It was an afternoon break. I met Justin, a colleague of mine, appearing a bit thoughtful in the pantry. He is a smart junior developer who did amazingly in our project.
“Hey Justin, how are you doing?”
“Not so good. Well, I can’t remember what I did besides meetings today.”
“Wow, what a busy meeting day, hah?”
“Not really.” Justin paused for a while. “I have three meetings. The longest one is for an hour. The other two are just half an hour for each. They are about 2 hours in total. But I don’t remember what else I have completed today besides meetings.”
Justin always shows his highest focus on coding. He once told me that coding could make his day. A high productivity feeling can make him full of energy. Therefore, I guessed that he didn’t code much today.
“Do you think the meetings affect your coding time?” I double-checked my guess.
“Yes, or maybe no. I’m not sure. I can’t find other reasons rather than meetings for blame. But they only took 2 hours. While I’ve spent 6 hours today, it means I’d used 4 hours for coding. It’s not a short period. But, you know, I don’t have any impression on what I’ve written.”
Justin’s story impressed me. I was curious about improving personal effectiveness and productivity; hence I wanted to talk more.
“Yeah, I see. Do you mind telling me your schedule today?”.
“No, of course.”
Justin took a seat with his expresso in hand. I sat in front of him, ready to listen.
“I came to work at 9 AM as usual.” Justin began. “The first meeting was at 9:30 AM and took 30 minutes. The second one was at 10:30 AM, cost me for 1 hour. And I’ve just finished the last one, from 2:30–3 PM.”
“Well, such a busy schedule. Did your meetings stay in the right timebox?”
Justin paused for a while, drinking his afternoon coffee.
“Well, kind of. A few months ago, we had acknowledged the timebox problem. The meetings were much longer than scheduled. But we raised this concern during the retrospective and solved it pretty well these days. Only the last meeting extended for about 5 minutes. The other two are well controlled.”
“Cool. How was the preparation? Do you need to prepare anything?”
“Yes,” Justin responded quickly. “I have to be in the room for 5 minutes in advance to set up the call. Most of my meetings are remote with the client oversea.”
“Right. So 5 minutes per meeting for setting up a call. Do you need to prepare content for the meeting as well?”
“Hmm, good point. The last meeting today is with the business team for brainstorming new features. I need to check out some technical stuff before the call. It took around 20 minutes. For the earlier two, I need about 5 minutes to check out their agenda.”
“Then you need 30 minutes to prepare content. Adding your 15 minutes previously, it’s 45 minutes.”
“You’re right. I didn’t count those steps. They could be a big amount if we counted them all.” Justin leaned on the backrest and thinking.
The meetings do not only cost for the planned timebox, but they also require preparations.
Justin was still very thoughtful. My previous point could be one of the reasons but didn’t seem to fulfil him.
“It’s right that I need another 45 minutes for preparation. But it’s only nearly 3 hours in total. I still don’t know why I lose the other 3 hours without achieving anything else”.
“Right. It should be something else here. What did you plan for today besides meetings?”
“I have a big feature need to implement. You know, complicated logic with lots of tests. That’s why I’m a little frustrated because of not being productive today.”
“Are you focusing on this task? Or you still have something else to worry about?”
“Nope, just that one.”
“So, let’s say if you don’t have those meetings, do you think what will differ?”
“I’ll have a continuous concentration period. I have to cut my coding time to small chunks today.”
“Do you think it affects your productivity?”
“Hmm, good question.” Justin took a little more coffee. “You’re right. Splitting my time into chunks could be the problem. I’m working on a complicated feature. Whenever I started, I needed 5 to 10 minutes to warm up. If I have 30 minutes, the coding time is just about 20 minutes. It’s simply not enough. Damm, the short periods didn’t work for me.”
We can’t always utilize small gaps between two meetings. It could be the best candidate for inefficiency in many cases.
Justin might have found the cause, but he didn’t feel better.
“Good point! What do you think about improving the situation?”. I broke the silence.
“Hmm, Maybe arranging meetings in sequence? Let says I have a meeting from 9 to 10. And then arrange the next one right after. With that, I won’t have a short gap?”
“That’s a great idea.” I agreed. “But can you always do that?”
“Yeah, that’s the problem. My team includes people from various timezones. I can’t move my last meeting today to the morning. And the same thing for the morning ones, I can’t move them to afternoon either.”
“Right, we can’t always change the meeting time. Let’s think in another direction. Do you think what is the main reason that made your 30 minutes inefficient?”
“Well, my brain needs time to boot up. I mean, I need to recall where I left, what I’ve done, and what remains. For simple tasks, it’s not a problem. But I have a big and complicated task today.”
“Are you saying that simple tasks work better?”
“Yes, they do. But it depends on the project plan. I can’t make sure I have simple tasks to fill up all the small holes.”
“Do you think we can split your big task into chunks? In other words, when you receive a big task, you can split it into multiple small subtasks. Whenever you have a small amount of time, you can focus on resolving a subtask.”
Justin took another while thinking. He was not interested in my idea.
“Good suggestion. But do you think it will even cost more time for planning and tracking tasks? Instead of doing my task right away, I have to do more management stuff. I don’t like them. My heart is all for coding.”
“You’re right. But do you think that you are doing it anyway? I thought your warm-up process is a planning process. The only difference is, you are doing it within your head. While it was much faster for any other kind of tracking, it only lived a short period in your mind and went away whenever you got distracted. That’s why you need to redo it all the time.”
Justin took a little more coffee. His thoughtful face has gone.
“It seems to be the case. Yeah, I’ll try it. Maybe starting with the busy days with meetings first.”
“Cool, man. Let me know if it works. Happy coding!”
“Thanks for your suggestion. Happy coding!”
Splitting your tasks into small pieces can give you more flexibility to duel with the blocked time or distracting things. The smaller you can split, the more flexible you gain.
The value of meetings is not deniable for teamwork. But they also come with a cost. Most of the time, the price is more than the booked time on your schedule.
- It cost time for preparations
- Meetings can sometimes be longer than planned
- It’s harder to gain the highest concentration and productivity in the middle of two meetings
Acknowledging it could help us relieve frustration and be more open to finding a flexible solution. One suggestion is to split your task into subtasks to fill up all remaining small pieces of time.
Originally published at https://huynvk.dev.