‘All Calendars Suck: Start Saying No’

iStockphoto / Cabezonication
iStockphoto / Cabezonication

The Curse of the Calendar

Reversals of logic stay with you, witty whiplashes show you something looking unlike it did before.

That’s how Mike Monteiro’s article The Chokehold of Calendars may work on you. Monteiro writes:

All calendars suck. And they all suck in the same way. Calendars are a record of interruptions. And quite often they’re a battlefield over who owns whose time.

This may seem counterintuitive in an age when we’re scheduled up to our eyeballs and aided by the conveniences of networked calendars, synchronized from one device to another.  Never has it been so easy to see your meetings. Never have you had so many pings and dings and beeps and vibrations reminding you of them. Never has punctuality been so within reach, right?

Monteiro would say that’s exactly the problem.

In my experience, most people don’t schedule their work. They schedule the interruptions that prevent their work from happening. In the case of a business like ours, what clients pay us to make and do happens in the cracks between meetings, or worse, after business hours.

Mike Monteiro
Mike Monteiro

The author of Design Is A Job (A Book Apart, 2012) and co-founder of San Francisco’s iconoclastic Mule Design studio, Monteiro is putting across one of those weird “My God, he’s right” moments in this piece that will send your efficiency experts throwing themselves off your tech start-up’s roof garden.

I’ve yet to see a résumé—and I hope I never do— that lists “attends meetings well” as a skill. Yet attending meetings ends up being a key component of many jobs. And it’s stupid.

Anyone below the executive suite (for which meetings are the job) knows very well that meetings are a mess. No matter how well-run or efficiently “captured.”  But:

Let’s start with the premise that you have a 40 hour week. (If you just started crying you need a new job.) …If your job is to produce things such as code, comps, analyses, flow documents, etc., then why isn’t the time to do that on your calendar?

People rarely schedule working time. And when they do it’s viewed as second-tier time. It’s interruptible. Meetings trump working time. Why? And why so often are the same people who assign deadlines the same ones reassigning all of your time? Crazymaking. They should be securing work time for you and protecting it fiercely.

This Is Heresy, Of Course

Design is a JobWhat Monteiro is writing flies in the face of the average corporate entity’s need to see you at a conference table, in a breakroom huddle, in a staff-wide assembly in order to feel that they adequately control your time.

In fact, some executives use meetings rather than other means of internal report because it’s easier to sit at a well-polished table and hear employees announce various updates on “our progress” than it is to dig through written and/or audio or video reports from the floor.

If your people’s hands aren’t being laid to keyboards — or to drafting tables or other workplace interfaces — then the work is, actually, not being done. Say this after watching your associates sit idled in meeting sessions and you may hear a quiet “you’re right, you know” as a private admission later from hamstrung execs who are expected to show meetings as proof-of-performance.

What Monteiro is getting at is that the actual work is done outside the meetings. And the calendar is the blunt instrument of delay, distraction, and diversion — particularly when others are putting meetings onto it.

Why are you letting other people put things on your calendar? The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them. It’s been allocated to you to complete tasks. Why are you taking time away from your coding project to go to a meeting that someone you barely know added you to without asking and without the decency to have submitted an agenda?

Here, he’s taking you into territory that may require careful thought, obviously, about how much autonomy you have in your work. And it’s worth noting that there are times when “Can you do a Meeting Maker for that?” is a convenience. But that’s an instance in which you’re at least asking for it. What about the times that suddenly are chunked right away from you by others? — completely counter to what you need to do with your time.

‘Start Saying No’

Mike Monteiro, a simplified goal-oriented calendar model.
Mike Monteiro, a simplified goal-oriented calendar model.

Monteiro is doing us a favor. The idea that a calendar exists to interrupt you is well worth giving some thought. The reversal here is that we normally think of a calendar as a way to productively “schedule time” for things. What if we’re scheduling losses of time, sacrifices of time critical to doing the real work correctly?

Monteiro is writing from his viewpoint as a designer. How about your purview as a writer? How hard is it for you to get a “block of time” that isn’t chopped up on that calendar by other people’s projects, other people’s needs, other people’s interests, demands, expectations, impositions? Here is my favorite line from Monteiro’s crisp, succinct article:

Why do you feel like others have more of a right to your time than you do?

Being practiced in design thinking, Monteiro is able to come up with an alternative form of scheduling your productivity (not your meetings, your productivity). He advocates putting a goal on your calendar — when do you want to bring such-and-such project across the finish line? — and then generating and protecting the time you need to hit that goal, working backward from it. How ingenious is that? Blocks of time now are on your calendar as something to protect. The incursions of others’ meetings and phone calls and disturbances must go outside your goal-driven time allocations.

As Monteiro puts it:

By handling events as something we work towards and need time to produce things for, rather than as disruptive singularities, and by respecting that work time as something associated with a goal, we achieve a calendar that shows both those meetings, now less inane, and the time time necessary to do the work that will make those meetings successful.

Obviously, much of what is here can be put to good use by anyone trying to manage a day of work, especially in highly collaborative environments that tend to feed on the Kumbaya claims of “face-to-face is always best” (no, not always) and “personal meetings are just so much more productive” (often they’re not).

If nothing else, Monteiro offers you a chance to try thinking a different way about how to work out that time needed on a novel revision or the mental space you can’t yet find to get an important project off the ground. Beware calendars, he tells us, make them work for you. Because, as he puts it:

“I’m adding a meeting” should really be “I’m subtracting an hour from your life.” TC mark

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