Consider this: If you spend the majority of your work life in meetings and the majority of those meetings suck, according to the transitive property, your life sucks.
While many executives would agree this is true, convincing them it's a problem worth solving is another matter. For many, the burden of meetings, email, and everything having to do with collaboration is simply “background noise” — a necessary, but not necessarily pleasant element of knowledge work. Despite recognizing the opportunity for improvement, upgrading the way we work never lands in the urgent quadrant.
When Microsoft introduced its Workplace Analytics suite in 2017, we were hopeful that the quantification of the problem (“I spend how many hours on email each week?”) might create a more urgent case for change. What we learned in partnering with Microsoft was that most people have no clear sense of what portion of their time should be allocated to collaboration with others, versus how much they should claim for their own working and thinking time.
While this ratio varies by role, the simple answer is that most knowledge workers need a significantly greater amount of their own focused working time than they allow for in their schedules. This is why so many strategies, budgets, presentations, and special projects are done on weekends or at the dining room table once the kids are asleep. According to Asana’s 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, only 25 percent of workers’ time is spent on the value-creating job they were hired to do.
The radical shift in working routines instigated by the pandemic provides an opportunity to reset the standard for how organizational time is consumed. At the individual level, this means getting crystal-clear on your highest order contribution to the organization. If you are a “maker” — an individual contributor such as a software engineer, a copywriter, a lawyer, etc. — a minimum of 40 percent of your time should be dedicated to concentrated working time. For more managerial or collaborative roles, you still require a minimum of 25 percent focus-time to advance your contribution to collective work.
Comparing your calendar to these standards is typically a terrifying exercise. Status meetings. Town halls. Project updates. These are the appointments crowding out meaningful work time. And then there’s your overflowing inbox, jam-packed with clarifying questions, reply-all responses, and messages that just don’t make sense. Don’t panic. A few simple actions can make a big difference.
Skip ahead three or four weeks in your calendar. Typically that’s when there’s enough open time for you to reclaim your workweek. Take these three actions:
- Schedule blocks of working time — a minimum of 90 minutes each — aligned with your personal energy peaks.
- For every recurring meeting, reassess its value. Is your attendance truly needed? If it’s an information-exchange meeting, is there an opportunity to consume the same information in written form?
- Reset your meeting default to 25- and 45-minute meetings. These time savings seem small, but over the course of a day, you can easily reclaim at least an hour of additional time with this method.
At the organizational level, it’s time to take a hard look at what is an “acceptable” use of one another’s time. Every poorly framed and facilitated meeting imposes a tax with no clear benefit. Every reply-all email with an undirected request adds to the cognitive overload without advancing the work.
We’re in a moment where there is truly no time to waste. Every precious minute is required for personal wellness and recovery in addition to countless family responsibilities. By reclaiming the wasted time hidden in your daily work practices, you can transform your day and put those time savings where they matter most.