Scaling Peaks
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Scaling Peaks

Have Meetings with Yourself

Photo by Crew on Unsplash

As a follow-on to my last post, Make Meetings Work, I wanted to explore the nature of getting things done when working alone. Despite all the grousing about meetings that generally happens, people find that they are necessary and in fact productive. The necessity comes from having to coordinate the understanding and work of multiple people on some initiative, and so much of what gets done is in fact done by teams. But there is more to what makes a meeting productive than simply having multiple people involved and working together.

I believe that meetings have key characteristics that make them conducive to getting work done:

  • they are scheduled
  • they are time-boxed
  • they (should) have a clear goal
  • they have ‘accountability partners’ built in

When there is a meeting, you have a set time for it, you have presumably made room on your calendar for it, you know you have to show up because others in the meeting are counting on you to do so (you have accountability to your partners), you are generally clear on what you want to accomplish, and you know you have a strictly time-boxed 30 mins or 60mins or however long the meeting is scheduled for to get to the goal or at least make tangible progress towards the goal, which keeps people focused during the meeting.

Contrast that with work we do on our own: there is no set time, we could do this work “any time”, we want to get it done quickly but there is generally is no time-box for it, and even if we set out to do something at time X, without anyone holding us to account, it is just so easy to let it slide for now, do something else that we can justify to ourselves is also valuable to do, give ourselves more time to ‘think about it’, and get distracted with low value things. The sheer freedom of the situation makes it harder for us to act. I believe that many people (myself very much included) wait to get stuff done until they are up against a deadline (needlessly stressing themselves out in the process) because the deadline itself imposes a schedule, a time box, a clear goal, and accountability partners. You promised to get X done by Thursday morning, so Wednesday evening you are sweating it out to do what others are counting on you to do.

So, is there a better way? Yes: hold meetings with yourself, exactly as if you were meeting with others. Schedule the time on your calendar, time-box that focus time, and give yourself a clear goal. A common implementation of this is called the Pomodoro Technique, named for the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by the inventor, Francesco Cirillo. The idea of the Pomodoro Technique is simple: decide what you want to do, schedule a firm time for it in your calendar (set reminders, clear any other potential distractions and interruptions from that time slot exactly as if you were planning to meet with other people then), sit down right at the scheduled time and set a count-down timer for the amount of time you have allotted for your session. Let the timer drive urgency of action exactly as the clock does in a meeting with others. Work diligently throughout the period, do not let yourself get distracted (feel the same shame you would scrolling on your phone during a meeting with others), and stop when the timer runs out. Then take stock of what you accomplished, and if there is more to do, then schedule a separate follow-up session and define an appropriate goal for that next session to realistically finish up or at least move the ball forward to a reasonable milestone. If done right, you will feel a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the session, which will provide a positive psychological feedback loop for you, making the next one easier.

Journalists and screenwriters usually have deadlines to help keep them moving along, but many others writers need to provide 100% of their own discipline, and thus methods like the Pomodoro Technique are common among them. The one big missing piece is accountability partners — for some reason it is usually much easier to motivate ourselves to do things that others are counting on from us than to do things that we are counting on for ourselves. Maybe it is our built-in tendency to altruism. I don’t know. But for this reason, some folks, including many in the writing community, agree to be accountability partners for each other. The idea is that you promise to deliver X by Y to a partner who promises to hold you to account for that delivery. Ideally you feel that inner drive not to disappoint your partner which motivates you to focus and act.

The need to eliminate distraction during your meetings with yourself cannot be overstated. Imagine trying to hold a meeting with others if everyone were getting interrupted by external stimuli all the time. Clearly that just wouldn’t work. When working by ourselves, it is all too easy to say, ‘Gosh I think I would make much more progress on this if I just went for a run right now’. Ok so that would be unimaginable in a meeting with others, but we do that kind of thing to ourselves all the time. If going for a run or a walk helps you get your thoughts in order before sitting down to a period of focus time (and it does for me), then schedule it that way. Put it in your calendar and then schedule your Pomodoro session right after it, leaving a realistic transition period between to wash up, go to the bathroom, get something to drink, etc, so that you are not interrupting your focus time with those things.

Other aspects to all of this is allowing you to single-track at any given time and being realistic about what you can actually get done. I like to do a variety of different things and find myself frequently juggling lots of stuff. When I have many balls in the air at the same time, I find it can be way too easy to tell myself, “I could do X now, or I could equally do Y, or maybe Z” and end up doing none of them! It is the problem of the blank page — unconstrained choices can paralyze. By deciding ahead of time what you are doing to do at, say, 2:30pm, you remove the choice and force yourself to single-track. Also, if you take a look at everything you want to get done and then schedule realistic time blocks for each, you will be forced to come to terms with how many different things you can realistically make progress on within a given period, which may in turn force you to make tough decisions and prioritize your efforts.

None of this is easy. I know. I like to think I get a lot done in total, but it’s a struggle all the time. I accept that. I am writing this as much to myself as to my readers, with the hope that we may all benefit. And in fact, I am writing this blog post right now in a Pomodoro session I scheduled for myself :)

I’d love to hear your own experiences with getting stuff done and what tips you have to share in the comments below.

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Philip Brittan

Philip Brittan

Philip is an entrepreneur, technologist, business leader, writer, and innovator. https://www.linkedin.com/in/pbrittan/ Blog: https://medium.com/scaling-peaks