Even before COVID-19, we were feeling greater time pressure than ever at work. Companies have been increasing their demands for efficiency, smaller teams are doing the work that larger teams used to do, jobs have changed and we are given ever more challenging work to do in a more complicated world. No wonder we are too busy! “Keep up”, “put your head down” and “work harder” are what we tell ourselves, but these are no longer sustainable. Just working harder can lead to burnout, mistakes and stress, which do no good for our work, our teams or our health.

BEING BUSY IS A CHOICE

The problem is, the busier we get, the less able we are to step back and make sure we are using our own time wisely.  I believe that time and our perceived lack of it is our biggest barrier to our own productivity.  We can’t create more hours in the day, but we can create more impact, by becoming more efficient and selective about where we spend our time.   And that starts by taking back our wasted time from emails and meetings.

A 2018 study of 2000 US knowledge workers showed that poorly used meetings and email topped the list of things that keep workers from getting work done – after emails, meetings, interruptions and admin, the average worker has just 44% of their time left to do their job.  So most of us only start our work midway through Wednesday?  That’s crazy!

EMAIL IS NOT OUR MAIN JOB

Unless your job is in a customer service centre literally answering emails, we need to stop treating email as our work.  Emails are a sort of professional candy crush, an easy game that gives us something to do when we feel overwhelmed.  We are addicted to the hit of new messages and replies, and they give us something to do instead of doing actual work.  Getting “through your emails” is a myth because you’ll never “finish” them.  Worse than that, all the time we are in meetings and multitasking on emails, we are wasting our valuable time together, and making worse decisions as a result.

How to spend less time on emails:

  • Send voicemails and dictations for updates instead of emails
  • Give yourself 1 hour a day to read and respond to emails – lock yourself out the rest of the time (Inbox when ready https://inboxwhenready.org/ is a good way to do this)
  • Ban reply to all so that emails you do get are specifically for you
  • Apart from the really important ones, stop filing, storing or deleting all your emails, you can search for what you need when you need it

BAD MEETINGS WASTE OUR TIME

Unless there is a clear reason to meet with people to debate, discuss and create clear actions at the end, there’s no need for a meeting.  For presentations, cascades or updates, it is a far better use of time to send a pre-recorded film for people to watch in their own time, then meet live for the discussion and debate.  It may be difficult to get out of meetings that you’ve been used to attending because you don’t want to offend people or your boss is asking you to be there.  But until we start challenging each other to make better use of our live time, nothing will change.

Good meetings are those that value the attention and presence of everyone there – can you suggest ways of improving bad meetings so that they become good ones?  Can you explain to people how time pressured you are, and ask them to help you use your time wisely?

How to spend less time in bad meetings:

  • Ask for a meeting objective and agenda, and understand how you will be expected to contribute, before you agree to attend
  • Change your default meeting time to 15 or 30 minutes instead of an hour, so people use the time more efficiently
  • If you are invited to a meeting without a clear objective, knowing the team will all be multitasking, and won’t result in clear output, explain why you don’t think the meeting is a good use of your time and ask to be updated afterwards
  • If you’re being asked for advice, ask the meeting organiser to send through the choices in advance, so you can spend the time in the meeting discussing them

“It is really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time” – Steve Jobs

We we can no longer afford to waste our time, or to let other people do so.  I realise that changing how things are done is difficult, but we can create a better environment for ourselves and our colleagues to thrive in if we start to take back control of our time, one email and one meeting at a time.

Pam Hamilton is the author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork (published in December 2020), and The Workshop Book
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