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The biggest mistake you are making with your meetings.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Do you think it is odd that the time most business meetings are scheduled is based solely on people's availability?

I do, and this meeting norm can be detrimental to your team and business results.

Here's why. There is a daily cycle, a regular pattern to our moods, which almost invisibly affects how we do our jobs. Daniel Pink's book, When, highlights that researchers have been measuring the effect of time of day on brainpower for more than a century. More recently, the researchers have drawn three conclusions:

1 - Our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the hours we are awake, they change - often in a regular, foreseeable manner. We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others.

2 - These daily fluctuations are non-trivial. The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to drinking the daily legal limit of alcohol.

3 - How we do depends on what we're doing. The best time to perform a particular task depends on the nature of that task. The typical person is better at performing a task, e.g. creative or analytical, at different times of the day.

Here is an interesting edge case example of this in real life. An example that I feel emphasises the negative impact that scheduling meetings based on people's availability has on individual, team and business performance:

Paul Graham, of Y combinator fame, wrote about two types of schedule in his seminal 2009 blog article - Maker's schedule, manager's schedule. He writes:

"One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they're on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default, you change what you're doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.

Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it."

So when deciding when a meeting should take place, we should start with the aim of the meeting. Then the next consideration is people's availability.

Still not convinced? Let's double click and explore further.

Optimal time of day

We don't all experience a day in precisely the same way. Each of us has a chronotype - a personal pattern of circadian rhythm that influences our physiology and psychology. You may have heard the terminology of Larks (for early rises whose energy wears out by evening) or Owls (evening people who are comfortable working late into the night). This is a convenient shorthand for describing chronotypes. Most people (approximately two-thirds of us) fall into the in-between category, which Dan Pink calls Third Birds.

Yet while the order that we experience the day may be different, based on our chronotype, we all experience the day in three stages:

  • A peak

  • A trough (starts approximately 7 hours after waking)

  • And a rebound

I usually wake up at 7am and go to sleep at 11pm, which means I am on the border of being a Lark and a Third bird. So for my typical day, I will experience a trough in the early afternoon. The synchrony effect says we have superior performance at optimal times of the day and inferior performance at suboptimal times. In this case, my typical suboptimal time of day, which I share in common with most people, is in the early afternoon. This is crucial to what I schedule during that period:

  • Peak time tasks - deep analytical thinking

  • Trough time tasks - administrative items of low value that need to be done by you

  • Rebound time tasks - creative and insight tasks

The synchrony effect says we have superior performance at optimal times of the day and inferior performance at suboptimal times of the day.

So if you have an element of control over your schedule, then move meetings and tasks around to align with the synchrony effect. Better alignment with our daily peaks and troughs will likely bring improved focus, attention, ideas, and better decision-making.

It isn't always possible, but most of my coaching occurs in peak and rebound times and rarely during the trough. This approach to scheduling is a heuristic, a simple rule of thumb which while not perfect, will help make things better. Effective scheduling of meetings, tasks and decisions is critical in today's business environment. Whether online or face to face, today's knowledge workers spend a disproportionate amount of their time in meetings - the key location for doing a significant amount of their work.

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

So rather than the default of people's availability being the key factor for deciding when a meeting is scheduled, choose the superior time of day for the type of task that you want to complete, as well as the type of person attending.


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