. it’s why steve jobs did it-and why a lot of people play golf.

  • Often, how much time you get with someone on their calendar is a measure of how seriously they take you. One trick I like for preserving optionality is the 45 minute calendar block. You can end it at 30 minutes without it feeling like you ended it grossly early, but you can usually extend it to an hour if the meeting is more interesting than expected as most people don’t try to schedule those 15 minute openings.

    • I don’t think that’s true with me.

      • “How seriously they take you” was probably a bad choice of words. “How important you are to them” would have been better.

    • Frye

      This is terrible

  • Matt Kruza

    Parkinson’s law at its finest (work will expand to the time it is allowed). One suggestion is require / implement a strategy where any meeting set up in advance needs to send you a one paragraph summary in advance of what will be covered, and perhaps say 3 key items (you can tweak the template slightly). My point being, if somebody is requesting your time, the least they can do is take the time to give you a 1 minute summary of what they hope to accomplish. This will lead to br>
    1. More productive meetings (they will be forced to focus their thoughts)
    2. Allow many meetings to be avoiding entirely if this brief summary can be handled with quick phone call / email etc.
    3. Avoid unnecessary follow up meetings, but this quite template / meeting overview will make sure all the right people will be in the room
    When I worked at top tier consulting firm with brilliant people this was still the part I hated most. Both the internal and client meetings were insanely too copious and very rarely were concise agenda’s like this set

  • hambo

    I find that 30 minutes covers most eventualities but I’m not afraid to go longer if there is cause to. Sometimes you have to go into a deep explanation and this will take time.

    I think the most important thing is to have a transparent and up front breakdown of what you need to discuss and just get on with it. Just being prepared for the talking points can cut down on the time needed. For me taking notes is crucial as I believe that understanding how you arrived at a decision is as important as the decision itself.

  • JLM

    .
    One of the keys to managing time when in the presence of others is to state the purpose of the interaction, the time limit and the result. Appoint a time keeper.

    Start meetings thus:

    This is a DECISION meeting. We’ve got 20 minutes. When we’re done, we’re going to have made a decision on whether to invest $2MM in ABC Company or not. Everybody on board? Joe is the time keeper. Joe, give us a ten minute warning.

    Go.

    I have seen this work in the military in a constellation of Generals. I’ve seen this work in running a Fortune 10 company. I’ve used it for years. It works and you can always add ten minutes if you want to. It works.

    JLM
    http://www.themusingsofthebigredcar.com

  • derekkean

    Big fan of more people (yourself included) doing the walk meetings. Anyone a proponent of these in high density cities (NY, SF downtown, HK, etc)?

    One thing that you told me in Little Rock few years back was “always be 100% in the task at hand”. That has worked really well for years. Phone call, email, code, meeting, date night, conversations – 100% in it, when its over move on to the next task 100%.

  • I think the most important thing when it comes to organising your meetings is to simply take a step back every couple of months to ask the question how it could be more efficient.

    Meetings have a way of quickly getting less and less efficient. Some keep being had when they no longer need to. Some people keep turning up, when they no longer need to. Some last an hour when they can now last 15 mins. etc. etc.

    When I had lot of meetings to manage, the main thing I did was every 1-2 months, take a step back and be ruthless about making things more efficient.

    I wrote a post about that process a while back, it’s here – http://www.danielclough.com/proper-meetings/

    The only other thing I would say is you have to literally FORCE yourself to have some gaps in the day where you are not in meetings. Put in placeholders and only remove them if it’s an emergency. Otherwise you find yourself slammed all day and the quality of everything does down.

  • Brad, I try to take what we learn in EO Forum meeting management and apply it to team meetings. These things help a ton: http://johnsoncook.com/leaders-manage-meeting-energy/

    • Gillian Muessig

      Good stuff, Johnson. I hadn’t read that before.

  • I love the idea of walking meetings and do them myself. I think it’s good to give person a heads up that you might want to do that having once shown up to a walking meeting in non-walking shoes.

  • nostoppingprogress

    37 Signals has a great “chapter” on meetings in their book.

    My wife has had good success taking a jedi training approach to this issue, particularly with regular meetings. It takes a few meetings, more if you are not the meeting organizer. In a nutshell…first, she creates the expectation (not by saying, but doing) and proper environment (an agenda (usually decisions only) or summary in advance, no computers, phones, food, etc. during, and only the necessary people invited). Then she follows through. She allows precisely 2 minutes for clock variation, then starts no matter who is missing. No re-hashing for late arrivals. She ends exactly on time. She also acts as facilitator so that everyone who has something to say gets a turn. When she is not the organizer, she still acts as the facilitator by asking other people to give their input. It’s fairly easy to read body language since most adults won’t raise their hands anymore. You don’t want anyone dominating the meeting–since everyone there is a “right” person and should have something valuable to say–especially on a tight schedule. A bullet list of key decisions and actions is sent out afterwards, usually only 3-5 items. Most of the people who go through this “training” regimen are happy about the meetings even though they don’t know why. The resistors come around quickly because they don’t want to miss anything. The ones who get it appreciate it for many of the reasons Brad listed.

    She uses walking meeting a lot, but usually 1:1 only, 3 max. These can feel very private and people really open up. Very valuable. Some chit-chat is allowed here to put people at ease.

  • 30 minutes is a good length. that way, you have the option to extend if you are really delving into something. I realize that we are all human, and trying to build a relationship is part of it-but often the beginning of a meeting is full of so much meaningless stuff. It’s abrupt, but if everyone gets to the point right away, you delve into the meat right away and get things accomplished.

  • Nina Parr

    I am going to start asking people to walk with me when we meet, that’s such a great idea! I try to keep meetings as focused as possible by letting the people I am meeting with know exactly when I have to leave. This helps to ensure we don’t run over. I fell into that habit when I didn’t have other meetings on my calendar later in the day, and then I’d end up working until 10pm or even 1pm at night… there are only so many hours in the day!

  • Dave Linhardt

    I love white space on my calendar. It’s pure freedom.

  • BSchildt

    In the companies I co-founded, I had the ability to implement
    tools that made our meetings effective: specific time limits, penalties for
    tardiness (you had to buy the treats for the next meeting), a ruthless focus on
    the agenda, and follow-up notes with due dates. There is less flexibility in
    creating and attending meetings, depending on who you are in the food chain.
    Brad, you have earned the right to set and limit times allotted for your
    meetings. Many of us don’t have the ability to
    limit meeting times, e.g. when a peer schedules a meeting that includes
    you and your boss. Attempting to change a culture in a larger entity can be a second
    full-time job fraught with political landmines.

  • Makes a lot of sense. Parkinson’s law for meetings, eh?

  • markgelband

    Anton Chekhov noted in a letter to his brother his six principles of a good story. They seem incredibly apropos to this discussion on managing meetings and time:

    1) Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature

    2) Total objectivity

    3) Truthful descriptions of persons and objects

    4) Extreme brevity

    5) Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype

    6) Compassion

    All of these are hinted at in some ways or another in this and many of your posts on investing, life and the relative value of (your) time. I inherently value my time and am very discriminating as to how I spend (or choose to consciously waste) it.

    In consult with a local CEO recently on a tough decision he was struggling to make, a crucial conversation he knew he had to have, I said to him: you have earned the right to make this hard decision, to have this conversation. People have invested in you personally to make the decision. Your anxiety around it seems to come from not wanting to hurt a good friend personally. How do you have the crucial conversation and have compassion for your friend?

    This CEO touched on his empathy, but the subtext of his language pointed to his anxieties – selfish in some ways even of how he would be perceived. Brevity is one thing, but brevity without compassion is meaningless. Even when Chekov’s other five are working well, a story without compassion fails.

    At the end of a day will it matter if a calendar is blue-filled with 25 minute meetings or 115 minute meetings? This might not pragmatically or efficiently address the topic of meetings, but somehow it feels as though an over-scheduled life – walks or otherwise – obviates the time – the mental space – for compassion, and the magic that comes from the unexpected.

  • Spending 3 years at Microsoft (where it would seem no-one knows how to use Outlook Calendar), I could easily have spent my life in meetings about meetings.

    A few tricks that kept me sane…

    I very much echo the notion of not accepting Outlook’s idea that all meetings are 60 minutes. Here is how I tried to frame the approach to a meeting, according to the intended outcome:

    “I need to give you a heads up on something” – 10 minutes.
    If someone wants to meet me, to pre-warn me about something that is happening or might happen, jump on the phone for 10 minutes, with the goal being that I shouldn’t be blind sided by something. And provide me the executive summary in the invite, so that the meeting is about clarifying questions, rather than softening the blow. The news can’t be any worse delivered in the meeting invite, than delivered in person.

    “I’d like your help on ” – 30 minutes.
    I love working through problems together, and will put aside time for this. But let’s get to the part where we solve the problem.

    I’m a fan of flipped classrooms in education (homework is watch the lecture, classroom is practical application of what you learned, rather than be lectured in class and then get stuck with no help on homework). I like to apply this to the “flipped meeting”.

    Rather than meet to explain, and then spend a few minutes at the end hastily making a decision (or having the meeting birth another 2 meetings of decision making), summarize the decision that needs to be made, the dynamic tensions that exist that mean you aren’t committed to a decision, and tell me what decision you would make if it were up to you and why. In the meeting invite.

    Meet to discuss, challenge your assumptions and confidence, and mutually commit to the decision.

    Any sort of team meeting/presentation/pitch – 60 minutes.
    There are fun meetings from which I derive a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, if they’re run correctly. They’re great places for everyone in the meeting to catch up on email and TechCrunch, if run badly.

    I insist that everyone is on video if they wish to attend. If you’re not 100% engaged, then you don’t need to be in the meeting.

    I also prefer everyone to be off mute. If you can’t find a quiet place, then you’re going to find it hard to be 100% engaged. I love “Sorry I was on mute, can you repeat that again” – like the mute button turns their ears on and off, not the mic.

    Keep it multi-modal; encourage use of a chat window as people are talking, so that everyone can pile in with questions, thumbs up, or rip on each other and bring some humanity to the virtual workplace. The pulse of a meeting tends to be faster with an IRC-esque back channel.

    Call me on my commute – my calendar is open.

    Finally, I believe in total transparency on my calendar, and letting the people that need to meet with me have 100% visibility to it. I can mark something as private if I don’t want the world to see it.

    I encourage people who want a “quick chat”, to look at my calendar for my next marked commute time, and call me on that. It definitely drives down the number of ad-hoc calls, and meetings that could be quick discussions.

    Some disciplines that have worked for me. I hope they can work for others!

    • TProphet

      At Microsoft, unproductive meetings were one of my biggest pet peeves. They still are.

      I like the idea of getting out of the office and walking around and I really prefer solving problems without having a meeting in the first place. If I need to have a meeting, I schedule them for an odd number of minutes at odd times of day (for example, a 42 minute long meeting starting at 10:09 in the morning). This is to solve the “meetings on top of meetings” problem where nobody factors travel time, so people are habitually late. My meetings always start (and started) on time.

      I also liked doing unconventional things like scheduling meetings in rooms with no chairs, or choosing unusual places (like at the loading dock or in a loud and chilly server room). When people are on their feet and physically don’t really want to be in the environment where the meeting is happening, they tend to be more focused about the decision at hand. Decisions are made more quickly and precisely. And in particular, if the meeting is about, say, a hardware purchase, it’s actually useful to be in the environment where the hardware will be installed. I have never been to a long, catered meeting in a comfortable conference room that was even half as productive.

      Now that we have our own company, one of the best tools we have used at Cuddli is Slack. We can solve most problems quickly and easily without ever needing to meet in person. This really helps because our team is distributed and face time means half of our team is either working unusually late or getting up unusually early.

      None of this is to say that face time isn’t important. It is, and
      it’s often critical. I travel to our Zagreb office every 2-3 months because even with a co-founder living there, I learn things when I’m on site that aren’t readily visible from Los Angeles. And not all face time needs to be maximized for productivity; brainstorming and planning for the future is an activity where people being comfortable is an asset. But a lot of stuff that uses face time doesn’t actually require it (especially at Microsoft). In Redmond, all too often the result of a meeting is to have another meeting.

      Starting meetings exactly on time, giving no schedule excuse to be late, scheduling them for less than an hour, and having meetings in places and in ways that drag people a little outside of their comfort zone sets a different productivity tone. Leveraging tools that eliminate the need for calls and meetings is a tremendous productivity boost. Admittedly, we’re an unconventional company and I’m an unconventional manager, but it works really well for us.

  • To reduce chit chat… ask about the weather, it’s the last thing people usually talk about before getting down to business.

    Walk and talks are great.

  • I use the Google settings to default meetings to last 25 and 50 minutes rather than 30 and 60. Also always ensures I’m on time for my next meeting if I’m doing thing back-to-back.

    • Alex Iskold

      I love that.

    • Yep same here — also having a 25 minute slot vs a 30 minute slot makes it look much more purposeful to the other attendee. As in “this better not run over”.

    • Gillian Muessig

      Your process, Danielle, solves the issue a colleague made me aware of many years ago when she said, “There is something wrong with a lifestyle that doesn’t permit one time to eat or use the rest room.” The latter is solved with your scheduled 5 minute “pomedoro” breaks. The former might be solved by racking up some of those 5 minute savings and taking a real break for a civilized meal.

  • We require all materials distributed well in advance of the meeting. We start each meeting by asking if everyone has had a chance to read them. If not, we take 5-10 minutes of quiet time to have folks read everything over. Our meetings are now much shorter, as everyone comes ready to debate and make decisions, rather than sit for 20 minutes and have someone read something at them for the first time.

    • Alex Iskold

      Such a big fan of focused meetings and preparation. Amazon way. Ask people to commit stuff to paper and a ton of noise goes away.

  • zmre

    45 minutes should always be the max meeting time. 30 minutes and under is even better. When you have back to back 60 min meetings you never get a chance to prep, context switch or stay on top of email. So you end up doing that during the meeting, which is a waste of everyone’s time. Have your assistant decline 1 hour meetings and explain you max out at 45 and see what happens. For me, I can make that happen within my group, but have only about a 50% success rate overall, unfortunately.

  • Tim M

    Hold standing meetings. People will get to the punch when they’re all on their feet.

  • Babs

    This could have been communicated in 5 min or less. Read the book How To Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less- Milo O. Frank. Best! Babs

    • There’s a time and a place for brevity, and there’s a time and place for writing exactly how and what you want to. There are also audiences that appreciate various writing styles – particularly those they can relate to.

    • It only took me five minutes to read…

    • Amelia Summerhill

      It was communicated in less than five minutes.

    • Marion

      I also read it in less than 5 minutes!

    • hostile_17

      Ha. You do realise posting your spammy crap in the comments section can’t be included in your 5 minute count?

  • Always learn more about myself reading your posts. Have recently started making 30 min slots the norm, and stopped taking unscheduled calls several years ago (with the exception of inner-circle who rarely calls me anyway) – mostly due to telemarketing, etc. Have also employed chunking and batching, both for “maker time” and to make parenting easier to co-manage. Chit-chat is is usually short and sweet, but standard nonetheless. In contrast, socially, I’m very fluid, flexible, and loquacious.

  • AddVariety

    Thanks for the great insights in this article! I’ve thought about altering (shortening) the default meeting times of 30 or 60 minutes, but never got to actually doing it or making a more educated guess when planning.

  • Great piece. Love the idea of the walking meeting.

    I find that going into a meeting with an actual agenda and goals for what you want to get out of the meeting cut down on wasted time. Too often I’ve been in meetings where I’m not sure the point our why we meet at all. Take 5 minutes before any meeting and put together a quick list of things you want get accomplished. That way even if it goes long, you can make it somewhat productive.

  • The sane approach to business. I especially like the walk. If someone doesn’t want to take a walk you may, take it as a serious warning signal.

  • I think I’ll wait until the temperatures rise so it’ll make for a more pleasant experience, however the walking meeting sounds like a great idea.
    the critical one for me personally is 30-minute meetings for ‘standard’ meetings, plus ensuring to finish on time (and even better, 5-10 mins early) – if not, you’re chasing yourself for the rest of the day.

  • Rusty Ellis

    Love this approach, especially the 30-minute slots. I normally default to everything as a 1-hour meeting. I’m going to try this for a bit and see how it goes.

  • gerry2345

    Nice post…I will be trying out the 30 min approach.

  • Stanley David Lawson

    This also applies to breakups, bad relationships. And stalkers.

  • tommy molotov

    I was gonna schedule reading this first, but that didn’t take an hour. Nice. I love the fact that some things that seem like they’re going to take ages to do actually take two minutes. But wasting time procrastinating for an hour takes an hour.

  • Great post. A well-led meeting is a thing of beauty. And the phrase, “I guess you can have the last 15-minutes back” is a blessing.

  • Blake

    I respectfully disagree with this concept, particularly for business meetings and any other inherently human interaction. I find that intros, catching up, shooting the breeze, just getting to know someone or connecting on a personal level during a business meeting is at least, if not more important than efficiency, and having time left over in the slot you may have designated for the meeting. I will happily have a meeting run over the scheduled time, to connect and create or solidify a relationship.

    Maybe fewer meetings, but deeper, more meaningful connections?

    • You have a lot less meetings than I do!

      I definitely have plenty of 1:1 communication that is unscheduled or takes longer than planned in terms of building deeper relationships, so I don’t think that notion is in conflict with this.

      • Blake

        I do love the walking meeting idea, though.

  • David Scott

    Am I really correct in reading that you make important phone calls while driving? If so that shows a shocking lack of awareness of risk. Using a mobile phone while driving has typically been shown to increase accident risk by around 4 times, similar to being drunk. And using a hands-free phone is no better, the supposition being that the distraction of the conversation is important in the increase in risk. If the calls are important, that would seem to make the distraction greater.

    In addition, repeating an activity many times, even one with low risk, can result in quite a high probability of an accident.

    For an overview (won’t take more than 10 minutes of your valuable time):
    https://www.police.qld.gov.au/EventsandAlerts/campaigns/Documents/mobile_phones_and_distraction_fs.pdf

    • I love the scientific thinking. Let’s see …

      25 years ago there were almost no cell phones in cars and zero texting. In the past 25 years both have exploded so that they’re now ubiquitous.

      Since accident risk while conducting these activities is quadrupled, the accident rates on our roads must have gone up dramatically (quadrupled, right?). That, in the scientific method, would be the hypothesis.

      And that hypothesis would be soundly rejected by the evidence that traffic accident rates are down dramatically.

      http://wredlich.com/ny/2012/09/another-bogeyman-texting-while-driving/

      I’m not suggesting that talking on the cell or texting while driving is a good idea. I am suggesting that responsible drivers do these things in a responsible manner. And irresponsible drivers will drive badly whether they have devices or not.

      BTW, Mr. Feld if you read this, hello from a friend and neighbor of the Shimmy.

      • Hello back to Alan.

      • David Scott

        You are joking I assume. I just don’t know where to begin with your argument.

        Firstly a person using a cellphone will have an increased risk (four-fold yes, on all the evidence available), but not everyone is using a cellphone all the time. For cellphone use to increase the *overall* number of accidents by four times would require everyone to be using a cellphone all the time while driving. I hope that is not the case.

        Secondly, you need to consider what has happened to other risks over that time. Many other factors which have changed over 25 years which have reduced accident risk: improvements to cars, improvements to roads, additional licencing requirements, control of drink driving. Your observation that accident rates have dropped would only be evidence against the increased risk posed by cellphones in the absence of any other changes which would affect accident risk.

        Responsible drivers do not drive while intoxicated any more, and they shouldn’t drive and phone either. Virtually every developed nation jurisdiction recognises the danger of phoning while driving. I think you should too.

    • Mambo Man

      Wahhhhhhh!

      You obviously don’t have important things to do.

  • Mambo Man

    If I didn’t call the meeting and it gets off-track, I just quietly leave.

  • Crockett Dunn

    Thanks for sharing.
    I would be interested to hear how things get from to-do list to scheduled in the calendar.

    • I have very few things on my todo list. I try to keep it that way. I think todo lists are where tasks go to die.

      • Crockett Dunn

        lol. When my to-do items go to my calendar (scheduled tasks that aren’t REALLY tethered to a time slot), they survive for days and days, getting repeatedly scooted as I overschedule myself daily. So my calendar is where tasks go to hibernate sometimes.

      • MrFrisbee

        Interesting, this is exactly what happens to my to do list items. I thought I was the only one. Writing a to do list not only helps me forget things, it stops me needed to do them as I know I will not forget to them as they are on the list (which I rarely look at).

  • You’re my dream person to have a meeting with based on this post! I always try and do things in a suitable timeframe. If it’s going to take 30 mins, make sure it only takes 30 mins. This is the same for any emails etc. I write. If you can say it in a sentence, say it in a sentence.

  • Greg

    Scheduling things to only take 30 minutes and “politely” asking people to get to the point is a luxury that is earned by rising to the top of the business hierarchy. You totally deserve that luxury, Mr. Feld, but I think it’s important to remember that the mid and low-level people in a business hierarchy must earn people’s attention and support; it is not automatically given because of their stature.

    Therefore hour-plus long meetings often become necessary, not because more is accomplished that way, but because it takes longer to get people to listen to you and to accumulate support for your initiatives and ideas.

    I’m sure you’re not surrounded by sycophants, but I’m also certain that you are able to keep everyone focused on the main points of a discussion and limit digressions. You have this power because you are in charge.

    As a mid-level manager, I am constantly trying to build alliances with people who are pretty sure they know more than I do, and that means I have to tolerate their digressions and meanderings if I am to eventually earn their support.

    I would challenge you to think back to those days in your career and honestly ask yourself if you could have gotten away with cutting things short and asking people to get to the point.

    I’d be curious to know if you think you could have done things that way and still been successful.

    • I have struggled with meeting length forever. At some point relatively early in my professional life I realized I had to put up with whatever context I was in. Over time, I realized that many of the leaders wanted shorter meetings, less meetings, and more precise meetings. So when I started focusing my energy on that, my world got better in many ways.

    • I respectfully have to disagree here. Most people who are in most meetings would rather be done the meeting and get on to something else. There are obvious cases where this isn’t true but for the most part it is.

      I have found, even when not in a position of authority, that if you speak up in a straightforward way to say, “Lets keep on track here” followed by a quick ,”Sorry, don’t want to be rude but I’m sure everyone here, (emphasis on senior people) have a lot to do…” 3 things will happen:

      1. People will move on and stay much more on point.
      2. People will be happy to have moved on and stayed focused.
      3. People will respect you for speaking up and look for you to take more leadership in the future.

      Cheers. JP

      • Elizabeth

        Personally, when pointing out that a meeting is getting off track, I felt my speaking up was appreciated from those in higher positions than me. It may be uncomfortable to point out when you’re the lowest on the totem pole, but I think the display of respect for their time (and your own) makes up for any potential sour feelings.

        In short, I agree with your respectful disagreement.

    • Allen

      I disagree. Regardless of which side of the table I’m on, I wish meetings would be shorter.

      I’ve never heard someone presenting an idea, and thought “If only he would waste another 30 minutes of my time, I’d totally get on board with this idea!”, but I’ve very frequently thought “This person has somehow squeezed 30 minutes of information into 60 minutes, and I already made up my mind after the first 10.”

      Don’t talk my ear off with your idea. Is it any good? Then go do it!

  • I completely agree that most meetings can be handled in 30 minutes or less. I find that exact time works beautifully for my schedule.

  • erictan

    Last year the performance appraisal meeting with my boss took 2 hours 45 minutes. All previous performance appraisals had taken about 40 minutes average. Each one is an incredible waste of time, as I’m only allowed a cursory glance (thirty seconds) at the hardcopy of my appraisal at the end of the meeting, just enough time for me to sign it. Yes, I do have an idiot boss who can’t/doesn’t/won’t do anything productive ever. I promise this year’s performance appraisal will last no more than ten minutes, but that’s what I’ve been saying for years…sigh~…!

  • Susie

    I try to focus discussion on making decisions to try to keep the meeting from running on and on, but it rarely works! I’m going to try your 30 minute slots and see what happens.