When you are planning your week (or your day or your month) and you look over what’s already in your calendar what is your reaction to scheduled meetings?
When someone contacts you to organize a meeting, how do you react?
This is the 2nd post in a series about meetings as part of your academic work. One 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.
I’ve noticed a huge contradiction in the common patterns of how academics treat meetings. On the one hand the answer to the first question tends towards “Ugh.” There is a sense that meetings are taking up valuable time that might otherwise be allocated to more meaningful activities. Because you focus on the form — a meeting — rather than the content or purpose, they tend to blur together into one meaningless blob.
On the other hand, when someone contacts you to organize a meeting, you look at your calendar as if every minute that’s not already allocated to teaching or another meeting is available for more meetings. You may treat the request as urgent even if it isn’t or assume that you need a really good reason to limit your availability or even ask for further clarification of the purpose and agenda. (see also Opposite Day as decision making strategy)
I’m not suggesting that you stop going to meetings. I’m suggesting that the stories you tell yourself about meetings matter. You want to feel like you are spending your time on activities that have a purpose. Meetings have a purpose. Look for the purpose. Even if you think the purpose could have been accomplished more effectively or efficiently, focus on the work that was accomplished rather than the time and effort you wish you didn’t have to spend to accomplish it.
Noticing meetings as part of your work
When you are planning your day/week/month it can be helpful to think about how the broad areas of your work are allocated. Over a longer period you want to know that all areas are getting the attention they deserve. In a specific day or week, your focus might be on one area knowing that another area will get more attention another day. Make sure meetings are allocated in your mind (and your notes) to those broad areas. Is this about teaching? Research? A specific service or admin role? General service or administrative duties? Sometimes a meeting will cover things that fit in more than one major category.
Just because it’s a meeting doesn’t mean it’s automatically service or administration. If it’s a curriculum meeting, it’s teaching (or also teaching). If it’s a meeting with your coauthors to discuss a writing project, it’s a research meeting. You can even call a meeting with your coauthors “writing” because it is moving a writing project forward.
Noticing where a specific meeting fits at this level allows you to see the balance between those areas across all of your activity. It’s okay to start here. Actively noticing — making notes, colour coding, etc — will help you see what’s happening in your workload more clearly. It might make you more frustrated about the balance between the different areas, but it will also give you better information to work with when you try to solve any problems you identify.
However, you might also be surprised by the effects of this practice, especially if combined with the practice of reviewing your activities I wrote about in Are meetings really a waste of time?.
Identify your purpose in attending this meeting?
Since your goal is to have a sense of accomplishment, to feel like you spent your time on something worthwhile, it’s helpful to be clear about what might be accomplished. You’ve got the big theme (research, teaching, service/administration), so what is this particular meeting contribute to that area of your work? What specific project does it relate to? And how does it move that project forward?
Sometimes this is going to be easy.
- I’m meeting with my co-authors to agree on the direction for this paper and decide who is going to draft which sections.
- I’m meeting with my TAs to get an update on how the course is going and determine what I can do to help them do their job better.
- I’m attending this hiring committee meeting to contribute to a fair process of selecting a short list. I want to be particularly attentive to how the evidence we use to arrive at our shortlist doesn’t implicitly bias our choices against candidates who are from groups less well represented in our department.
Sometimes it’s going to be more difficult. Your regular department meeting also serves formal purposes in the governance of the institution and has required items that must be on the agenda, discussed, and minuted. Everyone, including the chair and the person who wrote the specific report, can lose sight of why those things are required. At a minimum your purpose is to contribute to the quorum so it’s an official meeting.
Even in those more difficult meetings, it is worth taking some time to identify one goal you might have in the meeting. Is there one agenda item that is particularly important to you? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. You are looking for something that is meaningful for you even if it doesn’t seem meaningful enough to make it worth sitting through the whole meeting. Like I said, you can’t magically transform the meeting into some amazing thing, I just want to help you find something meaningful to focus on. Sometimes the purpose you will identify for a specific meeting will be something like “Contributing to department business in a supportive and effective way.”
Accept the time and effort it takes
Be careful not to focus exclusively on a narrow range of actions and outcomes. Making a decision often feels like it takes a lot longer than it needed to because a lot of the work involved is emotional and cognitive labour. While you can do some of that work in preparation for the meeting, some of it necessarily happens in the meeting, and sometimes it might require multiple meetings.
People vary in how they process information and emotions. You cannot assume that everyone’s decision making process is the same as yours. I will write a separate post about this with more detail. The short version is that some people need to process information by talking through things in the meeting and other people need to process things separately. This means that there will be more discussion that some people would like and that, despite all that discussion, some people will prefer to make the actual decision at a future meeting. This requires careful chairing (which may or may not be available) to distinguish from those who are trying to avoid anyone making a decision because they benefit from either the status quo or the uncertainty.
Trust is an important factor in making decisions and getting things done. Informal, low stakes interactions can be really important to getting to know people and building trust. These kinds of interactions are easy to dismiss as unimportant, though. How you act in meetings where there isn’t much on the agenda that is directly and immediately important to you can also be important in building trust. Don’t assume that means you must speak or contribute in a way that will be minuted. Trust builds up over time so gaining a reputation as someone who doesn’t intervene just for the sake of it, but contributes confidently when they have something to contribute, will depend on your behaviour over several meetings.
Other posts in this series
Are meetings really a waste of time? (focuses on reviewing your activities rather than planning for activities in the future)