Nonviolent Meeting Scheduling

Scheduling meetings with people, especially larger groups, by default is a hostile act. You come in and take away half an hour, an hour or more of people’s time—time they could otherwise have spent doing “real work.” On top of the meeting time itself, there’s additional overhead:

  • Scheduling overhead — every participant has to check and decide if they’re available, and decide they should attend or not, talk to the organizer to negotiate any way to get out of it.
  • Preparation overhead—for organizer and participants.
  • Travel, coffee making overhead—you know this adds at least 5-10 minutes to every 30 minute meeting.
  • Task switching overhead.

Multiply all this times the number of participants and you will start to see the true cost.

So, the first thought when setting up a meeting should be: what alternatives do I have and, and is this the best possible use of time of every single person I’m inviting here?

But let’s assume that you decided: yes, a meeting is the most effective way to achieve the goal (I believe this is sometimes the case).

In that case, let’s agree on some ground rules for what I call “nonviolent meeting scheduling.” These aren’t rocket science, but still they’re broken all the time:

  1. Check if people are actually available at the time of your meeting — if not, pick some other time where everybody is available; or, if this is not possible, consult the person in question before scheduling if they can change their plans.
  2. Attach an agenda as part of the invite, so people know what to expect.
  3. Use the “optional” marker for those whose attendance is optional.

In my humble opinion it should be company policy everywhere to make it perfectly acceptable (and expected) that breaking rules #1 and #2 are grounds for anybody to instantly reject a meeting invite without giving a reason.

Received a meeting invite for a time you’re busy, without consultation? No agenda in invite? Insta-reject.

Now that we got the basics out of the way, two more tips:

  • I block out “family time” in my calendar. I work with a California-based company, that’s 9 hours of time difference. I also have three-month old twins, and a three-year old son that need bathing and be put to bed; I also have the need for my kids to recognize their father as they grow up. That’s why I have a recurring “meeting” in my calendar marking my unavailability. Anywhere outside there (within reason) I’m available. In terms of effectiveness of this measure — I have mixed results, not everybody follows rule #1. It definitely makes it easier to reject meetings though (“it’s marked in my calendar, please respect it.”)

But as you can tell, not everybody respects my unavailability.

  • Batch up meetings to reduce the amount of time lost context switching. When I schedule a meeting, I always prefer to put it just before or after some other meeting the other person (people) already have. Such “meeting clusters” can be exhausting, but in my experience it’s better than 30 minutes of meeting, an hour of “actual work” and then another hour of meeting.

Happy meeting scheduling!

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